Children Learn Through Play

by sheilamarie

Play Is How Children Explore the World and Find Their Place in It -- And Learn in the Process!

We've all heard the maxim "Play is children's work," but what does that actually mean?

A child is primed right from the beginning to grow and to learn. Any baby developing in a healthy way will not need to be taught how to play -- it just comes naturally.

But sometimes we adults think we need to rush a child along. Because we know how important education is, we want our children to learn and so we set out to teach them as much as we can. Although this impulse is good in itself, sometimes we can actually get in the way of a child's learning by trying too hard to teach them!

Play Offers Experiences in Early Math, Language, and Social Skills

We don't need to push children or cram information into their heads. We just need to ensure they have the opportunities to explore knowledge for themselves. We can expose them to a rich environment and then allow them to explore it freely. By playing, a child can take in what she is ready for. She will be less likely to resist learning and will find the excitement of discovering her own place in the world.

This article will help clarify both how children learn as they play and how we as parents and as teachers can facilitate our children's learning without discouraging them or putting obstacles in their way.

Let the play begin!


Babies Learn Through Play

Experience Teaches Babies About Their World

Have you ever watched a baby in a highchair drop a toy and watch it fall to the floor?

Probably the first time she dropped it was an accident, but she will repeat the experience. After you retrieve the dropped toy she will quickly throw it down again, cry for you to get it and then throw it down again. The game will go on for as long as you have patience for it, but baby won't soon give up. She is fascinated! Gravity exists!

As she grows, her curiosity will move on to other things, but the basic pattern will continue. Your growing child needs to experience things for herself in order for her to truly understand them. She does this by playing.

Learning Through Play 0-3 Years

When We're Having Fun We Learn More Easily

How We Learn Best

It turns out that our brains can process information better when we learn with fun and positive emotions. Good teachers have known this all along because they see the results when their students get excited about a new idea and have fun with it. Teachers see the opposite as well when a class of bored students experience more frustration than success. This isn't to say that all learning comes without some effort and even struggle, but we are most motivated and can learn concepts most quickly and make them our own when we learn them in a positive playful manner.

If this is true for adults, it is even more true for children.

Child's Work - The Importance of Fantasy Play

Trying Out Roles: Play Helps Children Discover Who They Are

Imaginative play gives a child the opportunity to problem solve and to figure out what his place is in the world. In this type of play, a child tries out what it would feel like to be a Dad, or a firefighter, or a super hero. He is developing his ability to understand another person's viewpoint. He is learning to face what he is afraid of as well as explore what he is interested in. Playing doctor allows a child to work out fears of visiting a doctor in real life. It also allows him to imitate things he has seen another do.

Career Hats for Trying on Roles

Educational Insights Kid-Size Career Hats

Who do you want to be today?

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Play Is How We Learn to Negotiate and Get Along with Others

Kids learn how to cooperate when they play with other kids with different ideas from their own. They learn how to negotiate, and how to get along with others. During play a child can practice vocabulary she wouldn't have a chance to use in her ordinary speech. She learns to solve problems that arise in working together with other children. When negotiating with other children in play, she learns what words work and what words don't.

Learning Through Play 3-5 Years

Imaginative Play - Dress-up Fun

You can make up a dress-up box with your own cast off clothes, but sometimes it's fun to add a little pizzazz to the mix. Clothing that can represent occupations is especially fun.

These imagination sparkers would be exciting additions, too.

Superhero Cape

Little Adventures Red Hero Cape

Any child can save the day in this wonderful themed Hero Cape. They're easy for children to put on and take off with quality velcro closures. Great for everyday Hero fun! Featur...

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Play as a Basis for Learning Math Skills

Water and Sand Play

When children get the opportunity to play in water and sand, they have an easier time understanding the concepts of volume and fractions when they are introduced to them in elementary school. They can draw on years of experience of filling buckets and dumping them out. If they have had measuring cups and spoons to play with, they will know from experience that two half cups will fit into one whole cup. Formal math makes so much more sense when a child has spent years organizing and rearranging things in her world!


Play Dough

Playing with play dough is another way to learn spatial concepts. You and your child can form shapes with the dough. You can roll snakes and form them into numbers and letters. The tactile feel of it gives you another sense with which to process information. Play dough is also a way to release tension.


Building with blocks aids with spatial understanding and introduces geometric shapes. Children can build their towers high or they can lay them horizontally. The same number of blocks can take many different shapes and still remain the same number. How much more sense geometry will make when a child has learned about perimeters and volume in this concrete way over and over again without even hearing the words spoken?

Board Games and Puzzles

Board games and puzzles help a child with problem solving and turn taking. As they progress around a board, children develop one-to-one correspondence and perfect their counting skills.

Pretend Using Money

When children play "store" or "bank," they learn how we use numbers and money in our everyday lives. They practice how they've seen their parents deal with money.

Physical Play

Get Those Bodies Moving!

