A Guide to Learning through Play

A Guide to Learning through Play

A Guide to Learning through Play

Children learn through play.

Everyone knows that.

But what does it actually mean? Is all play good? Can we make it better, more educational? And what is our role? Do we help or let them get on with it.

What is play?

Play is something we do for fun. It is usually done for its own sake rather than for some external reward or outcome.

It can take many forms, including physical activity, imaginative play, games, object manipulation and exploring the environment.

But even though play is done for enjoyment, with no goal in mind, there is a purpose. Play gives children the skills they need to survive and thrive. They learn to control their bodies, interact with others, problem solve and think creatively.

What is learning through play?

Let’s start by stating what it isn’t:

  • rote learning
  • worksheets
  • watching on screens
  • direct instruction

Learning through play isn’t a special category of play. All true play leads to learning. But some types of play are better than others.

Children learn when they encounter something new that doesn’t fit into an existing mental model, or schema, of how the world works. And in order to understand this new thing, they play. They explore, they test. Through trial and error they get to a new understanding.

And through experience, through lots of trial and error, they play more efficiently. They learn to hypothesise. There is less wasted time. Play is still fun but they learn to ask the right questions. They get to the answer more quickly.

This is learning through play.

How you can help

Your child just wants to explore.

All you have to do is offer the right toy at the right time. Materials that are developmentally appropriate are more appealing. A preschooler would love a doll’s house. A toddler wouldn’t know what to do with it. They would spend the whole time posting toys through the windows and doors and seeing how many cars can be squeezed into the kitchen.

For advice on which toys to offer when, see our guides on toddlers and preschoolers.

How babies and toddlers learn through play

For babies and toddlers, the world is an endless source of wonder. At this stage, children explore primarily through their senses. This sensory exploration is fundamental for brain development.

Give your six-month-old a DIY treasure basket full of sensory wonders and objects to reach for and grasp.

Before children can write and draw, paint and dance, they have to be in control of their bodies. This is a long road and requires lots of repetition. It’s one of the reasons children love schema play so much.

Heuristic Play and Sensory Exploration

Heuristic play is discovery play. It’s the big brother of treasure basket play. You are offering a range of interesting materials for your child to investigate - and learn from.

Heuristic materials include balls, boxes, nested bowls, ramps, tubes, toys with doors and hinges and (plastic) jars with screw-on lids and caps.

The idea is to offer new challenges, to encourage problem solving.

Symbolic Play: The World of Preschoolers

As children approach their third birthday, play evolves into more symbolic and imaginative forms. They start to use objects, actions, or ideas to represent other objects, actions, or ideas. This banana is a phone. When I hold up three fingers it means ‘bounce the ball’. This kind of play is crucial for developing language, creativity, and social skills.

The Best Toys to Encourage Learning through Play

Doll's House

A wooden doll's house can be an incredible tool for symbolic play. Preschoolers can create stories, characters, and scenarios that mirror the real world or spring from their imagination.

See Doll's House

Wooden Blocks

Wooden blocks are excellent for both sensory exploration and imaginative play. They encourage creativity, motor skills, and an understanding of basic physics.

See Wooden Blocks

Play Kitchen

A wooden play kitchen is perfect for role-playing and mimicking daily activities. It's also a wonderful way for children to develop an understanding of the world around them.

See Play Kitchen

Wooden Animal Figures

Animal figures can be used for heuristic play with younger children, while older kids can use them for imaginative play, creating stories and understanding the animal kingdom.

See Wooden Animal Figures

Wooden Farm

How many stories do you know that were set on a farm? What tales could your child tell with this simple small world set?

See Wooden Farm

Wooden Train Set

Train sets can be a fantastic tool for both heuristic and symbolic play. Younger children may enjoy simply pushing the train along, exploring through schemas, while older children delight in creating a world for the characters to inhabit.

See Wooden Train Set

Stacking Toys

Stacking toys, such as wooden rainbows, teach seriation. It’s the skill of knowing that things go in order, from smallest to largest, from widest to thinnest, from 1 to 10 or from red to orange to yellow to green.

See Stacking Toys

Final word

Choose the right toy and you offer more than just entertainment. You challenge your child to think and to learn.

And the best part: it’s all done through play - and not a worksheet in sight.