Your little munchkin grabs a shape sorter, opens it up, and dumps out all of the shapes. They then proceed to meticulously sort the shapes into their correct spots. Although toys like shape sorters are seemingly simple, your child is actually learning a tremendous amount about the world around them. Learning through play has become a buzzword in early childhood education and I’m excited to help you see why. After reading this post, you will:

  • know the benefits of learning through play and why it is important
  • understand the research behind learning through play
  • get some valuable tips on how to ensure plenty of opportunities for your child to learn through play
mother and baby playing together; learning through play

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Benefits of Learning through Play

So why has learning through play gotten so much hype lately? Aside from motor development, imagination and creativity development, and confidence-building, here are some of the benefits that your child can reap from learning through play.

Play Supports Communication

Children incorporate language into their play all the time.

Maybe they are playing with a parent or friend and are practicing conversational turn-taking while they pretend to play restaurant. Or maybe they’re taking part in independent play where they are narrating their actions.

In both cases, children are practicing and developing their listening and speaking skills while they negotiate their play scenarios.

Play Supports Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

As your child is playing, you may notice them discovering how the world works through trial and error.

It is fun to watch your child discover cause and effect when they are hitting a button on their favorite toy and all of a sudden it lights up and starts playing music.

Or maybe your child rolled a ball underneath the couch. As they realize that the ball is now out of their reach, they need to determine what in their surroundings can best help them to get that ball back.

There are so many opportunities for your child to practice problem solving and critical thinking through play. The hardest part is actually stopping ourselves from jumping in and solving the problems for them!

Toddler boy learning through play with blocks

Play Encourages Social Development

Even if your child is playing independently, your child will still be practicing and developing social skills. Think about your child playing with a doll and playing tea party or putting their doll to bed. They are practicing social interaction through this independent play.

Play is a time where your child can learn how to be a friend. They learn how to share during play and how to help others all while increasing the opportunity for language development.

Play assists your child with the foundations for social interaction and emotional intelligence.

Why is Learning through Play Important?

When your child is young (think birth through age 8), they are learning at a rate that will never be matched again. These first 8 years are critical for cognitive skills, social-emotional learning, and physical/mental health (source).

Learning through play is a way to create a strong foundation for all of these skills. The benefits that I outlined above, pair perfectly with your child’s developing neurons. Play is the ideal platform for early learning because it addresses multiple areas of learning all at one time and in a way that your child thoroughly enjoys.

Research behind Learning through Play

Toddler girl holding magnifying glass while learning through play

According to NAEYC, children are intrinsically motivated through play. What exactly does this mean?

Your child lives to play. Their desire to play is just as strong as their desire to eat and sleep. There are no outside forces encouraging that desire…it comes from within.

Because of this motivation to play, your child will learn how to self-regulate and manage their self-control, which is especially beneficial for more structured learning.

In addition, The Lego Foundation emphasizes the importance of supporting your child through play, not directing them. What they mean is that your child learns more about perseverance, problem solving, and critical thinking when you are merely a guide on the side and not taking control of the play.

Tips to Promote Learning through Play

Let’s get into some ways that you can support your child in learning through play so that you can maximize their development.

1. Ensure Your Child is Enjoying Play

Your little one will readily be primed for learning when they are enjoying what they are doing.

Think about a time when you were bored and not enjoying yourself. Did you have a hard time paying attention to the task at hand? Were you motivated to learn more or investigate further?

Probably not. Your child is the same way. They will be more receptive to learning and will retain their learning better when their play is enjoyable.

Thinking about teaching your child the ABCs? Get some playful tips here!

2. Step Away from Routine

Preschool girls learning through play in a sandbox outside.

I remember one day that my toddler was getting a little bored with his toys. He plays with the same ones over and over again and I don’t blame him, they can get a little mundane, especially when his attention span is literally five minutes.

One way to solve this problem is to set up a toy rotation. Simply put a variety of toys in different boxes and label them the days of the week so that your child will play with Monday toys on Monday and Tuesday toys on Tuesday. This prevents toys from becoming boring because they aren’t accessible every day.

Another tip is to take your play outside. You can simply bring old toys into a new environment, or let your child’s imagination run wild while exploring a different environment. Switching things up provides a wide range of opportunity for new learning experiences.

3. Make Play Meaningful

If you truly want your child to be learning through play, you have to go beyond rote memorization and into applicable learning.

Singing the ABC song is wonderful, but if your child can’t identify the letters or understand the sounds they make, then they will have a hard time learning to read.

A simple way to make play meaningful is to help children make connections to their own lives during learning. So, if your child is learning about the name and sound of the letter “b”, allowing your child to scour your house for items that start with the /b/ sound is helping them to make connections between their learning and their own environment. This helps make meaning stick!

4. Incorporate Manipulatives

When learning is hands-on, it helps your child take abstract concepts and make them easier to learn and understand. Manipulatives like shapes, numbers, magnetic letters, and blocks can all help your child learn more easily.

magnetic letters on a black table to help with learning through play

Think about teaching your child about shapes for a minute. You can draw a triangle on a page and talk about how it has three sides, or you can give your child a triangle and have them explore it. They can determine its characteristics by feeling it, examining it, and discovering what makes it unique.

Manipulatives can help support a deeper understanding of concepts than just simply talking and showing a picture can do.

5. Let Your Child Take the Lead

Powerful learning can take place when you take a step back.

Let your child take the reigns. Don’t always do things for them when things get tough. And trust me, I know this isn’t always the easiest thing to do. But deeper learning can come from a productive struggle.

Let your child tough it out a little bit by not directing them to the correct shape on the shape sorter or counting out five cheerios for them when they are trying to count.

That’s not to say that you aren’t there cheering them on and guiding them with hints and support when needed. But doing things for them when they struggle will not help them learn about perseverance when things get difficult and ultimately have that feeling of pride and confidence when they succeed.

diverse group of toys to support learning through play

So there you have it…just how important learning through play truly is with your little one. What are some of your favorite ways to make play meaningful? Let me know in the comments below!