How Kids Learn and Develop Through Play

“Play is the work of the child.”  - Maria Montessori

Some parents have the notion that the traditional way of learning – that is, sitting still and listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and answering workbooks – is the best way for their kids to learn and develop skills. At home, they feel better when they see their children poring over a math problem or memorizing a list of vocabulary words than when they see them playing. After all, it is kind of difficult to imagine that the young ones are actually learning anything from tinkering with toys on the floor or from playing tag with their friends outdoors.

What some grownups don’t realize is that, while regular classes and other structured training are certainly useful, academic knowledge is only a small part in the kids’ growth and in the development of their attitude. Experience and learning through play has a bigger role when it comes to their holistic development.

The Montessori education is one good example of teaching through play. It gives kids the freedom to work with materials, handle and manipulate them, and gain experience though different activities. They learn math, vocabulary, and other concepts by means of tools rather than through lectures and textbooks. In other words, it allows the kids to discover and understand concepts through interaction rather than through direct instruction.

Why Learning Through Play

Hidden Content
​ A 2007 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics says that play is an essential part of a child’s progress as they grow. The organization is referring to active play, which means providing our kids with toys like dolls or action figures, building blocks, and similar playthings. This is so they can use their imagination to the fullest, rather than engaging in passive entertainment like computer games or television.

Contrary to what some might think, unstructured play is not only about letting our kids have fun. Yes, it is enjoyable (thus they don’t feel “bored”) but, without them knowing it, they are also developing various facets of their lives, like their physical bodies, their emotional well-being, and their social skills.

Allowing time for child-directed activities has many other benefits, too, such as:

Play helps develop their creativity and imagination

When kids are left alone to their own devices (without us, grownups, telling them what to do), they are more inclined to use their imagination. They may make up their own scenarios and even come up with the rules in their world. They can make the couch into a ship and the teddy bears, into special creatures that can beat the wild and dangerous sea monster. They can imagine being a gracious hostess, talking to their favorite characters over tea. Their play world may not be realistic and may defy science – and some parents may find it tempting to correct them – but this is what makes playtime fun.

Children are also more likely to exercise their creativity during these times of free play. They may use normal, day-to-day things as props, like a blanket for a ship’s sail or a big appliance box as a toy house.

Play helps develop their physical bodies

Active play lets kids move around. Running with their friends and engaging in other outdoor activities give them exercise, of course, and it helps improve their agility, stamina, speed, strength, and balance, but even indoor play have their benefits.

Using blocks to build towers, painting or coloring, or even putting Mr. Potato Head’s eyes and arms can help a kid’s dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills.

Play helps develop their social skills

Play is an opportunity for kids to interact with others, and this means having to face different opinions and ideas. These instances allow our kids to learn to resolve disagreements on their own and even negotiate to reach a common ground. They learn the value of sharing and being part of a group. Often enough, when kids disagree and part ways upset, they end up being friends again the next time.

Play helps develop their emotions

Play allows our kids to experience a wide range of emotions, from disappointment at not winning a game to appreciation for the help of their friend. On their own, they can feel joy at being able to draw their mom or dad, or perhaps a sense of triumph at making an impressive tower of blocks. These experiences expose them to their feelings and allow them to learn to cope.

Play helps develop cognitive abilities and decision-making skills

When kids are allowed to touch and feel, see, hear, and experience things first-hand, they acquire knowledge and develop better understanding. After all, how would they know how rough a tree bark feels if they only see it in books?

Also, with experience comes the skill of making better decisions. Without grownups dictating what they should do next, they can make their choices – should the small block go below or on top of the big one? – and learn from them.

Play helps develop resilience and self-confidence

How would our kids develop the confidence to do things if we don’t let them? Play allows our kids to try out new things and then develop the conviction that they can do them – better and better as they try. Of course, they would not be able to cut straight the first few times or ride a bike immediately, but these unsuccessful attempts help develop their resilience to face “the real world.”

Moreover, play can improve a child’s learning behavior and readiness. For instance, the educators at Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas decided to give their kindergarten pupils two 15-minute breaks in the morning and two in the afternoon. They found that the kids have become more independent, better at following directions, and more attentive in class.

What Kind of Play is Recommended?

Here are some suggestions on what activities your child can have fun doing, alone or with friends:

Building

Constructing pretend structures encourages creativity and innovation. Moreover, using small toys like blocks and Lego sets help develop their fine motor skills.

Of course, you can go beyond one set of toys. Let them mix and match, like using plastic blocks and Knex together along with their character figures. You can also let them exercise their creativity further by making use of what’s at hand instead of buying new toys. For instance, you can allow them to use pillows and blankets to make caves or tents.

Role-playing

When kids play pretend, like being treasure-hunting pirates or restaurant owners and customers, they are discovering their own interests and also expressing what they feel and think. They also assert some independence as well develop some of their physical and social skills.

Playing dress-up or donning costumes makes it more fun, of course, but you don’t necessarily have to buy these. Kids without store-bought get-ups usually come up with their own ingenious costumes – a towel for a cape, for instance, or Wonder Woman bracelets made of paper or foil.

Drawing

Drawing and coloring are not just fun for kids, these activities also help them develop their fine-motor skills. Also, it’s a way for them to express themselves and how they interpret the world around them. You can provide them with paper and pencils, crayons, coloring books, and other materials.

Play is one of the main ways in which children learn. Because it’s fun, children often become very absorbed in what they are doing, and in turn, this helps them develop the ability to concentrate. There are plenty of other activities that your kids can do – or that you can do with your children – during these child-directed play times, namely singing songs and telling stories, playing memory games or other board games, and letting them explore the environment. After your kids finished playing, you could ask them to tell you about their adventures. Parents showing interest is actually sending the message that their independence is valued.

About the Author Tammy Seay

I believe our kids are the key to the future of the world and, as parents, we have a lot of influence while our children are still learning and growing. We set ourselves as our kids’ role models. Consciously and unconsciously, we pass on to them what we know, what we believe, and what we value. This is why partnering with parents in teaching life lessons and soft skills to get kids prepared for the world has become my key purpose in life. I hope that through my experience in teaching communications in university and in NLP training and coaching, I’ll be able to equip you with more tangible methods so that you can be your children’s life teacher, too!

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