The Importance of Playtime In Children’s Learning

Playtime is often considered as the opposite of work – like a pause in a kid’s learning. In fact, it’s quite the other way around. Through playtime, kids learn, especially in the early years of their development. This is when they construct their perception of the world through play. 

At first, babies explore the world through their senses. They discover themselves and others around them, touch their mother’s face, hair and grab any object that is within reach. This is the first form of play. 

There Is More to Playtime Than Meets The Eye

In the first two years, this is how children learn. They have two ways of playing, both crucial for their development: 

  1. Playing with adults; they need to have the adults’ full attention, hear them talk, sing, smile, laugh, tell stories   
  2. Playing with objects, either alone or with other children

After these first two years of life, kids transition to the more elaborate, symbolic type of play.

This is where they “take off” into imaginary worlds full of heroes and villains, ponies, princes and princesses. It is the play-pretend phase, which still boggles the mind of some adults. 

In this and at this age, children need to learn and make sense of the real world around them. However, all they do is spend a lot of time in these imaginary worlds of fairies. Why? 

Imagining different worlds and visualising distinct and varying outcomes – that’s one of the most compelling traits of the human mind, and we also use that as adults.

Through Creative Play, Kids Learn How to Be Themselves

Free and creative play is crucial to a child’s social and emotional development. In this day and age, we might tend to be too strict about when and how our children play. This way, they will not get to manifest their own desires, their own voices. They will receive from the outside what, when and how they need to do things and will not get the chance to act according to their intuition. 

Children need free time to play. It is very simple, yet sometimes it seems so difficult. We must allow our children to take their time and discover themselves. In free and creative play, they learn to be themselves.  

However, spending hours on an iPad or iPhone might not be an ideal free play activity. 

Trailblazing pedagogue Friedrich Froebel, who opened the first kindergarten in 1836 for children under the age of 7, was one of the first true advocates of learning through play. The right to play is also ensured by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  However, the tight structure of our day-to-day busy life and school schedules might have had a significant impact on the free play time of our children. 

Froebel’s Teaching Principles

Friedrich Froebel’s teaching principles promote a particular connection with nature and still provide the basis in today’s educational practice. There are eight fundamental principles: 

  1. Unity and connectedness 

Children learn in a very holistic way. They take it all in, the information about the world and nature out there, the understanding of their own feelings, and other people’s emotions. That is why it’s better if play and learning are not compartmentalised for young children. It would be best if you let them discover on their own.

  1. Autonomy 

The best learning is in the doing. What is more, kids tend to acknowledge the learning process as they become part of it. 

  1. Childhood is valuable

Childhood is not merely a phase in learning. Play begins at birth, and it should never cease. Remember that saying? – “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” – that’s about it. 

  1. Relationships are crucial 

Children’s social and emotional development begins from their relationship with their parents, carers and extended family.  These relationships affect everything, from play to the learning process.

  1. Creativity and symbols 

Children should be encouraged to present their ideas in their way. Through the second phase of play, they learn to make and use symbols indicating their thoughts and ideas. Two and three-year-olds can pretend an object is something completely different from what it is. Their puffy teddy bear becomes their best friend. More than that, they begin interpreting simple drawings and learn how to use elementary maps, images and models. 

Happy kid playing toy robot at home

As they grow up, all these objects will become more and more nuanced and abstract. But you have to remember, it begins from a very young age, from simple things lying around. They’re not just toys; they become symbols for the little bundle of joy. 

  1. Adults should offer children “freedom with guidance” for a fruitful play-learning context 

The main principle in Froebelian education is that children should be allowed to make time to play with minimal guidance so that they’re safe. Playtime will help children achieve new levels of thinking, imagining, feeling and enable them to access their inner world.  

  1. Experiencing and understanding nature

This is an essential component of the Froebelian teaching practice. Children should play outside as much as possible and discover the world through lived experience. This way, they can become aware of the interconnections of all the living things in the world. 

