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The Importance of Play-Based Learning in Early Childhood Development

As parents, educators, and caregivers, we all want the best for the children in our lives.

We want them to grow up happy, healthy, and successful.

But did you know that one of the most important things we can do for their development is to let them play?

Play-based learning has been proven to be an essential part of early childhood development, helping children to develop key cognitive, social, and emotional skills that will set them up for a lifetime of success.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of play-based learning, the different types of play, and how you can incorporate play into your child's daily routine.

So, whether you are a parent, teacher, or caregiver, read on to discover how you can help the children in your life thrive through the power of play.

What is Play-Based Learning?

In short, it’s simply learning while playing. For instance, when a child places a coloured shape into the correct hole in the play cube, that is play-based learning.

But it’s so much more than that.

Placing toys out for children to play with, does not count as play-based learning. Toys, materials, and items must be strategically chosen that will allow the children to learn a skill through the activity, through the play.

Play-based learning is child-centred. The children must choose what activity they would like to participate in, this allows them to take an active role in their own learning and development.

No one wants to be forced into an activity they don’t want to be a part of.

Traditional learning methods often focus on rote memorisation, while play-based learning focuses on exploration, experimentation, and discovery.

While traditional learning methods can be effective in some contexts, play-based learning has been shown to have a number of advantages for early childhood development.

Play-based learning is more engaging and enjoyable for children, which can help them develop a love of learning that will last a lifetime. It is also more flexible and adaptable, allowing children to learn at their own pace and in their own unique way.

Examples of Play-Based Learning Activities

Let’s take a look at a few different types of play-based learning activities that parents, educators and caregivers can use, and see how these promote early childhood development.

# Pretend Play

Also known as dramatic or role-play. Pretend play allows children to explore different roles, scenarios and imaginary worlds, helping them develop their imaginations and social skills. This can include activities such as dress-up, puppet shows, and pretend play with teddies/dolls/characters.

Top Tip: Role-play is a big insight into how the children are feeling.

Oftentimes, children will act out their fears and worries, or something they are unsure about. It’s easier for the teddies to ask awkward questions than the child. If you are worried about what a child is thinking or feeling, play pretend play with them.

It is important to stay in character - giving the answer you want through the actions and words of the character you are playing. This will separate you from the actions and words, allowing the child to be more open with the character and releasing their fears, emotions and worries.

# Sensory Play

Sensory play focuses on exploring the children’s senses. Activities that stimulate their sense of smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing all contribute to the development of cognitive skills.

This can include activities such as sand and water play, play dough, finger painting, smelling different scents and tasting different food.

Toddlers love sensory play - yes it can get messy. But don’t let that be a reason for a shorter length of play.

Toddlers love seeing cause and effect, what’s opposite, and concepts of things. For example, water play allows children to explore what floats and sinks. Painting teaches children the effects of mixing colours together.

# Constructive / Block Play

Block play involves building and constructing using various items such as Lego, play-dough, magnetic tiles, blocks etc. This type of play helps children develop their spatial awareness, problem-solving, and engineering skills.

Activities can include building bridges, towers, and cities. It is the process of construction that is important, rather than the outcome.

# Outdoor / Active Play

Outdoor play involves exploring and playing in nature - helping children develop their gross-motor skills, physical strength, and social skills.

Activities such as running, jumping, hiking, riding bikes/scooters, gardening, and playing on playground equipment all contribute to active play.

Children learn their own limits and abilities through active play. If they are needing some support (e.g. with balancing, climbing, kicking a football etc) it is much easier to teach them these skills while playing alongside or with the children.

# Social Play

Interactions and engagement with other children are classed as social play.

Not all interactions need to be children playing with each other (engaging in activities/games together); but can also look like parallel play (playing alongside another with different intentions) or coordinated play (working towards a shared outcome).

Social play allows children to develop sharing skills, teamwork and empathy. Playing alongside or with other children supports emotional regulation, builds positive relationships and creates an understanding of body language.

# Games with rules

Following on from social play, games with rules allow children to understand logic and order, where self-regulation is required to follow the steps rather than following their own personal needs.

Children will learn why following rules is important and how not everyone can win - developing fairness, honesty and respect.

The Benefits of Play-Based Learning for Early Childhood Development

We have looked at some of the benefits of play in the above section ‘Examples of play-based learning’.

Now let’s take a look at how developmental areas are linked to playing.

[We have included an example of the type of play that is linked to each development. Please note, that development is not limited to that one example]

# Cognitive Development

Play-based learning can help children develop important cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

When children play, they use their imaginations to explore new ideas and concepts [block play], which helps them build new neural connections in their brains. This can lead to better memory retention, improved attention spans, and increased intellectual curiosity.

# Social and Emotional Development

Play-based learning can also help children develop important social and emotional skills, such as empathy, communication, and self-awareness.

When children play together [social play], they learn how to share, take turns, and work collaboratively. This can help them develop strong relationships with their peers and build a sense of community.

Play can also help children learn how to regulate their emotions, express themselves in healthy ways, and cope with stress.

# Physical Development

Play-based learning can also help children develop important physical skills, such as hand-eye coordination and balance, as well as fine and gross motor skills [outdoor play].

When children engage in physical play, such as running, jumping, and climbing, they develop their muscles and improve their overall physical fitness. This can help them stay healthy and active throughout their lives.

The Role of Parents and Educators in Promoting Play-Based Learning

As parents, educators and caregivers, we can create an environment that encourages play-based learning. Providing children with opportunities for free play and open-ended exploration will allow children the opportunity to learn while playing.

Here are a few tips and examples of how to strategically set up a play-based learning environment.

  • Ensure plenty of resources and materials are available for children to explore

This can include toys, games, art supplies, recycled materials such as cardboard, and other items that allow children to express themselves in different ways.

It is worth noting that too many toys can overwhelm a child and can have the opposite effect you are trying to create - ultimately teaching them a skill. Instead, place a smaller variety of toys out and rotate them every so often.

  • Encourage free play

Free play is unstructured playtime where children can explore and create on their own terms. It is an important part of play-based learning, allowing children to develop their imaginations and creativity.

Top Tip: Free play is not an adult being lazy - children need the time to freely express themselves without the pressure/restrictions of an adult. An adult can be near a child and observe him/her in their play, assessing what they are capable of and what they may need more support with. E.g. a child may show an interest in playing with dolls but is struggling to put the clothes on the doll.

Playing with, and alongside the children, will model the socially acceptable way to play. For example, it is not acceptable for one child to knock down another child’s tower - the adult can then pursue helping the child rebuild their tower, showing empathy and collaboration.

Adults can also model how to play a game or activity - don’t think that the children automatically know how to do something. Instead of telling the child to put the coloured pom poms into the correct cups, why not show them?

  • Incorporate Play-Based Learning into the curriculum

Play-based learning can be incorporated into a variety of educational settings, including daycare/childcare settings, preschools and primary schools.

Educators can use play-based activities to teach important concepts and skills, such as maths, science, and literacy. By incorporating play into the curriculum, teachers can create a more engaging and enjoyable learning experience for children.

Staff at Lucky Beans Childcare have had training on how to plan for effective child-led play-based learning.

In conclusion, play-based learning is an essential part of early childhood development. It helps children develop important cognitive, social, and emotional skills that will set them up for a lifetime of success.

By incorporating play into our daily routines, we can help children learn and grow in a way that is engaging, enjoyable, and effective.

Whether you are a parent, educator or caregiver, you can play an important role in promoting play-based learning and helping the children in your life thrive.


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