You’ve probably heard, if not actually used the phrase that an activity is ‘as simple as child’s play’. However, while child’s play may be fun, it’s actually not that simple and is more involved than most people might think.
In fact, by the age of 5 many kids will have acquired most of the basic and essential life skills which they will then continue to build upon as they progress through childhood and become adults.
Play is an essential part of childhood and has a vital role in your child’s learning process. It enables them to acquire physical, emotional, social and intellectual skills that will stand them in good stead throughout their life.
But how do children learn through play? What does play involve? What skills do they learn? These are just some of the many important questions that have been asked by parents and studied by researchers over the years.
What Is Learning Through Play?
The phrase Learning through play is normally used by educators and psychologist to describe the development of social and cognitive skills to grow emotionally, to build self esteem and self confidence through play.
The simple truth is that every experience in a child’s life offers an opportunity for learning. Play provides children with a fun and natural way to learn and develop essentials skills.
Small children learn at an extremely fast rate, acquiring new skills and knowledge at a rapid rate of speed. Playing with and without toys allows children to explore the world around them and learn a wide range of skills in a safe and fun manner.
Play can be divided into a number of different categories:
- Solo Play involves any type of play activity that a child does by themselves. This may include drawing, coloring, puzzles, playing with dolls, stuffed animals, cars or any other similar toy while engaging in imaginative play.
- Group Play involves your child and one or more children or adults engaging in a fun activity. This can include any activity that can be a solo activity, as well as a number of other activities including organized sports, hopscotch, tag, and hide and seek.
- Active Play includes any type of play with a great deal of movement, such as running, jumping, sports, climbing, skipping and more.
- Quiet Play includes any activity that doesn’t require a great deal of physical movement or a lot of noise. Activities such as crafts, coloring, building with blocks, solving a puzzle, and art are all great examples of quiet play.
- Manipulative Play involves any type of play where your child physically moves pieces of objects to get certain desired results, or to see what happens when they move around these pieces. Toys involved in this type of play can involve building and stacking toys, nesting toys, toys that produce sounds when you push a button, shake it or squeeze it, or toys such as puzzles, models and crafts.
- Creative Play involves any type of play that allows your child to use their imagination, such as crafts, story telling, painting, drawing, pretend or make believe.
- Game Playing involves playing any games that normally have set rules. This can include board games, computer games, and even organized activities and sports.
- Organized Play normally involves a group of participants and is also usually supervised by an adult. This type of play includes playdates, sports, clubs, and other types of activities.
- Free Play simply means that a child is free to engage in any fun activity that interests them. The child not only chooses the activity (within limits), but they also make up the rules if any rules are involved.Normally in free play, a parent or other adult may observe and sometimes redirect or settle disputes. But the adult usually does not direct the activity in any way. Free play can involve anything from playing in sand and water, to swinging or using other playground equipment, to playing pretend and many other activities.
As you can see by looking at the different categories, a child may engage in two or more types of play when enjoying a single activity. For example, a child who plays pee-wee football is engaging in active, organized and group play all at the same time. A child who is enjoying working on a jigsaw puzzle is engaging in quiet and manipulative play.
As a parent, you also need to keep in mind that your child learns different skills from different types of categories of play. For example, solo play allows your child to gain skills in self reliance and in individual thinking. Group play helps your child to develop skills such as co-operation, verbal communication skills, and taking turns.
Active play helps your child develop gross motor skills, balance and physical strength. And many quiet activities help your child to develop skills such as fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
One type of activity or category of play is not any better than another. In order for your child to learn and develop a range of skills, engaging in a balance of all the different categories of play will provide the greatest benefit.
What Skills Do Children Learn Through Play?
Young children learn almost all of their basic skills through play in the first few years of life. After that time, children build out those skills and acquire new one based on early learning.
In this section, we will talk about different types of skills that children gain through play at various ages. But keep in mind that many skills will have started when your little one was an infant or toddler and will continue to advance as your child engages in more advanced play and has a larger variety of experiences.
Under 2 Months
Infants under 2 months of age don’t actually play. During this time, your baby is busy learning to recognize the faces and even scents of family members. At this age, having mobiles and other slow moving toys within their field of vision, can help your baby learn to focus and develop their sense of sight.
2 To 6 Months
By the age of two months, most infants can open and close their hands deliberately and have acquired a certain amount of strength. Some the skills that your 2 to 6 month old infant can learn through play include:
- The ability to grab, grasp and bat lightweight objects
- Children can shake lightweight rattles getting them to make noise thus learning about cause and effect
- Beginning development of fine motor skills
- Strengthening of gross motor skills through kicking legs and pushing up with arms and legs
- Improved focus and eye tracking abilities
- Pre-verbal skills through gurgles, coos, and other wonderful baby sounds
6 Months To 1 Year
By the age of 6 months, your baby is staying awake for longer periods of time and playing more and more. At this age, your baby is engaging more and more with you, siblings and other familiar family members and friends.