  1. Facilitating and guiding, rather than teaching

Learning from a young age can only be associated with play, and it needs to be a guided process, not dictated. 

Play Based Learning is at the Core of Pre-Primary Programmes

We all think we know what “play” is.  We’re all too familiar with that adage – “Work Hard. Play Hard,” but that’s merely a justification of working too hard. 

We also see children on the streets, in classrooms, on the playground, in their neighbourhoods running around, laughing and seemingly having a good time. From a first glance, they are enjoying themselves and unfortunately that’s considered the opposite of learning or doing something “meaningful”. 

There is this distinction, in our culture, that free and enjoyable time should be the exact reverse of work, studying, doing “meaningful things.” We tend to assign some of that thinking to our little kids’ schedules as well.  That can be damaging to the idea of free, meaningful play and pre-primary learning. 

Yes, this “meaningful play” we’ve been going on about so far is difficult to define. However, researchers have agreed on three key characteristics: 

  1. Children have most of the control over their playing experience
  2. Children have the initiative of their playful journeys
  3. Children take an active role and make their own decisions

So, meaningful play in early childhood is vital as children make sense of the world around them and learn to express themselves. It brings joy and motivation. It is engaging and challenging, as you will see the children having to combine a series of mental, verbal and physical skills. More than this, play is active; it is always about “do”, “practice”, “discover” –  all these lead to fun learning activities for kids. 

The 7 Main Childhood Development Domains 

 There are seven domains of early childhood development: 

  1. Gross Motor – learning to use all the large muscles in their body for crawling, walking, running, jumping, skipping, climbing etc.
  1. Fine Motor – learning the basics of hand-eye coordination; those chubby, clumsy hands will have to learn how to listen to their “master” by throwing things, tearing paper, colouring, drawing, playing with dough, etc. 
  1. Language  – Talking with your child about all sorts of things is essential. Even though the little ones won’t be able to read or speak for a few years, they will start developing a specific phonemic awareness, trying to mimic your words. 
  1. Cognitive – it includes deducing cause-effect, reasoning and some simple, fundamental math skills. Even when your child is annoyingly dropping a spoon to the ground for the 10th time, he is learning and checking his cause-effect deduction that you will pick it up every time. 
  1. Social and Emotional Development – playing with others is a skill in itself that the little one will learn; this also includes manners and the ability to make friends from a young age
  1. Self-Help– includes the daily activities that make the child independent, like using the toilet and feeding oneself. 

All these developmental milestones are interconnected, and playtime creates terrific learning opportunities across all of them. 

Specific Learning Opportunities Through Play

When kids make time to play, they develop skills in all areas of development. When playing with toys and other children, they will choose to share their toys and agree to work together towards a shared goal. 

Playtime will always present unforeseen challenges that stimulate cognitive skills. For example, when playing with building blocks, and the larger ones are missing (probably tucked under the sofa or bed). In this way, they are exercising their cognitive power to make that large building using only the smaller bits. Rather than looking for those missing blocks, you should encourage them to find a solution independently. 

They will want to show you their “work”, so you should appreciate it and pay attention to it. We know it is not always possible, but it is also imperative for your child to feel appreciated. 

Our children don’t just play because they say, “Oh, I’m still a child, so I’ve got no work to do, and I’ll play all day”. Their play is their work. It’s their fire, their means to grow up.

Knowledge is acquired through playful interactions. Before we learn to work with abstract concepts and complex symbols, we need to touch the simple objects around us. 

The pretend play games, like playing house or market, are the means to expressing their ideas and feelings. They will play with others and probably get in one or two conflicts, so they’ll have to resolve these conflicts independently and try to control their emotions. It would help if you guided them but without solving their disputes. Don’t take them by their hands and tell them to “Apologise”. Try to lead them to that outcome from afar. 

Various research is backing this up. As part of their play, children pretend to be an imaginary character or have an imaginary friend and regulate their emotions to fit that character. They can, almost instinctively, consider how their actions would correlate with those of their character and act on them. 

