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Playing to Learn

Dear Elizabeth,
My son is two. I want him to be ready for school in a couple of years. Are there play activities that will help him learn and have fun at the same time?
Tomalynn Sexton
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Play is essential to help kids learn
  • Through play children develop skills they need to do well in school
  • Give kids time every day to engage in play activities
  • Provide a variety of materials for kids to play with
Expert Advice
Ann Barbour, Ph.D.
Ann Barbour, Ph.D.
Professor of early childhood education
Kids Learn Through Play
So many things are happening when children are playing. Play provides a safe environment for them to try out things in their own way. When children play together, they also learn valuable social skills. There are lots of opportunities for negotiating, figuring out what the rules are, who’s going to go first, how I’m going to navigate through this space.

In addition to that, they are learning how to control their own behavior, which is very important for being ready for school. So in play, children can actually act in more mature ways than they can in the real world. A child might, for instance, not be able to hold still or to control his behavior or to focus for very long on something in the real world. But he can do that in play.

Fantasy Play
In fantasy play or dramatic play, children are co-constructing their understanding of how things work in the real world. They’re sharing their thoughts and, at the same time, they’re trying to conform to social expectations. Within fantasy play, dramatic play, children need to think about those sort of underlying social rules that underlie all our social conventions. Things like communicating, listening to others, being able to appreciate what another child is doing, and thinking about sharing, taking turns, negotiating roles--all of those sort of underlying social understandings--and children have an opportunity to practice that during dramatic play.

Outdoor Play
Lots of exploration can happen in outdoor play. Children can learn about the properties of outdoor materials, such as sand, and then they’re able to explore what they can actually do with it. Children can test their physical abilities – practicing their balance and coordination and those kinds of physical skills that are so critical in learning how to interact with the environment in appropriate ways. It’s called perceptual motor skills.

Open-Ended Materials
Open-ended materials—such as blocks and other kinds of manipulative materials--are wonderful for helping children to solve problems. Obviously, children are learning together as they’re using these materials and using them to recreate their representation of reality. With open-ended materials, children are trying to figure out how they can use the materials to make something that they themselves know. Lots of fine muscle coordination and refinement is happening when children are using those kinds of materials. Working with manipulatives can help them develop skills needed later, such as writing their names.

Allow Plenty of Time for Play
You should allow a lot of time for unstructured play every day. The amount of time you allow for an activity conveys how much you value it. If you know that children are learning so much during play, then you need to give it adequate time. Large blocks of unstructured time is more conducive to help children get their playing going, to plan it, to negotiate, and to actually engage in it. So an hour is none too long.
Child Care Provider Comments
Bellina Logan
Bellina Logan
Mother of a 4-year-old
My daughter loves any kind of art or craft type of activities. She’s got a lot of creativity that she likes to express. More than anything, she’s learning a sense of her own autonomy and expression. If I suggest she draw a tree with a brown trunk and green leaves she’ll say she wants to do it her way. So I let her go to town and do what she wants to do. It’s kind of her way of writing a journal.
Rachelle Vargas
Rachelle Vargas
Child care provider for 17 years
There are several games that the kids like to play, such as Fish Fishy Cross the Sea where some kids are fish and some are sharks. The sharks run around, chase the fish, and tag them. They get to switch roles when they are tagged. Another game is Jump the River. We lay two ropes together on the ground, and move them wider and wider apart. The kids have to jump over the river. In addition to developing their cognitive skills, coordination, and motor skills, they are also learning about social skills and taking turns.
Joaquin Gurrola
Joaquin Gurrola
Cares for his nieces and nephews
My nieces and nephews love to act out their own scenarios -- they love to make up stories. It keeps them mesmerized. They set up these situations in their own way. They get to really use their imaginations. They like to dress up and pretend to be something like a pirate, princess or ballerina. They love using blankets, bandanas, anything they can find as a prop or costume. My nephews love to play with plastic swords and be pirates. They have a whole pirate world that they create when they do this. They are learning how to be creative and to use their imaginations. I think that’s very important at such a young age.

Paper Bags and Boxes Featured Activity:
Paper Bags and Boxes
Playing to Learn Featured Video:
Playing to Learn
Topic: Play & Creativity
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