You may be hearing over and over that learning through play is the best way to teach your young child. But what does that mean? And how to you encourage learning through play with your child? Read on for 5 ways to incorporate learning through play in your home in the early years.
What is learning through play?
To a child, play is not simply a distraction or something to keep them entertained. Play is the key to learning about the world.
Your child begins learning through play early on. Think about the brightly colored toys and peek-a-boo games you played when your child was an infant. These toys and games taught skills very early: how to hold on and move objects and object permanence (that objects don’t disappear when you cover them up).
Later toys that squeak or play music when pressed help a baby develop important early language skills and cause and effect.
But learning through play doesn’t end in infancy or even toddlerhood.
How long does learning through play last?
The early stages of learning through play last through the early years until your child is about 3 or 4. You might notice that your very young child (1-3) enjoys playing alone or even side-by-side with your or other children, but doesn’t play with others quite yet.
As the preschool years approach, around ages 3-4, your child will naturally begin reaching out to play socially. This is the fun part!
You can read a description of the stages of play on Pathways.org.
What does learning through play look like in my preschooler?
When your child is 3 or 4 they will begin sharing and taking turns. They being to be more interested in playing with the people around them, using toys or other objects as tools. Or simply using their imaginations. This is the social stage of play.
In this new, amazing stage of play, your child is still learning. They’re learning about the social interactions of play, yes, but they’re also processing more complex concepts about the world around them.
Meaningful play helps your child develop skills, process concepts, and learn about the world around them. And all play is meaningful to your child.
How can I encourage learning through play?
As a child ages, there is a tendency to think: Now it’s time to put the play aside and focus on the work of school.
We see it in our school systems all the time. There is an increased pressure to remove play and replace it earlier and earlier with work – in the hopes that children will learn faster and faster, and ultimately perform better on standardized tests.
It’s unfortunate. But we have the opportunity to change that.
We have the opportunity to encourage play. To encourage our children to explore and try and investigate. To incorporate play into our teaching. To hold on to that early childhood love of play and learning a little bit longer.
Let’s talk about five ways that you can encourage learning through play in the preschool and primary years:
- Imaginary play
- Sensory play
- Hands-on science
Learning through Imaginary Play
Our children need pretend play as part of their natural learning process. Every recent study shows significant social, emotional, and language development when little ones are encouraged to engage in imaginative learning.
One misconception that I hear over and over is that every child is great at imaginative play. That is simply not true. While some children may be naturally imaginative others need encouragement.
In my own family, my oldest was more of a serious child. He would come out of his shell with a little prompting, but never naturally engaged in pretend play until I prompted him. Then came my daughter, a born creative, who has taken the initiative to create her own stories since she was very small.
Imaginary play can be any kind of role playing where you child is using their imagination to create new scenarios. Or imaginary play can be when your child creates reenactments to process the information they’ve experienced, read, or seen. A few examples of imaginary play:
- Acting out practical life skills (taking care of dolls or washing dishes)
- Pretending to be an animal
- Playing tea party or restaurant
- Acting out stories they’ve read
Related article: How to Inspire Creative Play: Spark Your Child’s Imagination
Learning through Play: Building
Another way to incorporate play into learning is through building. Using tools and manipulating materials not only fosters fine motor skills, it uses different areas of our preschoolers’ brains.
Building requires patience, care and the ability to rebound well when things don’t go as planned. It teaches trial and error, persistence, how to build and how to destroy.
Playing with building might start as simple, open-ended play and progress to projects, following step-by-step directions, and working on STEM engineering challenges. It can be as simple as blocks and legos, or as significant as sanded pieces of wood (no splinters!) with a carefully supervised hammer and nails.
Ideas for learning with building:
- Use different materials: blocks, cards, legos, toilet paper rolls, toothpicks and gumdrops
- Challenge your child: build the tallest, widest, sturdiest
- Build a real thing: bridge, tower, home, mountain, table, birdhouse
- Reproduce something you’re learning about: Eiffel Tower, pyramids, bear cave, tiny city
Learning through Sensory Play
Sensory play is an element of learning that allows preschoolers to explore their world. It too has been shown to support language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, and social interaction.
The focus on sensory play inside your home is gaining a lot of attention recently. Slime, dough, and sensory tables seem to be everywhere!
But sensory play itself is nothing new. Think of finger paints and mud pies, help in the kitchen baking breads and hand-washing dishes, and jumping in the leaves in fall. These authentic life experiences all include sensory play.
The difference now is that many of the jobs that used to happen inside the home are outsourced. We buy our bread and use the dishwasher instead of doing everything by hand. And many families live in cities or neighborhoods where outdoor play happens at playgrounds and parks where digging a big hole is discouraged.
That’s totally okay. We can still encourage sensory play without a time machine. I’m not in any rush to start doing dishes by hand.
Ideas for sensory play inside your home:
- Make (or buy, honey, there’s no shame in it) dough, slime, or water beads for little fingers to play and explore
- Process art like finger painting or painting with alternative materials (think sticks and leaves instead of paint brushes)
- Sand and water table exploration
- Playing in bubbly water in the sink, tub, or outdoor pool
- Sensory trays or bins that include materials with a variety of textures like feathers, rice, or even wet spaghetti noodles!
Learning through Play: Music
Music is a natural, incredibly effective way to help children practice, process, and remember new information. It stimulates a more creative memory in the brain and allows for deeper and more effective learning.
Songs that are repeated over and over… and over – kids just love repetition, don’t they? Can help children solidify concepts in their minds, like counting, ABCs, and routines. Using music can also help children transition – think lullabies at bedtime or using a clean-up song.
Similarly, playing musical instruments is not only fun for kids, but music is actually associated with the same area of the brain as math! A few ways we can encourage kids to learn through songs and music:
- Singing transition songs throughout the day (wake up, clean up, lullaby)
- Introducing finger plays, rhymes, and songs
- Listening to music with your children – anything from Mozart to the Beatles to KidzBop!
- Experimenting with real instruments or making our own out of household materials
Learning through Play: Hands-on Science
I mentioned earlier that my oldest is a serious boy. He is really a born scientist. While creative play didn’t come naturally, questioning, observing, and experimenting did. (We’ve been reading “bedtime stories” from an encyclopedia since he was 3!)
Introducing science concepts early is a great way to encourage investigative thinking through play. You have to remember one important thing: kids are just short people with less life experience. They don’t know what’s going to happen when you put the vinegar on the baking soda. And the surprise is thrilling!
Just like not all children are born creative, not all children are born scientists (no matter how the saying goes). Whether your child is a naturally inquisitive scientist or not, you can facilitate exploration of science through play.
Digging into science early on will help develop a love of science later. These initial hands-on investigations will set your child up to hypothesize, experiment, and observe throughout their school years and some into the rest of their lives.
The best way to expose a child to science is to allow them to experience it first hand. This can be through exploring and observing nature or creating science experiments in your own home. Some ideas for getting hands-on with science play:
- Exploring magnets and metals
- Learning about electricity through circuits
- Using kitchen science experiments, like baking soda and vinegar or making dough or slime
- Seeing what will sink or float in the tub
How do you incorporate learning through play in your home? Leave a comment below.
Ashley helps parents who want to homeschool find the resources they need to successfully teach their children. Ashley is a former teacher, current homeschooler, published author, and designer behind Circle Time with Miss Fox printables as well as the creator of this website, The Homeschool Resource Room.