Playtime also teaches leadership, resilience, and courage to navigate the social challenges as they present themselves. Moreover, it can also help children conquer their fears and their doubts by playing with their imaginary friends. 

Learning Through Play Is Way More Complex Than It Looks

Let’s break it down here in specific developmental milestones, games and how these specifically help your child. Your child should have a bit of every type of play, explained in detail below. 

Active Play 

This is the kind of play that involves the gross motor we discussed above. It includes running, walking, chasing after something, playing hide-and-seek, learning to ride a bicycle, dancing, playing with a ball, searching for Easter eggs, jumping or digging for treasures. 

Your child must have the opportunity for active play. It is crucial for their health, sense of independence, and physical development. 

There are dozens of things you can do: 

  • Go for a walk
  • Plan for a long walk around the neighbourhood where you can also talk with them and show them their world
  • Ride bikes
  • Dance together
  • Hang out in the back garden, maybe buy a gardening set for kids and have a go at that 
  • Go on a treasure hunt for natural materials like rocks, sticks, shells etc.
  • Collect rocks 
  • Play ball
  • Play tag
  • Explore

There are countless possibilities. You need the initiative if it doesn’t come naturally or if you don’t have an outdoor play space at your disposal.  

Dramatic and Imaginative Play

Role playing games and dressing-up games are at the core of developing social and emotional skills.  They allow for interactions, negotiations and decision making in a set social context. 

These games are challenging, but as we were saying above, kids need to be watched from afar, guided, but not helped. They will have to learn to control their emotions, reduce impulsivity, deal with the stress of expressing their feelings. In the long run, they will cultivate empathy and a sense of fairness toward their peers.

You can also help with their role playing games by providing authentic materials like simple dishes, brooms, dustpans etc. You will have to be very careful in this case, yes, and a few broken plates might result from these, but your children will appreciate the actual value of that. 

Happy parents playing with kids

Another aspect to consider here is the competition. Your children might compete with each other, and when they succeed, they will feel more confident. Losing is tough, so you need to guide them towards dealing with a loss.. And let’s face it, this is something, not even us as adults always master. So, let’s hope our little ones will learn how to lose. It’s crucial in life. 

Cognitive Play 

This happens across all kinds of children’s games. Paying attention, thinking, remembering, problem-solving – all these are part of a kid’s playing activities. They will need to employ their power of imagination and creativity and learn to deal with concepts such as colours, measures, shapes, numbers, drawn symbols, even early letter recognition. 

Literacy and Numeracy-involving Games

This involves scribbling, painting, drawing, learning about stories (the word formats on a page, the beginning, the plot, the characters, the sense of purpose). 

It also includes learning to operate with symbols. 

Kids playing puzzle education concept

You should make sure that you allow your child to experience all these types of play and that you guide them silently from the side while they discover themselves through play. 

Teaching Through Playtime 

Educators who abide by these concepts are employing a broad series of play based learning opportunities. They are not precisely structured lessons; they are more about experiences. 

You can encourage your children’s learning through playtime and help educators do their job well by: 

  • Providing them with the right open-ended resources like blocks, boxes, crayons, geometric shapes, different objects that they can draw or turn into symbols
  • Encouraging them to foster their creativity by challenging them, for example, to turn a cardboard box into a car
  • Planning the following play experiences together
  • Observing them while they play, so you can understand what areas they’re most skilful in, how they get along with other children, what other activities might strengthen their development further on
  • Joining the play when asked, or by your initiative to model your child’s skills, teach him letters, positive behaviours, reasoning
  • Letting your child play for significant, uninterrupted times, just with your supervision
  • Constantly sharing information and your observation with your children’s educators so you can plan together based on the child’s interests and abilities
  • Seeking more exciting play spaces in the community

As you can see, there are many possibilities and learning opportunities when it comes to playing.  For your little ones, that is “serious work”, as they are figuring out the world and making sense of everything around them.  As you go to work, they are playing. It is equally important, and their little endeavours should be celebrated and guided attentively from the side.  More than anything, give them space and time to play.

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