What is Learning through Play?
Learning Through Play (LTP) is a term often used by childcare professionals to describe the way that children take on and absorb knowledge as they enjoy their environment, toys and other people. Children’s play takes enormous energy and commitment, and they put their entire selves into it – no child plays by half measures, and they’ll often get frustrated if they sense you’re not giving it your all too! LTP allows children to bring together ideas, feelings and physical abilities to test what they know and how they understand the world.
Why is Learning through Play so important?
Play is not the only way children learn, but it is a central part of a child’s development. Play is an important way for children to gain essential skills and knowledge, and then coordinate that learning. As children play, they are learning, exploring, problem-solving and gaining an understanding of the world and their role in it. It is the foundation of development for physical, cognitive and emotional skills (how they move, think, feel and respond) and is the best way for children to begin to make sense of their world in a self-motivated way.
How does LTP benefit physical development?
Physical development is divided into two – gross motor skills and fine motor skills. As a child’s body grows they must develop the ability to control the complexity of all that their body is capable of doing. Gross motor skills incorporates using the large muscles in the body for walking, jumping, running, hopping, climbing, while fine motor skills focuses on more precise movements relating to catching, throwing, using cutlery and writing. Whether children are playing group games outside, or focusing on playing with something more intricate as an individual, they are continually developing dexterity, flexibility, balance and stamina, as well as spatial awareness.
How does LTP benefit cognitive development?
By cognitive or intellectual skills, we mean the development of a child’s ability to think, reason and figure things out. This encompasses memory, critical thinking, cause and effect, the development of senses, perception and language. Play encourages children to pretend, create and imagine, which in turn feeds into their curiosity and need to explore. They are continually brainstorming, making decisions, reasoning and forming new ideas (conceptualising). The constant chatter that often accompanies a child as they play is the beginnings of them working out a way of communicating all those ideas to other children.
How does LTP benefit social and emotional development?
Hand in hand with communication comes the need to relate to others – to share new thoughts, ideas and concepts, and learn the art of compromise. Emotional and social development includes feelings and awareness about themselves and others, the ability to interact with other people of different ages, as well as the formation of self-esteem, confidence and identity. Playing with others allows children to understand, express and process their emotions, together with developing empathy and perspective. Through play, children learn to respond to body language, facial expressions and vocal tones, as well as learning to accept social expectations and rules.
Do all children play in the same way?
Children learn through observing and imitating others, starting from the day they are born. Babies and toddlers use their senses, movements and other people to explore their environment. They enjoy contrasting colours and textures, and like to experiment with simple puzzles, sorting objects and learning object permanence (that an object continues to exist even when it’s out of sight).
As they get older, up to the age of five, children are striving for independence. They can create structured, self-driven, imaginary play and the ability to use objects as symbols for other things begins to develop (e.g. this bowl is my hat).
Between five and eight years old, as children become increasingly socialised, the ability to play together, in teams and in extended games over many days develops. The pretend themes become more elaborate, using more people, props and continuing narratives (e.g. this bowl is my hat, and you are a naughty wizard who wants to steal my hat).
Up to the age of twelve, play becomes divided into hobbies, games and creative pursuits and is informed by all-encompassing passions and interests (e.g. we are filming a movie about a wizard who wants to steal a hat, because the hat is magic and it will let the wizard take over the world).
How can you help your child to play?
It is a popular assumption that all children know how to play, but in fact children learn to play in the same way they learn other skills. They are very open to seeing how their environment and the objects in it can be used, but will often observe older siblings, peers or carers, before they begin to explore themselves. Children need to have first-hand experience of something before they can use it in their play.
Carers can often feel frustrated when they present a child with a new toy or game, only for the child to be more interested in the box or the wrapping paper. If they’re not shown what the new object can do and how exciting it can be, they will naturally gravitate towards something they have seen, experienced and had fun playing with before.
To this end, providing lots of choices and plenty of time is important, so a child can really ‘wallow’ in their free-flow play. Try not to bring your own concerns and anxieties to the play – dirty clothes can be washed, mess can be cleared away and chores can be done in a hurry. What is important is fully involving yourself with your child’s play for the dedicated time you can give to it. Encouraging your child to help you put away, organise and tidy their own play space is a good way of bringing the play to an end. Even setting an alarm for a special period of playtime, then ending with a snack and a tidy-up will provide you both with some quality time to begin learning through play.