Why Do Children Learn Through Play?

If you think learning can only come directly from the adult during a child’s early years, you’re missing the crucial value of learning through play.

Play gives children thousands of opportunities for understanding the world while also teaching them the secret to lifelong learning – that is, learning how to learn.

Play has many key aspects that make it the best way for the youngest children to learn. It allows them to test their ideas, gives them control, and is deeply engaging.

We recommend this article: 5 Ways Your Child Benefits from Early Childhood Education

Learning in the early years

We already know that the first eight years of a child’s life is the most important time in their development. In the early years learning is happening at a speed that won’t be equalled again, as children race to build those vital connections in their brains that help them to understand the world around them.

In these early years, it is influential that children build their content knowledge. That they learn…stuff. But far more essential is that they discover how to connect this understanding to the real-world around them, test ideas, apply their knowledge to different situations and develop the skills to live in the world.

And this deeper level of learning, that’s where learning through play comes in.

Why do children learn through play?

We all know play when we see it, but at the same time it can be kind of tricky to define.

It’s often described as the work of children, and we know that all sorts of different young mammals engage in play, which in itself is a strong argument for the developmental benefits of play.

Think back to your own childhood. What did it feel like to play? Theorists have long talked about the different types of play, from physical play and pretend play, to social play, object play, and language play. What is continuous through all of them is that the child has control, or agency over what they’re doing.

1. Children learn about the world through play

When children are making up a game, moving toys around, creating new worlds in their head – they are not just engaging in meaningless fun (as if fun was ever meaningless anyway!).

They are taking in the world around them, understanding it by starting to put the things they experience into categories in their head – and exploring them.

2. Children are inherently motivated to play

In the most basic sense, play is valuable simply because children are motivated by it.

We know from research that we are most likely to learn when we are motivated, and in happy, well-nourished, safe populations of children, play thrives.

You can see in your daily life that children who are happy, healthy, and have confidence are naturally motivated to explore their world through play.

What this means is that you have engaged learners, who take something valuable from every experience, rather than bored children taking direct instruction while looking longingly out the window at the world of play just out of their reach.

3. Play allows children to take charge

Play can help children to become more self-aware and build their confidence – both crucial skills we all need to be lifelong learners. That fact that they’ve been the key decision-makers also means they get much more satisfaction from what they’ve done, which in turn contributes to a richer learning experience.

This isn’t to diminish the role of others in play. When children see adults or their friends playing too, it can help them to grow in confidence. Adults can help to scaffold language and provide opportunities in the environment that invoke curiosity and exploration.

It’s a team effort, but the child gains a lot from taking the lead.

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4. Play can be social

It goes without saying, but being able to build relationships and work together is a pretty key skill in our society.

Play can be solitary, but especially with older children it is often social, and becomes a natural way for children to connect, develop communication, practice turn-taking and much more.

It also provides opportunities to learn from one other. From birth, children are learning an awful lot by copying what they see in order to make sense of it. Seeing a friend explore a new idea, or something unfamiliar in their play can be a great entry point to new experiences for children of all ages.

What’s more, collaborative play teaches children those key how-to-learn skills that make them lifelong learners, developing an understanding of what you can achieve by working together.

5. Play lets children experiment

For children, play is a safe space. They can try things out without fear of failure, solve problems through trial and error, and use their imaginations to come up with new solutions. By doing so, they expand what is possible for them.

Imagine that a child is putting up a den, and the sheet keeps falling off. By trying different angles, they might learn about balance and weight. They can try seeing if items like clips will help to keep it in place. Through trial and error, they’ll get greater satisfaction when they succeed, and learn a lot from their failures along the way.

Repeating skills over and over is also a key part of physical development, something that happens a lot in physical play. In pretend play, children are testing theoretical worlds and starting to think about and experiment with what might happen in the future.

Most importantly, they learn not to be afraid of trying things out and failing, which is another key skill in acquiring the skill to be lifelong learners.

6. Children are actively engaged in thinking during play

When you observe children in play, you’ll find they’re often deeply immersed in what might seem to you like a simple task, persisting even in the face of distractions.

This kind of ‘switched-on’ brain function has been shown to increase brain activation related to decision-making and agency as well as memory and retrieval processes that help to support learning.

This is why self-directed play is so important – because the best learning takes place when the child is immersed in what they’re doing and making discoveries for themselves.

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