play-learnOverview: Some parents I work with tend to think that you need to have your child sit down to do a worksheet or flashcards to learn their letters, shapes, numbers, and colors. This isn’t true. A child learns best through play, and today I’m going to defend my case on how to play and learn at the same time.

Welcome to the Learning Through Play Series where we are exploring everything you need to know about play. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series.

  1. The Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play
  2. The Importance of Sensory Play
  3. Play & Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?
  4. 6 Stages of Play
  5. 7 Types of Play
  6. Imaginative Play: What You Need to Know

Sorry, but I’m going to start by bragging a bit, but I promise I have a valid point to my bragging. Sicily is 23 months old. She can identify about 12 different letters and knows their sounds. Counting to 12 is a daily occurrence in our house. She can identify all her shapes and most of her colors. She gets yellow and blue mixed up almost every time.

But let me tell you this secret, she has NEVER done a worksheet, NEVER seen a flashcard, and I’ve never formally taught her these things.

So how does she know so much as such a young age?

Let’s talk about our daily Tot School activities. Are you ready for this?

We play! Simple as that. I do plan activities around a theme/interest, but those activities are not sit down activities. They are hands-on and relate to her interests. I don’t ever force her to do an activity either.

Once I introduce the activity, she gets to choose whether to do it or not. Many times she chooses not to do it, but I’ll place the activity on the shelf and she will eventually do it a few days after I’ve showed her how.

The first letter Sicily learned was the letter S. We were outside playing with sidewalk chalk, which was not on the plan for the day. I never had the intention of teaching her letters until she was about 3, but as we drew I wrote her name on the sidewalk. I pointed to the letter S and said “This letter is S. This word says Sicily. Your name starts with S. S says /s/.”

That was it! About a week later, we were taking a bath and I had foam letters in the tub. Sicily found the letter S and said “Lee (Sicily), S, /s/” Now it’s her all time favorite letter and she points out every letter S from here to our destination.

Almost everything she knows, has been taught to her this way. I just casually mention it through her play and she learns.


Learning Through Play

So what exactly is play? According to Oxford Dictionary  play is when a person “engages in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” For our kids, it’s so much more than something they enjoy.

Play is where a child makes sense of their world, practices skills, develops self-esteem and helps them figure out how things fit into their lives. Play also teaches them HOW to be a learner. Yes, play is enjoyed by a child, but it’s also their work.

Related: Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play

To children, playing and learning go hand in hand. They are not separate, and we should not treat them as separate things.

It’s important to trust a child’s play instincts. When they get time to free play, their brains are full of information. Free play is like their drop off zone. It’s a time to process everything they experienced and figure out how it can work for their lives.

Learning through play is more than learning the academic skills like letters and colors. It’s also the best place to learn problem solving skills, social skills, and critical thinking skills. Which in my opinion are more important skills than the academic ones.

How Does a Child Play and Learn?

To a child, they don’t realize they are learning while they are playing. This is why I preach hands-on, play based learning activities in young kids. When they don’t feel pressured to learn, it becomes enjoyable. When learning is enjoyable, they develop a strong love of learning at a young age, which will be a great motivator for them to learn as they get older.

Related: A Hands-On Toddler Curriculum

No matter what the child is playing, they are usually hitting all learning domains. Let me give you some examples of how your child is learning through their play.

Cognitive Development- Building with blocks teaches them problem solving skills, critical thinking skills, and how to plan ahead.

Language Development- Through various pretend play settings, you child is learning different vocabulary. A vet office uses different vocabulary than an airport.

Physical Development- Playing outside fosters all of the gross motor and fine motor skills from kicking a ball to picking up sticks.

The best way to foster learning in your child’s play is to let them experiment. They need to be the guide in their play if you truly want them to learn the important skills.

But what about those academic skills? How can they play and learn academics?

play and learn

It’s all about adding it in naturally and planning play based learning activities. As your child is building blocks, you can count each block as they put it on the tower. As your child is preparing you dinner in their kitchen, you can say “I love apples. Apple begins with the letter A.”

You can also plan fun activities that are based around play, but have an academic learning side to it. Sicily loves to run, so I add academic concepts into her love of running.

For example, during a color matching game Sicily likes to run around the chairs after making a match. To her, it’s a fun game to take the colors for a run before putting them in the basket. Who said a matching game had to be done sitting still?

How to Support Playing and Learning

Yes, you can sit in a chair and do nothing, and your child will still be learning through their play. But there are ways to support your child through their play to help them learn at a deeper level.

1.Plan around interests

When we plan play based activities around their interests, we see a deeper connection to the concepts being taught.

A parent had mentioned a few weeks ago that their child had no interest in their play kitchen and wanted to know if their was anything to do before throwing it away. My suggestion was to take her children into the real kitchen and let them help.

After just one time being able to help mom in the kitchen, both her kids love the play kitchen now and use it daily. Why? Because after experiencing the real life kitchen, cooking became an interest to them. When they go to their play kitchen they are acting out what happened in the real kitchen and learning problem solving skills, math skills, and vocabulary.

2.Be a supporter

You become the child’s puppet during their play. Trust their play instincts to guide them to learn. Follow along and offer support. You have three main jobs as a supporter in their play.

First, do what they say without a word. Don’t tell them how to play, even if they are not playing the “right” way with a toy.

Second, you ask questions to develop a deeper understanding and get them to think through situations. Download the play question guide to help you think of questions that will extend your child’s thinking.

Third, model something if needed. If your child is frustrated or has no clue what they are doing and asks for help, then model what they are asking. If they can’t figure out how to make a tower of more than 5 pieces, you can model how to have a stronger base. After modeling, let them be to keep experimenting.

When we give them time to experiment and discover something on their own, we are giving them the chance to learn about something more deeply. When we give them the answers or show them how to do something before giving them time to explore, we are robbing them of the opportunity to learn something on multiple levels.

So yes, your child can play and learn at the same time. They learn faster and at a much more deeper level when we teach through play.

Happy Playing…and Learning!




To learn more check out this Ultimate Guide to Playtime from Mom Loves Best.