A little boy sits in a quiet room, the chiming music of an “educational” app piercing the air. His parents let him play just a little longer, then an hour longer, because they believe he’s learning through play.
A teacher colors and cuts and laminates little game pieces late into the night. This is a lot of effort, but her students will learn grammar skills through playing the game. Sometimes learning through play takes a lot of preparation!
An exhausted mom drags the camping equipment out of the basement. She sets up the tent, cuts a river out of blue felt, and gathers sticks and rocks for a pretend campfire. She tops off the fire pit with pieces of red and orange tissue paper. “This will make an awesome play experience for the kids. They are going to learn so much!” She thinks to herself as she heads to bed for too-few hours of sleep.
“Children learn through play!” This idea is widely accepted but vaguely understood. We have these grand ideas of what learning through play looks like for our children, but I think that we too often miss the mark. Play-based learning has little to do with the opportunities we can create for children, and everything to do with them just exploring, just enjoying childhood.
Friends, in gentleness I want to tell you that we have this concept of play-based learning all wrong.
Play-based learning is not an app that we present or a well-thought out game that we prepare. It’s not even a Pinterest-worthy play scenario. Academic pressure creeps into childhood way too early. These unrealistic standards have caused us to twist and contort play so that it fits grown-up needs and not children’s needs.
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Play-based learning is child-led, unstructured play.
But organised games are not play in the sense we have in view. Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair; and in these affairs the elders must neither meddle nor make.” Charlotte Mason, School Education, pg 37
Through this kind of play, children decide what to play and how to play it. They might sit quietly alone, creating a little world in the dirt, or run back and forth raucously with friends. This beautiful type of play is what is truly beneficial for little ones. This kind of play helps their physical, social-emotional, and cognitive growth.
But so often, we find it hard to trust that our children are capable of learning without our intervention, without our perfect planning.
Learning through play is child-led. Children decide what to play. Should we play with our children? Absolutely! But you don’t need to entertain them.
Learning through play is unstructured. There is no, “You have to follow these rules to play.” Children explore social and physical boundaries when they have time to play freely.
Learning through play is fun! When children have ownership of an activity, they are usually more engaged. You might even consider sending your child to the Little Thinkers Center to encourage creative learning.
Learning through play contributes to physical, social-emotional, and cognitive growth. Sometimes adults don’t see the value in activities unless children are learning something tangible, like their letter sounds or number values. But free play allows children to develop skills that are extremely important for their healthy development.
This isn’t to say there’s no room for structure.
Sports and lessons and even learning games can have a place. But they should be the icing on the cake, and not the cake. If our children want to learn the alphabet, we can teach them the alphabet in a playful way. If our child shows an interest in a sport or skill, a practice isn’t going to hurt them. But when most of our children’s time is scheduled with “playful” activities, they are missing out on real, brain-building, character-growing play.
And the best place for this kind of play?
With screen-time and packed schedules, children spend an average of four hours outside each week. Let that sink in. They spend half the amount of time outside as their parents. (Source.) The bulk of a child’s day should be spent in active play. Angela Hanscom, author of Balanced and Barefoot,, recommends that toddlers and preschoolers should have five to eight hours of unstructured, active play each day. The bulk of that play should be outside.
Let’s bring back childhood for out children. Let’s give them the gift of time, and the freedom to play!