Learning through play

The Importance of Play for Children 

Children learn through play and supporting this learning in those critical first five years of life is one of our most valuable jobs (and pleasures) as a parent.  Children play to learn about the world around them, testing theories, being creative, using different muscles and extending their imaginations.  They learn who they are and how the world works, developing many skills and building strong neural pathways in the brain.  Remember how hard it was to catch a ball? Probably not, because you now have a very strong connection built up over many experiences. A baby’s brain triples its weight in the first three years of life and then only increases by about another 20% by adulthood. It is such an exciting time of life, watching our babies learn something new every day!

In our Life Choices workshops, we discussed how children sometimes need to be shown how to play, having a parent play alongside for a little while until the child has the confidence to play alone.  At other times, children can be left to decide for themselves how they will play. Toddlers will often ‘check in’ for reassurance and then continue happily playing.

Play can be organised activities with specific toys, however, play can also be stacking and dropping things, pulling items, hiding items in and out of objects, as well as outside activities like playing on the playground or simply collecting leaves, sticks and pebbles. Unstructured play where children are free to investigate or use their imagination is often most valuable.

We looked at how toys can foster or inhibit learning including how to make sure a toy is developmentally appropriate for the child.  Children can play with the same toy in different ways as they grow older.  Some of the best (and most economical toys) are ones that have an extended play life.

Another tip we discussed was rotating toys around.  Often too many toys can be overwhelming for a child and having them all out at once can make them fade into one big mess.  Having a few storage buckets and rotating the toys every month or so helps keep a child interested.  You might find that they will find new ways of playing with the toys when they see them anew in a few month’s time.

Home made toys and toys made from recycled materials are also a great idea to keep your child interested.  Empty containers and spare (safe) kitchen equipment make a great pretend cooking session.  Playing in the bath with old containers and a kitchen sieve or funnel is just as good as using fancy bath toys. We made stacking cups with old yoghurt containers, scarf holders out of old Pringle cans and hacky sacks out of an old, odd sock and rice.

Play can also take the form of sensory play.  From small babies feeling the texture of the blanket underneath them to toddlers making lovely messes with finger paint or smearing shaving cream.  We made a few different types of play dough with different scents and added texture using rice and coconut.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to value the place of play in your child’s life and encourage and support them whenever they need it.  They will feel happy and safe and their confidence will grow stronger every day.