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How does play help kids to learn?

When I see kids immersed in play I often wonder what is going on in their head? A recent report suggests ‘play is not frivolous; it is brain building’. Play helps kids to learn. So while a pretend play scene is being acted out and soft toys given ‘check ups’, changes in their brain are happening at a molecular, cellular AND behavioural level.

Big concepts are being examined and feelings explored. So it’s safe to say play is pretty important for kids development.

Through play kids are:

  • Learning who they are
  • Building creativity and imagination
  • Gaining confidence and learn risk taking
  • Falling in love with learning
  • Developing communication and social skills


Play is essential for a healthy brain

When immersed in play the brain is building executive function, which means the process of how we learn over the content of what we learn. It allows us to follow goals and ignore distractions.

Play helps the brain to learn how to learn new things. This teaches the brain how to think, pay attention and ignore distractions.

So while you may have to ask them three times to stop and pack up know that they are not ignoring you, instead remember there are important brain building activities going on

Play helps kids learn who they are

Kids are constantly discovering who they are and where they fit in, this forms their sense of self. Play helps kids to learn concepts about themselves, others and how it all fits together.

The magical realm of role play and pretend play is where this happens. Suddenly characters from books might make their way into the game or experiences like going to the doctor or supermarket. By using personal experiences and feelings they are trying to make sense of this newness and how it relates to them.

The main ingredient here is that they are in control and can make decisions for themselves – we as parents need to step back.  Giving them space to play builds their self efficacy, which is the belief and confidence in themselves to be able to complete goals.

Benefits of play on communication skills.  Girls playing with OK!Dolls

Play helps kids learn creative confidence and imagination

A toy represents endless possibilities. Left to play freely kids will give any object a use or purpose in their play. A block could be a building, mountain or ferocious lion. The more kids get to play freely the more capable they are to be creative and imaginative

A famous study in 1973 found that when children are given objects to play freely with their creativity is exponentially increased. A group of 90 children were split into three groups.

The first group was given a pile of paper towels, a screwdriver, wooden board and a pile of paper clips and left to play. The second group was asked to imitate how the items should be used and the last group was given a piece of paper and pencil and asked to draw whatever they liked.  After 10 minutes the children were asked to come up with ideas for how one of the objects could be used

The children who were given the objects to play with were able to give three times as many creative uses for the objects than the other groups suggesting that play fosters creative thinking.

Play helps kids fall in love with learning

All play is actually learning. Even when they’re babies dropping the spoon for the tenth time in a row they are experimenting – if I drop this what happens? If I drop this again what happens? And so on until the experiment gets stopped or the baby gets bored.

But the basics of learning are NOT hardwired from birth. The brain changes in response to experience. Which is a good thing for us grown ups! Think of yourself wanting to learn something new – it may be tricky at first but you can teach yourself a new language, skill or ability. The key is practise and wanting to learn the new thing.

So it makes sense that play and learning go hand in hand. Kids practise and reinforce learning by applying it in different ways but it needs to be fun …and playing is fun. Its where the term ‘playful learning’ comes from.

Think about it like layers. Kids listen to a story and then later that day vocabulary from the story makes its way into block play. The next day while drawing something from the plot is created.

Each of these steps are created to make sense of the new learning and are fun. It’s this process of self-directed learning that happens through play that helps kids to connect the dots and build understanding. This process is fun so they want to keep doing it.

Girls playing with OK!Dolls and cardboard buildings
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