Play: Supporting your young child’s learning at home

learning Apr 05, 2020

Take a moment if you can and think back to a happy childhood memory. What was something that you loved to do as a little kid? Was it riding a bike down the street, the wind in your face, going as fast as your little legs could pump those pedals? Was it building with erector sets, Legos, blocks and Lincoln logs, creating whatever your imagination allowed? Was it pretending to be a teacher, or a rock star, or a veterinarian, or a dragon, or a superhero? Was it painting at an easel, mixing colors and bringing pictures to life? Was it digging in the dirt and climbing trees and building forts and uncovering hidden insects under rocks?

For most of us, when we think about our childhood and what we loved to do as kids, we remember play. We remember joyful, unencumbered, playful experiences. Using our imaginations, being free to explore a toy or the world around us without constant adult direction. And what we got out of those play experiences was critically important to your future success in school. Through play you learned:
• how to think symbolically (using objects in unconventional way--using sea kelp as a fishing pole, for example--helped you make connections to more abstract symbols later, like using letters and numbers)
• how to think creatively and problem solve (what sized pieces do you need to make windows on the second story of your Lego building)
• how to persist through challenging tasks (how hard can you pedal that bike)
• how to organize information and connect ideas (assigning friends roles as you reenact a favorite movie together adding in new plot twists and turns)
• how to make and follow rules and get along with others (you’re only allowed to squirt people who are holding a water gun)
• And you developed a strong sense of self--you learned that you are capable and strong and brave!


Play is the most valuable experience young children have for academic learning! Those skills—symbolic thinking, problem solving, persistence, organizing information, connecting ideas, creative thinking, following social rules and having a strong sense of self—are the foundation for all learning. All young children are capable of and need independent play, so don’t feel like you need to be engaged with them all of the time. If this is new for your child, you can support your preschooler by helping them create a play plan. This gives them something to reference so they remember what they want to do during this time. It also helps them independently sustain attention on what they're doing and redirect their attention back to their chosen task.

When you can engage with your children during play, here are some quick ways that you can support their learning as they play with toys:

Young Infants
Very young infants are much more interested in watching your face, hearing your voice, and being held than in any toy. Once they can focus on objects better and hold them in their fists, they are ready to respond to the toys you provide.

Just as your baby lets you know when he is hungry, tired, or in need of a diaper change, his behavior lets you know when he is ready to play or when he is finished with one play experience and ready for another.

Here are the kinds of things you might say or do while playing with a young infant.
• Describe the experience:  There’s Gabbi, in the mirror.
• Verbalize feelings: That surprised you, didn’t it?
• Play with language: Peek-a-boo. I see you. Peek-a, peek-a-BOO!
• Describe actions: You are holding your little feet. Your sock came off!

Older Infants
Once infants are mobile, they seem to be in love with the world and fascinated by everything in it. They are immediately interested when you place a basket of toys near them and will proceed to pull out every object they can reach, dumping each on the floor and then reaching for another. Filling and dumping are favorite activities of this age-group. Any container and object (or objects) will work. They also enjoy tossing things, so give them plenty of space and soft, unbreakable toys.

Here is what you might say and do.
• Describe what the child does and what happens (cause and effect): Look what happened when you pushed the button. The clown popped out!
• Encourage the child to solve problems: Uh oh, the ball rolled under the table! How can you get it?
• Build vocabulary by using descriptive words: You decided to play with the red fire truck. It’s the same color as your red shirt.
• Promote a recognition of group needs: You put all of the blocks back in the bucket where we keep them. That was a big job, so you and your brother did it together.

Toddlers
Toddlers use toys with increasing intention. As they play, they build their physical and language skills, learn concepts, apply thinking skills, explore the world of social roles and make-believe, and learn to be a member of a group.

Here are some ways to respond to their play.
• To promote physical skills: I see that you are using your big muscles today. Thank you for helping me carry these big blocks over to the couch.
• To support symbolic thinking skills: Can you find the picture on the box that matches the animal blocks?
• Encourage perseverance: It’s hard to get that puzzle piece to fit. Why don’t you turn it around and see if it fits then? I bet you can get it to fit.
• Promote a recognition of the needs of others: You are waiting patiently for your turn with the baby doll stroller.

Twos
Talk to two-year-olds about what they want to play with and what they intend to do. Use open-ended questions to encourage them to think about what they are doing and to verbalize their thoughts—this supports their growing language skills and their cognitive process skills of organizing information and connecting ideas.

Here are some ways to interact with twos as they play with toys.
• Invite the child to talk about what he has done: Why did you arranged the cars that way?
• Describe what you see: First you used all of the rectangular blocks to build your farm. Then you added animals, and now you are adding people.
• Support social skills: Why don’t you both take the Bristle Blocks® over to the rug so you can play together?
• Promote problem-solving skills: When you put the big block on top of the little one, your building fell down. How can you build it so it won’t fall?
• Ask open-ended questions: What do you think will happen if you try it another way?

Preschoolers
As children get older their play becomes more complex. They conduct experiments, explore objects in new ways, sort and classify materials, create patterns and apply past learning in new ways. By talking with children about their play you: show that you value their work; support their learning and development; and encourage them to remain focused on what they’re doing.

Here are some ways you can encourage additional learning as your preschooler plays with toys:
• Introduce new vocabulary as children play with toys: slippery, curved, octagon, sturdy, angle, maroon, force, inspiration.
• Use mathematics terms like more, less, fewer, and same and encourage counting: You used fewer triangle blocks than square blocks. Let’s count to see how many of each you used.
• Introduce physical science concepts like balance, gravity, force, energy and momentum: That car really gained momentum going down the ramp! It went faster and faster!
• Support their emerging writing skills by encouraging them to make signs for the buildings they create, create instructions for a game, or make a menu for their pretend restaurant: You made a bakery, a pet hospital and a grocery store. Why don’t you make some signs for your buildings so people will know what they are?
• Ask open-ended questions to encourage their thinking: What do you think will happen if you try it another way?

Kai-lee Berke

Kai-leé Berke is a mother of two and a lifelong early childhood educator and author. She is a Senior Advisor with Promise Venture Studio and the former CEO of Teaching Strategies.

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