Early child development experts tell us that play is the best way for young children to learn about the world and build a foundation for future academic skills. This is convenient since play is a child’s favorite past time! Studies tell us that play-based activities often result in more learning than instruction-based activities for young children.1 So why not try some easy ways to teach your child through play?!
10 Ways to Teach Through Play
Let’s look at how parents, caregivers, and teachers can optimize playtime to ensure children learn while having fun!
1. Value play as a learning experience
When parents understand that play has value as a learning experience, parents are more likely to set up creative and engaging play experiences for their children. Play must be regarded as beneficial versus just a fun time. This way, parents make time for it and support it with age-appropriate toys and experiences, such as visiting the park, playing outside, encouraging messy play, and forts in the living room. When parents value play, it often becomes more meaningful and interactive for the child. These early social play experiences provide a foundation for many future learning experiences.
2. Provide a lot of opportunities for play
Play happens everywhere. For young children, you can turn every experience into a fun game. Think about how you can make even mundane activities more fun if you playfully approach them. Sing songs while getting dressed, set a timer during clean-up, and make it a competition. While walking outside, play I-spy. Parents might sometimes need to plan ahead to create playful experiences, such as printing out a picture list for young children at the grocery store so they can play “Who can find the item first?” Parents can also establish a color, letter, and number of the day and then try to find it all day long while running errands. Keep score and designate whoever finds the most the winner.
It is also important to provide age-appropriate toys, items that can be turned into toys with some creativity, and make time for children to play independently.
3. Balance free play with structured play
Young children need a variety of structured and unstructured play every day. During structured play, adults are involved in setting up the play and engaging in the child’s play. During this time, parents and caregivers provide the materials with a certain goal in mind. For example, a parent might set up a water table with measuring cups and measuring spoons to teach simple math skills. The parent would then engage in the play with the child to guide the child to some higher-level skills by making suggestions such as “Let’s see how many tablespoons of water make a cup” or “Which cup has more water in it? How do you know?” This is sometimes also called goal-oriented play.
It is also important that children get a fair amount of unstructured play every day. Unstructured play is open-ended play that helps the child develop creativity and problem-solving skills independently.
4. Get in on the action
Play is often more fun with a partner. Even during unstructured play, parents can jump in from time to time. Offer to play one or two rounds of hide-and-go-seek, play in the fort for a few minutes, or join the kids on the trampoline. This encourages social interaction, communication, and collaboration. Play just for the sake of playing. Sometimes, making your child laugh and have fun together without teaching anything is fun. This is also great for bonding and establishing trust.
5. Set up play dates
Teach through play with the help of other kiddos! Children benefit from interaction with other children. Playing with other children builds social interaction skills, empathy, and collaboration. This is when children learn to share their belongings, and they learn to share ideas and learn from each other. Often when children play with slightly older children, they learn higher-level skills from observing the older child’s play. Younger children will engage in parallel play first, playing side by side, but eventually, they will begin to pay attention to each other, and as their social skills develop, they will start to interact. The only way to learn these important social skills is through practice. So, set up those playdates.
For some fun playdate ideas, check out these articles:
6. Organize outside play
Children practice a different set of skills in outside play. Outside play often utilizes large muscle groups and more physical activity. This is great for motor development. Outdoor play also puts children in touch with nature, which can stimulate creativity. Think about playing outside in the backyard or visiting a playground or park whenever possible.
7. Encourage fine motor and gross motor skills through play
Toys such as LEGOs and building blocks encourage the development of coordination and fine motor skills of the hands. Obstacle courses, hopscotch, and wheelbarrow races help develop large muscle skills such as hopping on one foot, jumping, and balancing on a balance beam. Since higher-level skills build on previous skills, children must have the opportunity to practice skills that lay this foundation. Children need core strength in their trunk, shoulders, and hips before developing hand dexterity and coordinated walking and running. By providing opportunities to develop these large muscle skills, children will have a strong foundation for future fine motor skills.
8. Get daddy involved
Some research shows that daddy’s involvement in play with young children has a larger impact on future learning than mommy’s involvement.2 It may be because daddy tends to be more physically or actively engaged during play. But positive interactions with daddy definitely lead to increased learning potential! So take a break, mom, and let dad teach through play today!
9. Talk and interact during play
Children learn their vocabulary from their parent’s and caregiver’s vocabulary. By talking to children during play, parents can provide a large foundation of vocabulary for young children. Parents can narrate the play, ask the child questions, and help children come up with make-believe play to continue to stimulate creativity and language.
10. Bring joy into play
Make it fun! Make your baby’s belly laugh and set up fun experiences you can enjoy together.
Play is not only fun, but it is a young child’s job. By making play joyful, meaningful, engaging, and safe, we can teach young children many skills that will be beneficial later on.