Some of the skills your infant will learn through play between 6 months and 1 year include:
- More developed fine motor skills through continual grasping, holding, and exploring a variety of toys such as turning the pages of a heavy duty book, grasping and holding rattles, balls, or blocks. Also pulling objects to them or pushing them away.
- Further development of gross motor skills, learning to roll up, sit up, and later pulling up using furniture. Baby gyms and a variety of other toys that encourage your baby to move help immensely
- Clapping hands and playing patty cake will help your child develop their ability to accomplish designed behavior
- At this age, your baby will begin to learn how to stack or nest toys, teaching them how to manipulate objects to get the desired effect. Giving your child lightweight blocks and nesting toys will help them to improve and advance this skill
- At this age, children gain a better understanding of cause and effect. They use trial and error to discover that if they perform a certain action (shaking a rattle, they get a specific result (the sound). Through play, they begin to understand and reason that if they perform a specific action deliberately, they will be able to achieve the specific result
- If as a parent you have been playing games such as peek-a-boo with your baby, they will quickly learn (around the ages of 8 months to a year) to initiate playing such games with you or with their older siblings. Learning how to initiate games to get a response is a skill your child will quickly learn and become adept at
- As your baby approaches a year old, they will also begin to use appropriate responses to certain words and activities. For example if you ask your child where their ball is, they may crawl after it. Or if you say ‘patty cake, patty cake’, your child may clap their hands without any further prompting.
1 To 3 Years
Between the ages of 1 and 3, you will see a great deal of growth and learning taking place in your child. They’ll begin to learn a number of skills that will prepare them for the school years and life beyond.
Here are some of the learning skills your child will acquire through play between the ages of 1 and 3:
- Walking: Between one and three years old (usually between 12 and 18 months), your child will take their first important steps, and from there, nothing will seem to slow them down. Providing your child with toys they can push while encouraging them to walk, will help to develop those gross motor skills necessary to strengthen their legs muscles.
- Verbal And Communication Skills: Over the next couple of years, your child will go from speaking a few words to talking in complete sentences. During this time, they will also begin to acquire knowledge by asking questions and expressing their wants and needs in words.As their communication skills grow, your toddler will also learn how to express their feelings and begin reading the non-verbal skills of others.
- Growing Socialization Skills: At this age, your child’s socialization skills will be growing in leaps and bounds. They will begin to seek out the company of other family members and people they know to engage in group play.They will even instigate conversations, readily show affection, and more importantly, empathy for others, hugging siblings who are feeling sad or ill.This is a great time to introduce simple games that involve colors, numbers and sounds.
- Improved Fine Motor Skills: Your child’s fine motor skills will grow significantly during this time. Presenting them with toys that have objects to spin, beads to move along wires, and buttons to push, will all help them practice these fine motor skills while providing them with hours of fun.
- Development Of Problem Solving Skills: Your 1 to 3 year old will begin to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Giving your child puzzles, blocks, and other such toys will help them develop both their creativity and their problem solving skills.
- Memory Skills: During this time, your child will also begin to develop skills related to memory, such as color and number recognition, and perhaps beginning counting skills.
- Mimicking The Behavior And Actions Of Others: In this age range, your child will be more observant of their environment and the people around them. They will quickly pick up on and adapt how they see others behave and act. This will also including repeating things they have heard, which is why it’s important to be very careful when talking in front of a child this age.
3 To 5 Years
At the ages of 3 to 5, your child will start preparing for and beginning preschool. During this time, they will develop several skills that are necessary for independence and academic achievement.
Some of the skills your child can learn or further develop through play during this period will include:
- Understanding And Following Simple Rules And Commands: At this age, your child will learn how to follow simple rules and directions, such as lining up, taking turns, and following commands like putting away toys or taking out paper and pencil.
- Improvement Of Fine Motor Skills: At this age, your child will further develop, expand and improve their fine motor skills. They will start learning how to print the alphabet and even their name, show an even greater interest in coloring and drawings, and will be drawn to threading and lacing toys.Providing your child with plenty of paper and pencils, crayons, chalkboards and lacing cards, will all help them practice these skills whenever they like.
- More Advanced Social Skills: At this stage, your child will enjoy more group activities, will also engage even more in conversations and will be able to better express their own thoughts and desires.They will also develop some of their first friendships and have best friends, though their best friend may change from week to week. They will also learn how to interact with their new friends, what is allowed and what’s not allowed.
