Play-Based Learning: How Children Learn Through Play

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In your search for fun activities to do at home with your kids you might have come across the concepts of play-based learning or learning through play. You may even understand that it has to do with your children learning while they play. It seems ideal, but you might be skeptical. How do children actually learn through play? Is there anything I need to take into account? Do I just let them play without any involvement? Here we will try to clarify some of these questions and offer an understanding of how you can engage with your kids through play. 

play based learning through play how do children learn through play

What is play? 

Let’s first clarify what play actually means. The general understanding of the term play is that it is child-led, open-ended, process-oriented (no end result in mind), unstructured, enjoyable, and make believe. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC): “The impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world”. Therefore, we can assume that if children are trying to understand the world, they are also learning about it. So let’s take a look at the elements involved in play to see how this might actually be happening:

Child-led and unstructured

Limited adult involvement means children have to figure stuff out by themselves. This can lead to many different scenarios involving productive struggle, trial and error, and repetition. All these scenarios drive learning. Also, children are naturally curious, and this curiosity drives their learning. It is important to clarify here that adults can obviously play with their children. But for it to remain child-led, the adult has to meet the child at eye-level. We should become play companions with our kids and not take over or try to direct toward a specific outcome.

Enjoyable and make-believe

We learn better when we associate positive feelings to the experience. Early childhood is all about having fun and following our imagination. This fuels our intrinsic motivation, which moves learning. 

Open-ended or process-oriented

If there is more than one answer, more than one way to do things, we need to get creative and use problem solving or critical thinking skills to reflect on what we are doing. In addition, there is no judgement or frustration if the end result is not achieved. When we don’t associate negative feelings with what we do, we tend to repeat. Both repetition and motivation are key elements for learning.

The Learning Through Play Spiral

So to make things even clearer we have created a learning through play spiral that will help clarify how this could be happening:

learning through play sprial how children learn through play

Why a spiral? Because learning is not a closed circle, it doesn’t stop and start. It builds on itself, like a spiral, which can keep going and going, as opposed to a circle that just goes around on itself. Bear in mind that this is a possible scenario and that it doesn’t always necessarily happen this way. We wanted to provide an illustration of how learning through play is possible. Remember that play is open-ended and learning is just one of the many outcomes. Also, sometimes play is just playful and fun, and that is ok too.

Inspirational quotes about learning through play

So now that you understand a bit more what it means to learn through play here are some wonderful inspirational quotes: 

“When a child is doing something she’s passionately interested in, she grows like a tree – in all directions. This is how children learn, how children grow. They send down a taproot like a tree in dry soil. The tree may be stunted, but it sends out these roots, and suddenly one of these little taproots goes down and strikes a source of water. And the whole tree grows.” John Holt

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” John Dewey

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who wasn’t motivated to figure things out, to find the answers to personally relevant questions. However, I’ve met (and taught) plenty of kids who aren’t motivated to sit quietly and listen to someone else talk or to memorize the definitions of a list of words. That lack of interest doesn’t suggest an absence of motivation (to be remedied with carrots and sticks) but a problem with the model of instruction or with the curriculum.” Alfie Kohn

“Self-directed learning does not mean no adult involvement. It means no adult force/control.” Carol Black

And how can we as parents support their learning through play? 

Now that you understand how children learn through play you might wonder how to encourage this at home. It’s simple. By offering an environment that fuels their natural curiosity. An environment that motivates them to discover the world at their own pace and rythym, in a fun way, and with a bit of a challenge. We can offer open-ended activities that have learning opportunities and that require little to no adult involvement. These types of activities are some of the ones we focus on here at a STEMful mind. Our activities usually have some adult involvement but the idea is that we as parents guide through observations but leave the exploring and experimenting up to our kids. So if you are up for it go ahead and check out some of our favorite activities:  

Further reading to understand how children learn through play

If you are interested in the topic of play-based learning or learning through play here are some articles that will help you better understand what we talked about in this post:

Happy and Playful STEM Learning!

how children learn through play quotes play based learning

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