Learning Is Play, and Play Is Learning

Two-year-old Olivia was busy collecting sticks at the park. She lined them up end to end and walked along the long line she had made. 

Her grandmother walked next to her and pointed to each stick while counting aloud, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. You found six sticks!”

Olivia smiled and shouted, “Found six!” Then she ran to the playground climber.

This story, shared by an amazing grandma I know, is a great example of how young children learn. Olivia’s grandmother didn’t set out that morning with a math activity in mind. Instead, she made the most of Olivia’s play and embraced a chance to introduce counting while Olivia was focused on having fun. 

It turns out research supports this idea: Children learn best when they are enjoying themselves, engaged and challenged. 

Here are some quick tips for making the most of everyday play with your child:

  • Follow your child’s lead. Let your child’s curiosity lead her play (within limits, of course). An afternoon spent creating structures from blocks and boxes teaches your child much more than flashcards and activity books ever could.
  • Use math and spatial language. Research shows that using math language, even with children as young as 14 months, helps them understand math concepts such as counting and spatial awareness later on. Like Olivia’s grandmother at the playground, use counting in your child’s play. You’ll find that spatial words also come up a lot as you put the teddy bear on top of the chair or as a child pushes the car under the table. You can describe measurement concepts as you play, such as tall/short, big/bigger/biggest, wide/narrow and warm/cold. Patterns also come up as your child explores materials: “Ah, you made a pattern. You laid the blocks in a line: red, blue, red, blue.”
  • Explore feelings. Play creates many natural opportunities to talk about emotions. If you are pretending to put a baby doll to sleep, you might say the baby is “scared” of the dark and think together about ways to make her feel comfy. Using feelings words with children helps them learn how to describe their emotional state, understand the causes of feelings and practice soothing themselves.
  • Create playful art. Little hands love to draw, paint, mark up sidewalks with chalk and squish play dough and clay. Giving children opportunities to create art not only builds their creativity and problem-solving skills but also helps to strengthen the muscles in their fingers to prepare them for writing later on. Remember to focus on art where there’s no right or wrong result instead of projects where your child’s final product “should” look a certain way.
  • Let your child struggle. We might think that solving problems or encountering obstacles is a frustrating hassle — and it is, for most of us. But for children, the process of finding a solution to their problems often becomes part of the play itself. So before you jump in, take time to watch. If your child is persisting, let her keep going. If she’s getting frustrated and overwhelmed, step in with a suggestion or an idea. Then let her decide on a path forward.

Children are born with the drive to learn and grow. We don’t have to teach young children to be curious or motivate them to explore and discover. Instead, our most important job as parents is letting them play their way into learning. 

For more about supporting children’s learning through play, read about our Balanced Learning® approach

At Primrose Schools, we balance purposeful play and nurturing guidance from teachers to encourage curiosity, creativity, confidence and compassion — traits that help children excel both in learning and in life.

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