Play Involves the Whole Person

Physical play is essential for developing young bodies and minds. We are not compartmentalized beings -- what affects our bodies affects our minds, our souls, and our spirits, and vice versa -- when our bodies are fit, we tend to think more clearly and to handle problems more easily. Especially for those who are kinesthetic learners, using movement in learning brings our whole persons into play.

Developing Fine Motor Skills

Through play, children practice their gross motor and fine motor skills. Fine motor skills refers to the development of the muscles in the fingers and hands. These muscles will be needed for a child to learn to hold a pencil and manouever it in forming letters and numbers. Children can develop fine motor skills by manipulating play dough, by stringing beads or cheerios, by practicing cutting with scissors, or any other activity that uses the fingers and hands.

Developing Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills refers to the development of the muscles required for moving one's body through space. Children need experiences of moving their bodies to gain spatial understanding. They learn about right and left, balance, and many of the forces of nature, such as gravity, thrust, and momentum. Children need to run and jump, to stretch their muscles and strengthen their bones. They develop a better sense of themselves and their capacities and limits. They also develop habits that can extend into adulthood and keep them healthy.

Using Movement to Learn

Energetic young children who may resist sitting and learning in the more traditional way can often be reached by engaging them with movement. You can teach letters, for instance, by writing a "T" with chalk on pavement and then bouncing a ball while calling out words that begin with the "T" sound. Or the child may lie on the floor and make her body form the shape of the letter she is trying to learn. A group of children could make a whole word this way with each of them forming a different letter. (This is probably only effective with children old enough to already know the individual letters. Forming letters with their bodies deepens their knowledge, helping them experience the letters in a new way.)

Your own imagination can lead you to create new ways to teach your children with their bodies. You can create jump rope ditties to emphasize concepts or make up scavenger hunts using themes you are working with. To return to the learning letters idea, for example, the children could be directed to find five things that begin with the "ch" sound. Or they could perform actions that show opposites -- fast and slow, big and little, loud and quiet, etc.

Joy in Learning

Do you remember playing as a child? What was your favourite game or activity?

When we allow children to learn in a playful and joy-filled way, we set them up to continue their life long journey with learning long after they leave school. Our school days, after all, are only the beginning of our education. If we are open to it, we can continue learning our whole life long.

Parents and educators can help a child begin on this journey by designing an environment in which a child can encounter ideas and concepts in a positive and connected way.

I hope you've found encouragement in this hub for your own journey with your child.

Children Need to Play!

Create, Discover, Play Play Play!

Stories About Play

Do you have a story about learning and play? Maybe your child did something really cute while playing a game that showed some new learning, or maybe you remember your own experience when you were a little child. Maybe your child said something funny while playing that showed just the opposite -- that he really didn't understand something at all! Make us laugh!

Updated: 09/24/2015, sheilamarie
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Tolovaj on 04/10/2017

I think none of the existing education systems uses the power of play. It's rather the opposite - most of them try to destroy the joy of play. Even the gaming industry tries to install only predictable / profitable patterns, everything for the highest margin profit in the current quarter.

WriterArtist on 02/24/2016

Mere theory was never ever good. Practical ideas and playing contributes more towards enhancing analytical abilities. Not only children, but adults also learn from pragmatic facts.

sheilamarie on 12/06/2015

I agree, @happynutritionist. We are becoming too attached to our screens. We can learn with our whole bodies.

happynutritionist on 12/02/2015

This is so true and the right way to learn, compared to sitting in front of a TV watching childrens educational television or on a learn so much more hands on.

sheilamarie on 09/28/2015

That's true, @AngelaJohnson. Recently I heard a talk on how daydreaming and being bored are actually important for higher level thinking. Our brains make associations we otherwise would never think of when we're allowed to wander. That's not to say disciplined work isn't important, too, but there are reasons we are the way we are.
I know that most parents want their kids to have as many opportunities as possible, and I'm a big supporter of early music experiences especially, but we have to have balance in how we raise our children. They don't have to take every lesson and be in every sport that's offered. Kids need some down time that is just theirs alone.

sheilamarie on 09/28/2015

@Mira Thanks for your comment, Mira. The first few years are crucial.

Mira on 09/25/2015

Reading your article made me realize why those first three years are so important. And yet many parents these days leave the child with few educational toys. I enjoyed those Montessori videos and your comments.

AngelaJohnson on 09/24/2015

Some children have many scheduled events because their parents want to expose them to many different things. That's a good idea but if children don't have an opportunity to daydream and be alone now and then, they might not be able to think "outside the box" as adults.

Veronica on 09/23/2015

Spot on. I was an infants' teacher for 30 years and everything you have said is accurate.

And even if I didn't know that from my teaching days, the sight of my 2 year old grandson running round my house with a serving tray on his head and shouting,

"Ma-ma... I ... a -- robot "...

would convince me.

TY for posting.

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