Play and Learning

Excerpt from Me, Myself and I, by Kyle D. Pruett, M.D.

For most parents, children’s play is just that and no more – diversion or entertainment.  Kids do seem to like it after all, and their pleasure in devoting hours to play, make-believe, and following their imaginations is usually obvious.

But to think that play matters only in so far as it brings pleasure is to miss the forest through the trees.  Play is ultimately about learning.  And all play is educational play.  One of the interesting findings in a recent poll conducted by Zero to Three, National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, is that many parents don’t fully appreciate the connection between play and cognition.  According to the poll, parents of young children significantly underestimate the power that play has in enriching a child’s learning competence.  Furthermore, they thought their role as play partner was much less important than it was a learning partner.  Not true.

The reason that children love to play is precisely because it does mean something.  They come to it very naturally from the beginning months of their life.  In fact, a vast amount of a child’s total learning comes through play, both alone and with you.  What are some of the things children learn through play?

Play and Learning, The Goddard School®

  • Children learn what is soft and hard, cold and warm, scratchy or smooth, as they touch and manipulate everything within reach.
  • Children learn what is heavy and light, as they heft and fling things about their world.
  • Children learn what is sour and sweet, as they mouth, suck, and drool their way through everyday life.
  • Children learn what is quiet and loud, pleasing and raucous, as they scream and coo, or rub and smash.
  • Children learn what works and doesn’t work, as they pull and push, fit, stack, and destroy.

One of the most important things they learn through all this tireless trial and error is how to connect events, feelings, thoughts, and learning together into experience and to file it away in their brains under certain symbols.  This all starts to happen well before they have command of spoken language.  Simply stated, through play, children learn to symbolize their experience.

The enrichment of learning by play, and vice versa, also holds for the quality of the child’s relationships.  Research tells us that kids who are securely attached to their caregivers are better players and hence, by our reasoning, better learners.  Children who have received consistent high-quality care, both emotionally and physically, who are talked to and listened to, and who have observed those around them involved in respectful interpersonal relationships carry their security – their self-confidence and feelings of self-worth – into play with others.