“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” -Fred Rogers
How to Foster Play That Encourages Learning
How often have you sat your child down to work on letter recognition? Or felt guilty that you didn’t find time in your day to work on numbers? Or worried that your child’s lack of enthusiasm for these activities will make things difficult for her down the road when she enters school?
It’s natural to want to give your child a strong start academically, but often the way we think we have to do that is by emulating what we assume goes on in school. Sit at a desk, fill out a worksheet, drill drill drill a new concept. More often than not, this ends with kids who have even less interest in learning than they started with and parents who are frustrated and worried that their kid will fall behind before they even get started.
If you can relate at all, the quote by Mr. Rogers should come as quite a relief. Kids don’t need hours of structured learning time to get in all the topics they need to learn. They don’t need nagging, stressed out parents who would really rather be doing something else anyway.
Play is a child’s work and it teaches them innumerable lessons and concepts that they’ll use throughout their lives, not just academically, but also socially, emotionally, and physically. How can you foster play that encourages learning? Try some of the following ideas.
Offer a Variety of Toys
There are two types of toys: Open ended and close ended. Both offer kids the chance to learn different things and because of that, it’s good to have both kinds available for your child to play with.
Close ended toys are ones that have a set end point. There is a specific purpose for the toy. Examples of close ended toys include puzzles, shape sorters, and books.
Open ended toys do not have a specific purpose and can be used in many different ways. Examples of open ended toys include blocks, dress up clothes, and doll houses.
Although structured, parent-led play can be a great way to help your child focus on specific skills or concepts you want him to work on, it’s very important that your child frequently gets to direct his own play. Kids learn best when they are fully engaged and a child who is doing something he loves will be fully engaged.
Just because you allow your child to choose an activity, doesn’t mean you can’t steer it in certain directions. If your child only wants to play with cars all the time, consider the questions you can ask to expand her learning beyond her normal play.
Some of the questions you might ask include:
What game are you playing with the cars? How many cars are there? What colors are they? Where are they going? Can you put them in two equal lines? What are some similarities and differences between the cars? Would you like to make a car out of playdough or paint a picture of one?
Expand on Your Child’s Play
To continue with the example of cars, you might suggest that your child build a town for the cars to drive around in. Your child can use creativity and imagination to create buildings and roads. You can help your child’s pre-reading skills by printing off well-known store and restaurant signs to include in the town.
Whatever your child chooses to play, there are ways to expand on it to help foster the learning of a variety of skills and concepts.
Invite Other Children Into Your Child’s Play
While independent play is an important skill for your child to learn, it is just as important for him to learn to play with other children. In the early years, this might look more like kids playing different things side by side. This is called parallel play and is a precursor to associative and cooperative play. Playing with other children, whether through parallel, associative, or cooperative play, helps kids learn vital social skills.
While structured learning time can work for a child who is interested and engaged in that type of process, if you find yourself struggling with your child to get her to do that type of learning, consider taking a step back. Instead watch her play and try out a few of the strategies listed above. You may find that she is learning more from simple play than you realized.