- Advanced Problem Solving Skills: Your child’s problem solving skills will advance in leaps and bounds around this age range. They will be able to work on more complicated jigsaw puzzles and also be able to solve problems when working with building materials.
- Rapid Growth In Imagination: When your child hits this age range, they will show a rapid growth in creativity and imagination. They will enjoy actively engaging in role playing and even making up their own stories.Some children have such a vivid imagination at this age that they may have difficulty telling what is fantasy from reality.
- Improved Concentration: This is also the age that you as a parent will notice that your child can concentrate for longer periods of time, especially when engaging in activities they really enjoy. Improved concentration makes it easier for your child to following directions and to understand concepts.
6 To 9 Years
By the age of 6, your child will be ready to begin their formal education, sitting in a classroom, taking direction and performing basic academic tasks.
Your child is maturing and their choice of toys and activities they enjoy will be changing. Here are some of the skills they will acquire through play during the ages of 6 and 9:
- Increased Cognitive Abilities: When they reach the 6 to 9 phase, your child will be ready for more formalized learning, will be able to solve increasingly more complex problems, and be able to begin to think in more abstract forms.
- Increased Reading And Comprehension Skills: Not only will your child begin to read more and more words, they will soon be able to read complete sentences and paragraphs, as well as be able to comprehend and recall what they have read.
- Increased Verbal Skills: Your child’s verbal skills will continue to improve and they will be able to verbalize thoughts more clearly. They will also be able to express their feelings and experiences in a more coherent way.In addition, your child will be able to explain concepts and negotiate with others.
- Improved Social Skills: Around this age, children will have improved social skills with a better understanding of the importance of team work and getting along with others.They will start showing more compassion and empathy towards others, and also be acutely aware of non verbal cues as well as acceptable and unacceptable behavior.Your child may want to engage in organized sports and enjoy sleep overs with friends their own age.
- Increased Creativity: This is the time when your child is likely to enjoy doing crafts and model building, and they will often take a basic design concept and customize it more to their liking.They will also engage more in storytelling, often embellishing events that occur during the day to make the telling more entertaining or dramatic.
- Improved Memory And Co-ordination: Children will show remarked improvement in memory and coordination around this age range. They will begin to memorize facts and figures they need for school work, but will also enjoy games like Simon and Jenga.
9 To 12 Years
By the time your child reaches the ages of 9 to 12, they will be ready for or already be in middle school. They will show a marked independence, often preferring to spend time with friends their own age to family members.
While much of their play will be centered around organized sports or clubs, they will still have a need for some free play time in which to unwind and continue to explore at their own speed.
They will continue to develop the life skills they’ve learned earlier and they will engage more with others and the world around them.
How Play Has Changed
Between more families living extremely hectic lives, the push towards technology and the pressure for children to succeed, play has changed a great deal in the last couple of generations.
With both parents having to work, children often have a full schedule and go into any number activities at an earlier and earlier age. Over scheduling has cut down on the amount of free time that kids have today and that presents many families with some unique challenges.
While the push for early academics is designed to give children a head start, it has actually resulted in less free play time. Less play time means that kids have less opportunity to learn and to discover things for themselves. And it may also have adverse effects on their social development and emotional health.
Therefore, it’s important for us, as parents, to try to find ways to give our children adequate time to play, to experiment, to observe and to discover. By doing that, we can ensure that our kids will grow up to be well adjusted, healthy and happy adults.
Fun Learning Games For Kids
One thing that parents can do to create more play time for their children is to, whenever possible, engage your child in some simple and fun learning games. There are lots of great games for kids of all ages and here are some examples:
- Board Games: Establishing a games night and playing a wide variety of board games with your children provides hours of fun and a real chance for learning. Games such as Boggle, Scattergories and Scrabble will help improve reading and spelling skills.Playing simple card games such as cribbage, hearts or rummy can help your child develop strategy and math skills. Pictionary is lots of fun and can help with the development of motor skills. Games such as Monopoly, Sorry, Battleship, Candyland and many others can provide fun learning opportunities for your child.
- Scavenger Hunts Or Geocaching: What child doesn’t love to hunt for treasure! Scavenger hunts and geocaching are great ways to sharpen your child’s sense of direction as well as observation skills. Best of all, these are perfect group games and playing in a group helps develop your child’s social and communication skills.
- Paper Airplane Building: Joining your child in designing and making paper airplanes will enhance their creativity and problem solving ability. Flying each invention will be great fun for the entire family!
- I-Spy: Younger children will enjoy a game of I-Spy which will help them develop observation and communication skills.
- Fort Building: What a great way to encourage imagination and problem solving through allowing your child to build a fort out of whatever materials are available. Best of all, building forts can be done inside or outside, which helps your child develop all types of problem solving and critical thinking skills.
