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How Play Facilitates Learning in Children

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” There might be more to this quote than you realize!

When it comes to our children, “play” isn’t just about fun—it’s also about healthy development. One important aspect of preparing our kids for school is providing them with plenty of opportunities for play and exploration during their toddler and pre-K years. Why? Because it facilitates social, physical, and emotional development—all instrumental areas for children’s growth.

What does this mean for us as moms? Simply put: prioritizing play and appreciating its importance in our kids’ lives. Let’s delve a little deeper into how play facilitates learning in children—and ways to incorporate it into our kids’ routines.

The Importance of Play in Learning

1. Emotional Expression and Social Development

Have you ever spent so much time with your toddler that you’re able to understand what they’re trying to say even if it’s mostly gibberish? While it’s great that you’re so in tune with your child, as they grow it becomes increasingly important for them to be able to communicate with others outside of their family circle. Their social world will continue to expand as they get older, and with that comes the need for them to express their emotions accurately—not only for others to understand them, but for them to understand others as well. So where does play come into this?

Play with siblings or other children exposes your kids to the emotions of others, and teaches them how to express and regulate their own emotions, as well as understand the emotions of others. Play helps children transition from being fully dependent on adults to regulate their emotions (such as comforting when they cry) to being able to regulate their emotions themselves by relating their own feelings to those of other children.

Action step: Day care or preschool are both excellent environments for children to play and interact safely with their peers. However, if you’ve opted to keep your toddlers home in lieu of day care, no need to worry: you can facilitate their healthy social interaction through frequent play dates and age-appropriate activities with other kids like storytimes, trips to the playground, mommy and me classes, Gymboree, etc.

2. Creativity

Imagination is at its purest when we’re children, and it’s easy see this in our own kids—their carefree outlook on life and the way they’re completely fascinated by the simplest of things. A cardboard box can become a car or spaceship, or a broomstick can become a horse. While we as moms may brush this off as kids being kids, our children are actually learning something in the process.

As they become older, kids begin to take up creative activities, and as messy as these projects may be (cleaning up their messes is always a struggle!), they actually learn basic math skills and problem-solving skills through creative play like finger painting, puppet making, dress-up, etc. They begin asking themselves questions like, “If I cut here, will it fit there?” and “Is this enough paint?” As they start translating imagination into something real, their thinking becomes more complex and they apply these skills in other aspects of their lives.

Action step: Look up some DIY art projects to do at home with your kids whenever you have some free time (evenings, weekends, or vacations for you working moms). These can be as simple as drawing with sidewalk chalk on the driveway, or more intricate such as dyeing Easter eggs. Also look for art-themed kids’ activities in your community—many children’s centers and libraries offer such programs for free.

3. Physical Skills

According to a report by Dr. David Whitebread of the University of Cambridge, physical play is related to the development of whole hand-eye and body coordination; and as you already know, it’s vital to building physical strength in children.

But what about “rough” play (chasing, wrestling) that’s often more of a nuisance than anything (because it easily ends in an injury or someone crying)? According to the same report, this type of play facilitates development of both emotional and social skills, as well as understanding. Furthermore, more physically rigorous outdoor play encourages self-regulation, resourcefulness, and independence. When we take the easier route and let our children play on the iPad or watch TV for hours at a time, we’re denying them the chance to develop these critical skills—and remain physically fit.

Action step: This type of play isn’t just for boys! The best way to encourage more rigorous physical activity in your sons and daughters is to model it for them: go to the park and challenge them to a race, or set up a mini soccer game with them. Toddler sports teams are also an excellent way to facilitate this type of play—most communities have different types of organized sports for even the littlest of tikes.

Purposeful Play

Play is an important part of our children’s development. Problem-solving, sharing, negotiation, and self-restraint are just a few of the skills children learn while they play.

As parents and teachers, we shouldn’t try to control or take over playtime, but we should provide additional opportunities for it and help redirect their thinking during regular play. For example, when children are having a “tea party,” rather than continuing to play it with them in the same way, parents can add a new component by saying, “Be careful, the teapot is hot.” Our little ones will then learn that teapots can be hot, and will repeat it to their peers the next time they play. Purposeful play provides a context to learning that children can understand.

The goods news? No need to feel guilty if your little ones are “playing too much.” They’re learning valuable life skills. Remember, it all starts at home!