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How to Support Learning Through Play

Italian physician, innovator and educator Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child”. As parents, caregivers, and teachers, we believe this to be true. So what is our role in this process? How can we make the experience of play meaningful to the child while not overstepping?

There are many ways adults can support learning through play.

Read more about the early childhood learning philosophy, Montessori here.

Offer Open-Ended Toys

All toys are not created equal. Despite the loud, colorful claims of marketing experts everywhere, a great toy is not about bells and whistles. On the contrary, the simpler the object of play, often, the better. 

Keep in mind that an ‘object of play’ is not always a commercially-available toy. Parents can support learning through play by supplying items such as fabric, felt, stones, rice, water (the hose or a watering can), and sand for hours of inexpensive, tactile engagement.

Open-ended toys also lend themselves to deep, long-term involvement. An ‘open-ended’ toy is a toy that can be used by the child in many different ways. Examples of open-ended toys include blocks (wooden, magnetic, bristle, foam etc.), art supplies, puppets, costumes, and boxes (large cardboard boxes inspire wonder).

In playing with a box, for example, the child can imagine it to be a fort, a bus, a restaurant, or a pirate ship! The possibilities are endless. Similarly, wooden blocks can be used to construct anything the child imagines.

Read more about open ended toys here.

Lose the iToys

Electronic toys, iPads, computers, gaming systems, etc., are the opposite of open-ended. Although there are many options on a tablet in terms of games, the tablet is only used by the child in one way – and that way is mostly passive.

Overall, the cons largely outweigh the pros when it comes to electronic devices. 

We want children to be curious, imaginative, active learners who can adequately express their needs, wants, thoughts and opinions. Many parents think technology will help support learning through play, but tablets, laptops, and smartphones will not help children become active learners. 

Particularly from birth to three, known by physicians as ‘the critical period’, children’s brains are developing very quickly. These changes become the permanent foundation upon which later brain development is built. If children are not exposed to the right stimuli (which is NOT found on a screen), his or her development may become stunted. According to the AAP, screen time should be limited to one hour of high-quality content for children aged five and younger.

Let Children Be in Charge

As long as conditions are safe, children should make their own decisions during play. Choosing for themselves contributes to skills of independence and helps them see the connections between choices and consequences. It helps them know what is really meaningful to them – not just important to their parents or caregivers.

Because children are intrinsically motivated, they will make choices during play that will keep them playing. Or they won’t! When the child makes a bad choice, he’ll be removed from play, and then NEXT time will make better choices. Each time this happens, the child learns more about choices and consequences.

Allow Spontaneity 

Children change their minds – have you noticed?

Sometimes the toy doesn’t work the way they want it to and they lose interest. Or the child gets a better idea and moves on to investigate.

This sense of the unknown allows the child to develop flexible thinking and adaptability. Spontaneity can be seen by some as impulsivity, but is totally normal in early childhood development.

Encourage Immersion

When children are immersed in the activity and lose track of time, they are in a state of ‘flow’.

Overscheduling disrupts this flow. A child in the middle building a pirate ship with a cardboard box doesn’t want to stop playing to go to soccer practice. Or Karate. Or Irish Dancing. 

Obviously, we all have schedules to keep. To the extent it’s possible, though, children should be allowed to play uninterrupted, especially when in a state of ‘flow’. How can you measure flow? During a state of flow the child will be heavily involved, focusing, and not distractible. 

Play With Them

There are all kinds of play.

Sometimes children play independently, other times with a friend or sibling. Particularly in the early years, parents can support learning through play by participating.

Younger children are drawn to adults because adults have so many skills – children can gain a great deal from interacting with us. It’s helpful for a child to know letters and numbers when entering Kindergarten, but even more important is to have a solid approach to learning. Parents and caregivers can extend play by sitting with the child, encouraging curiosity and supporting pretend play.

Say What You See

An imperative role parents have in supporting learning through play involves language reception and acquisition.

Asking questions and narrating play helps children master many aspects of language, including learning the names for objects, hearing appropriate syntax, and understanding the cadence of speech. 

Parents, grandparents and caregivers must take advantage of the time with children to expose them to language. 

Here are four ways to do this:

Learning by cooking together

Point to each item as you teach your child the names of your ingredients (tomato, rice, hamburger). Talk through how you measure ingredients. Ask them to help your chop, pour, or stir. Taste test foods and talk about how they smell and feel in your mouth.

Learning during your morning or evening routine

Talk kids through the process of your routine. Label everything, explain why you do what you do before bed, and what sleep does for the body. Say words like brush, teeth, toothpaste, spit, washcloth, soap, scrub, clean when washing up and brushing teeth. Talk about dreams and sleep helping your body grow. Sing songs and read books.

Learning through practical life experiences

Instead of handing over your phone to your child when you run errands, talk to him while cruising the aisles at the supermarket. Ask them to name the items you’re putting in the cart. Have them look for certain color items or items that start with a particular letter. Talk about what you plan to make with what foods you bring home from the store.

Learning in the car

Rather than turning on a movie for a short trip, talk to your child. Read signs aloud and point out big trucks and motorcycles. For longer trips bring books, and a few small toys. Try to only use screens during travel is absolutely necessary. There is so much to talk about when you are traveling to new environments.

Helping them learn through play is the absolute best way to get them learning. You don’t need workbooks, classes or educational games and toys.

Interested in getting your little one to play independently?

Check out my Purposeful Playspace e-course to learn how to create a space for your children that invites them to play in ways that are more engaging, purposeful and independent.

Want more information about how play impacts your child’s development?

Check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood

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