It’s no secret that kids love to play, but there’s much more to play than having fun. In fact, play is an excellent way to learn, both in structured and unstructured environments, according to education experts.
“In addition to promoting curiosity, exploration and creativity, play provides children with the opportunity to practice important executive function and self-regulation skills like paying attention, inhibiting their impulses and remembering and updating information,” says Stephanie Jones, a professor of early childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
Play is the work children do when they are developing, says Karen Aronian, an educator and parenting expert in New York. “It’s the bedrock of understanding,” she says. “In play, children are practicing the roles and skill sets of their burgeoning literacy, inventiveness and interconnectedness.”
Because it’s so important developmentally, many classrooms across the country incorporate play. Here is what play-based learning looks like in preschool, kindergarten and the early grades.
Learning Through Play in Pre-K
Play has long been a vital and recognized way that children grow and learn, says Katherine Green, who serves on the affiliate faculty at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
“It has been shown to have a direct positive influence on literacy and mathematics and supports the growth of social competence, confidence and self-regulation,” Green says.
In preschool, play is learning, and experts say that classrooms should be set up to allow children to engage with toys and materials in ways that they direct and control themselves. This allows for increased creativity and engaged learning, Green says. For example, make-believe restaurants or shops in a classroom setting allow children to play with written materials like menus, shopping lists or recipes. Even if they cannot read, it initiates a rudimentary understanding of language.
[READ: What Is Reggio Emilia Education?]
“Children who are pretending to shop in the classroom store expand their knowledge of literacy, math and their social world,” Green says. “These early playful learning experiences set children up for a lifetime of improved academic outcomes.”
In pre-K, children are beginning to learn the basic social and emotional skills needed to share, take turns and wait, skills that are required for success in peer interactions and schooling, according to Jones.
“These foundational skills prepare children to engage in increasingly complex play with their peers in kindergarten and the early grades,” Jones says.
Learning Through Play in Kindergarten
Active and child-led learning does not stop when children enter kindergarten or first grade, Green says.
“Not only do academic skills increase in the early grades, but socio-emotional development does also,” she says — and play is a vital component. “Play has been found to help skills that enhance negotiation, problem solving, perspective taking, role taking, cooperation, social understanding and so much more.”
In kindergarten, play becomes more organized around games with rules that are more competitive, says Ruslan Slutsky, a professor at The University of Toledo who specializes in early childhood education, language development and children’s play.
“Playing whole-group games as a class is a fun way to break up the academic portion of class,” he says. “It does not mean the play cannot be about learning, but making it more playful gives kids a mental break and promotes learning in more fun ways.”
Learning Through Play in the Early Grades
Even into the early grades, children learn well through play, says Elizabeth DeWitt, a senior instructional designer and curriculum specialist at Learning Without Tears in Maryland.
Experts say what often works best for children is connected learning using multisensory strategies and different materials, with opportunities to explore and use their imaginations. That means students should be actively engaged rather than sitting still for extended periods as they practice math and literacy skills in a more structured setting.
“Children cannot help but remember the concepts being taught when the teaching experience involves seeing it, building it, singing or dancing about it, having a snack related to it, hearing a story read aloud (about it) and then having a discussion or doing dramatic or pretend play related to it,” DeWitt says.
How Parents Can Facilitate Play
Every moment is a teachable moment, according to DeWitt, and there is much that parents can do to facilitate learning through play.
“The best thing parents can do to facilitate play-based learning at home is to play with their children,” she says. “Be involved in what they are doing. Actively playing with your children is healthy for your whole family and can build stronger relationships while learning and having fun together.”
Rusty Keeler, who designs playing environments and has written several books on play, says parents should provide their children with open-ended opportunities for play at home. Inside, that could be dress-up clothes or blocks. Outside, it may be sand, flowing water or loose materials like sticks, rocks, building materials and even old kitchen supplies for children to use as they like.
Keeler says the key is for kids to have time, space and freedom to play however they choose.
“Set up a corner of your living room or the backyard where they can play,” he says. “My own backyard is a mess, it’s like an anarchy zone. There are loose materials for my sons to just mess around with, it’s not tidy — the plants are going crazy — but that invites in grasshoppers and butterflies and worms and squirrels to just create the richest environment for learning.”
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
More from U.S. News