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How Do Children Learn Through Play?

Sep 23, 2021    |   ECE Theory & Philosophy

Educators and caregivers who work with young children know that play is a crucial part of young children’s learning. Because children are naturally curious and inquisitive, they find joy in exploring, making new discoveries, and learning about the world around them. This play-based learning builds both academic and relation-building skills.

In this article, we take a look at the many ways children learn through play, and consider the benefits of a play-based curriculum.

How do Children Learn Through Play?

In an article for NAEYC, David Elkind, professor emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University and author of the popular book, The Power of Play, explains that play helps children gain skills and knowledge across all domains, from social-emotional to language, and cognitive, self-help, and motor. Elkind notes that “Play is the vehicle for helping children make progress toward the learning goals…It builds skills they’ll use throughout their lives, such as solving problems, interacting and negotiating with others, processing emotions, taking risks, flexibility, resilience, and self-direction.”

When we observe children in play, it might not be immediately obvious just how much learning is actually taking place. Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute of Play, adds that “as kids play with blocks, fashion mud pies, and throw balls, they are constantly fertilizing neural growth and integrating complex areas that the natural world offers… Children need free, hands-on play that is kid-organized, to maximize their potential. Nothing lights up a child’s brain like play.

How Does Play Transform?

As children develop, their play becomes increasingly complex. The play of infants and toddlers will look different from the playful interactions of preschoolers — but play is equally important at each stage of development.  As children grow, we can see their play transform as they take on new challenges, try new things, and learn new skills.

Play supports a child’s growing ability to concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. NAEYC’s article, The Importance of Play for Young Children, describes the changing nature of play through each stage of child development: “a very young infant may focus just a moment or two on your playful face. An older infant may be able to focus long enough to track several balls as they travel down a ball drop and under a shelf, and a toddler may be able to complete a nine piece knob puzzle. This active, focused engagement with a challenging task…is something children learn to cultivate through their play.”

What is the Role of the Educator?

As educators and caregivers, we can best support children’s play by creating environments in which children can lead the way by making their own choices about how and for how long they play.  We want to include a variety of different materials that encourage exploration and discovery so that children can take an active role in their learning.

Providing open-ended play materials is one of the best ways to create an enriching play-based environment for young children. Open-ended materials are items such as blocks, clay, sand, or other items that allow children to create without an intended outcome. They are flexible, in that children can engage with them in a variety of ways. Francis Wardle, PhD, a professor of early childhood education and author of the book, Play, Development, and Early Education, explains how open-ended materials have a positive impact on learning: “The use of materials in flexible and creative ways teaches children to be flexible and creative thinkers with abstract ideas and concepts. The value of open-ended and creative play is that it enables children to explore a variety of creative uses of common materials and environments, challenges conventional ways to use materials, and gives children a sense of power, control, and mastery of their own learning.”

More Resources

For more information about play-based learning, you might enjoy these G2K articles from the archives:

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