- Licence Plate Addition: A fun game to play with your child when traveling by car is to add up the numbers on selected licence plates. The objective is to see who can come up with the correct answer! A simpler version of this game is to set a time period and see how many licence plates your child sees with a given number on the plate.
The Need For Both Indoor And Outdoor Play
When giving your children the time to play, make sure that the playtime is also spent in different locations. Allowing your child to play both inside and outside will help them learn and experience new things, all of which provides learning.
Indoor Play Locations
In addition to your own home, other indoor locations include community centers, hands-on science museums, Fun Zones, indoor gyms, indoor mini golf and rock climbing facilities.
Each setting will give your child a choice of different activities and plenty of opportunities to meet other children and socialize. Different locations will also encourage them to learn new skills and practice old skills.
Indoor play also helps your child learn how to behave appropriately indoors, and in some instances, it also gives them more opportunities to engage in quiet play.
Outdoor Play Locations
The variety of safe outdoor play locations are nearly endless. There is of course the backyard, which for homes with plenty of yard space, allows children to engage in pretend play, ride on power driven vehicles and bikes, build forts, play in a sandbox or play all different types of outdoor games.
Then there are parks, both parks with open areas and those with playgrounds for younger children. There are also parks with tennis and basketball courts, horse shoe pits and other games which are suitable for older children. Then there are outdoor water and amusement parks, mini golf, and of course the beach.
Outdoor venues give your child the opportunity to engage in more active pursuits while getting the benefits of enjoying fresh air and sunshine. Don’t forget to allow your to child some outdoor play time during the winter months where they can sled, snowboard or build igloos and snowmen!
Activities, Clubs And Recreational Programs
After-school activities and programs are a wonderful way to provide your child with new opportunities and experiences outside of school.
This is especially true for children who live in smaller apartments or crowded cities, as these programs give them room to play while at the same time building their communication, socialization and other important skills.
Clubs are great way to allow a child to not only engage in a hobby that interests them, but also to meet other kids who share their interests.
Video Games And Technology: Good Or Bad?
With technology being used in most classrooms and growing at a rapid rate, it’s generally considered a good idea to introduce your child to the world of technology as soon and possible.
While there are computer, video and other technology games designed for very young children that aid in learning, most experts agree that the time your child spends in the virtual world should be limited.
While there is little doubt that many of these games are fun and challenging, child psychologists and other experts feel that too much time spent using technology can limit the development of your child’s creativity and imagination.
Not only does non-virtual playing such as physical activities help your child grow physically stronger, it’s also a great way to help reduce their stress and use up some of their seemingly limitless energy.
Kids also need opportunities to explore and learn the world at large through play. Sitting in the house for long periods of time staring at a game console or computer will not give them the range of experiences needed to help them grow and mature.
Nowadays technology touches pretty much every aspect of our lives. So allowing your child to learn about technology and how to use it is essential. But it’s important to keep in mind that there needs to be a balance between the virtual world and the non-virtual world.
Playing Without Toys
Many parents feel they need to provide their children with unlimited toys in order to keep them entertained and encourage them to play.
While toys are handy tools that aid children’s learning through play, children should be given some opportunity to play without being overwhelmed by toys.
Growing up in a simpler time, the only toys a lot of parents we spoke to recalled playing with were a set of jacks, some Lincoln logs, a sled for winter, and bike for summer.
That didn’t hinder their ability to play. They used old sheets to make forts over the clothes line, the bike became their steed as they acted out living on the frontier or living in a castle.
Large cardboard boxes became sailing ships and were made into clubhouses, and were even used to turn each other into robots. Then there was red rover, races, and cloud watching, and even star watching and catching lightening bugs.
Several parents said they could play endlessly without dolls, trucks, or other more modern toys. While their kids enjoy a nice toy collection and loved playing with their different building sets, cars, dolls, and even skate boards, they also enjoyed the afternoons when the toys were put up and they were encouraged to use their imagination to play.
Why Should Parents Encourage Learning Through Play?
Most experts would agree that parents shouldn’t really push children to learn while they play. Instead, for the majority of the time, parents should simply allow children, especially very young children, to enjoy playing for fun and the learning will come naturally.
Even as a child gets older, and parents play games such as scrabble or boggle with their child, they shouldn’t present the game as something to help them learn, but rather as a fun game the entire family can enjoy.
The simple act of giving your child plenty of opportunities to play, different types of venues to play in, and some great toys that will hold their interest, will allow your child to learn in a natural and easy manner.
Of course, from time to time, your child will need to be directed in play. For example, introducing them to the rules of a game, or showing them how to splash in a kiddie pool. But then step back, let them take over from there and do what comes natural to them.