Play: Where Learning Begins

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When I was a child, play was an everyday, spontaneous experience. It was the most important part of everyday, in fact. We did not have to have “play dates” or have to go to activity centers to get together with friends. We did not have to worry about the neighborhood watch or how long we were outside without parental supervision. The world has changed since I was young, but the importance of play has not changed. 

Play is where learning begins.  Play is one of the first experiences children encounter in their lives.

I remember when I was a child and spent hours playing in the neighborhood with my friends.  All of us would play into the evening often being called in by mom well after dark. We would pretend to be Charlie’s Angels and Nancy Drew, saving lives and solving mysteries. Our play was very involved, using every part of the neighborhood and even our homes as the play spaces.

Our antagonist was usually imaginary as we only wanted to play the heroes. We would incorporate our daily problems into our play and often toss around answers until we found the best and most lucrative solutions – even if we knew they would not work out in the “real world”. I remember having a blast and feeling free without a care in the world.

The importance of play begins as young as when children are infants, such as when they participate in the give-and-take of interactions with the people around them. Batting at hanging toys and shaking rattles is play.

For toddlers, although solitary in nature, play becomes more serious by actively exploring the toys and materials in their environment. Preschoolers are masters of play as they interpret and imagine the environment in creative ways. Often, preschoolers will mirror the world they see every day and show us the most interesting side of ourselves. Of course, school-age children are the rule followers, constructing the boundaries of games and play with the most complicated logic.

Play follows us into adulthood with toys which cost a fortune and hobbies that engage us for hours. We never stop learning through play.

If play is where learning begins and we never stop learning through play, then what do we learn? Why is play so important to development when we are children? How does play impact the developmental domains we use in planning – physical, intellectual, language, emotional and social?

  • Physical – Play allows children to coordinate and practice their large and small motor skills. As children grow and use their muscles in more complicated ways, children can practice balance, hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness by playing with materials in their environment.  They will learn where and how they fit into the world around them.
  • Intellectual – Play provides children with opportunities to solve problems and seek answers to questions in a safe and supportive atmosphere. They observe, act on and learn from their experiences. Children will learn letter recognition and writing skills by creating menus for the pretend restaurant or making signs for the cars and roads. Children will learn math concepts, such as counting, ordering, classifying and patterning, by building complex block structures.  Children will ask questions and predict answers in dramatic play when they create a replica of the neighborhood grocery. Children will also learn those intangible skills of cooperation, imagining and organizing just by interacting with other children on their own terms.
  • Language – Play offers children a risk-free opportunity to experiment with communication.  There is no risk as they use new words, make up words, use gestures, ask questions and make demands. When children play with children, language is needed to keep the play going, so even non-speaking children will devise methods to communicate with their friends.
  • Emotional and Social – Play allows children to socialize with others encouraging self-regulated behavior. In play, children see themselves reflected in the reactions and interactions of the other children, often providing a new self-awareness.  Learning about emotions and how to regulate feelings occur spontaneously as children negotiate playful interactions. 

Although children learn these skills and many more, true “play” is often forsaken for “learning times” or “academic experiences”. True “play” is spontaneous and open-ended. True “play” is on a child’s terms.  Adults may participate, but children are in charge in true “play” experiences.  True “play” is where learning begins.

I remember true “play” when I was a child. I learned what I can do on my own and when I needed help.  I learned how to communicate my emotions positively and how to take care of others.  I learned how to solve problems and experiment with new ideas and creativity. I tried and failed in relationships and with skills, but learned to keep on trying. The academic skills I needed for school were woven throughout my play learning almost as much from my friends as from my teachers. Most importantly, I learned to love learning and questioning.  I have never stopped learning and see myself as a lifelong learner.  For me, play is where learning began.  

External links provided on Rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced.

Mary has been an active member of the Early Childhood Education field for 25 years. She has a Bachelor's degree in Speech Communication from the University of Illinois and a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education Administration from National Louis University. Mary has taught children ages 6 weeks through 12 years in for-profit and not-for-profit early childhood programs and has over 12 years of experience in Educational Leadership and Training. Currently, she is a full-time instructor and Early Childhood Program Coordinator with Rasmussen College and serves on the Board of Directors for MnAEYC-MnSACA. Mary was also awarded the Minnesota Career College Association Instructor of the Year Award in 2012.

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