When Kids Are “Just Playing”

Learning Through Play

By Kristina Zeier


Just Playing


Have you ever considered that when children are building a tower out of blocks or rolling cars down a ramp or having fun with pretend babies that they may be doing more than “just playing”? What if while building with blocks they are actually learning to construct by becoming more spatially aware and learning about balance? What if by rolling cars up and down ramps they were actually seeing the cause and effect relationship between gravity and rolling objects? What if through rocking baby dolls they were actually practicing life skills and scenarios they’ve observed in the world?

Whether we know it or not, learning is happening through play! Some obvious ways that learning occurs is through table activities, worksheets, circle times, etc. But don’t underestimate the in-between moments—those are just as important, if not more. Young children are mindfully soaking up absolutely everything around them. Unstructured play time is so important for children to learn in a unique way. Children are not built to sit, they are meant to explore and experience adventure. Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and speaks about thoughts of babies—it’s very fascinating!

“…they’re just learning how to count. But unconsciously, they’re doing these quite complicated calculations that will give them a conditional probability measure. And the other interesting thing is that they’re using that evidence to get to an idea, get to a hypothesis about the world, that seems very unlikely to begin with. And in studies we’ve just been doing in my lab, similar studies, we’ve show that four-year-olds are actually better at finding out an unlikely hypothesis than adults are when we give them exactly the same task. So in these circumstances, the children are using statistics to find out about the world, but after all, scientists also do experiments, and we wanted to see if children are doing experiments. When children do experiments we call it “getting into everything” or else “playing.”

When children are young, play is their work. There are ways we can encourage growth and be a part of children’s learning through play. One way is to actively and intentionally set up activities through the day geared toward learning, which may be easier than you’d expect! Setting things up is only half of it, however. Asking questions, participating in conversation, and listening scaffolds learning and is the follow through that really makes a difference.

Here are some examples of activities that directly impact a specific area of development:

Cognitive Development:

  • solving puzzles
  • going for a walk and observing weather
  • counting your fingers, pieces of chicken nuggets, rocks—anything!
  • having opportunities to stack or nest objects, such as cups
  • making simple patterns to copy using objects, such as buttons
  • developing hand-eye coordination through coloring

Social-Emotional Development:

  • being able to self-identify by looking at family pictures and naming everyone
  • make a self-portrait while looking in the mirror
  • singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” using all the emotions
  • learning cooperation through pretend play
  • developing mobility of thought through dress-up

Physical Development:

  • learning balance through walking on a low beam
  • using a jump rope, learning to focus their viewpoint
  • riding a bike
  • running around
  • crawling, jumping, skipping, etc.

Playing is critical to brain development. Play helps a child learn more about themselves and the world around them. Play also helps a child understand how they fit in. Take these many moments of play as opportunities to teach and observe. When children play they don’t even realize they are learning, but they will remember it forever.

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” -Fred Rogers
Just Playing

About the Author

Kristina Zeier loves every aspect about being an Early Education teacher. Kristina is in her sixth-year teaching at Monarch Christian School and feels incredibly blessed to be a part of the heart behind the school. Kristina helped start the Early Education program at Monarch and helped open the Infant/Toddler center. Kristina loves to learn and develop herself as an educator through professional and self-development. A growing understanding of the importance learning has during these critical years excites Kristina to create a thriving environment every day.

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