Learning Through Play AT HOME

Updated: Sep 11

So, we’re safe at home with our little people, overwhelmed with the information overload of news reports and social media posts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) about COVID-19 and what working and learning from home is currently looking like for every family out there! You ask yourself: How can I get through this? What is the right way to do things? The answer to that question is this: there is no right answer! This looks, and is, different for every educator, child, and parent, for every home, and for every scenario. Please know that you are already doing what you need to be doing! Your child is not missing out on vital learning; there is vital learning happening at home that is going to set them up with a strong foundation for lifelong learning! It’s okay... children learn through play!


As a parent, I might ask the question, ‘what does “children learn through play” mean? What does that look like? What value does play hold? How can I be a partner in my child’s learning through play? How can I balance my partnership with my child’s learning alongside my daily work and life responsibilities?’


Here is a link to an article by Lauren Bongiorno that outlines 10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play…and I’m going to pull a few quotes out it!


“Play and learning go hand in hand. Think of play as a science lecture, with a lab. Play is the child’s lab!”

We grew up relatively wild and free, and had ample opportunities for imaginative, inquisitive, and innovative play! We’re pros at it, but our children are not. Our children have not had the same opportunities that we had; they’ve not been permitted to take the same risks and build that same level of complex thinking that we did. Our children don’t know what it’s like to not have cell phones, internet, and social media… today’s concepts of “social” and “play” are different for them compared to what it was for us. They don’t know what it’s like to simply go outside and play all day long, or knock on a neighbour’s door to respectfully ask (in person) if their friend can come out and play. They haven’t had to strain their brains for ideas on things to do… we’ve lovingly done that work for them. It’s okay for us to put that responsibility back on them, especially now, in a time where the world can “pause” for a moment and remember the things in life that are actually important. For decades, the importance, and joy, of learning through play has been overshadowed with the idea that children need to be “entertained”, “tested”, “scheduled”, “protected”, “over-stimulated”, which sometimes makes it hard to remember that children are curious, competent, capable of complex thinking, and rich in potential. There is a lot of research and literature out there suggesting, and supporting, that children learn best through play! Play it vital, and you as a parent play a vital role as contributor, co-learner, and play partner!


Think back to your experiences as a child and what learning may have occurred through those play experiences.


Playing with Barbies

Me aged 6, getting my Barbie ready to go for a swim

This was a favourite pastime of mine as a child (6-10 years old). I was lucky to not be in the middle of a pandemic at that time and had my little sister and friends to play with. We planned and improvised scenarios, constantly re-negotiating the storyline and setting, and re-designing our approach, props, materials, and language as we played along. I had a Barbie house, and a Barbie car, and a dozen Barbie dolls with clothing and accessories. One of the important self-determined guidelines of that pretend play was ensuring a fair distribution of clothing, accessories, and props, making sure if I used the car the last time, my sister got to use the car this time. Sometimes we created our own props with whatever materials happened to be lying around the house, and had to determine who was going to create what, and how. Sometimes we argued, but the more capable we were in navigating those peaceful waters, the longer and more joyful the experience was! We nearly always played for hours on end, until we were no longer interested, or our mom told us we had to clean it up and come for dinner! If you were a kid in the 80s, I’m sure you remember very similar experiences!


Now you might be questioning, what on earth could a kid learn from playing with Barbies, but I assure there is MUCH to be learned through playing with Barbies! Let’s break this down!


Power words that tell us learning is happening: imagining, creating, developing, acting, speaking, playing, setting, designing, improvising, negotiating, determining, planning, problem-solving, finding, collecting, arguing, navigating… and there would be many more power words to add to the list if you zoomed in on what was actually happening in the interactions and exchange of ideas and materials in that play.


What would ELECT suggest as skill development? I listed the skills (below) that I noticed were being demonstrated through this Barbie pretend-play example, based on the ELECT (Continuum of Development for children ages 5-8 years).


Skills identified from ELECT:

  • SOCIAL– 1.1 Friendship, 1.2 Conflict Resolution and Social Problem-Solving Skills, 1.3 Co-operation, 1.6 Taking Another’s Point of View,

  • EMOTIONAL – 2.1 Self-Concept, 2.2 Identify Formation, 2.4 Recognizing and Expressing Emotions,

  • COMMUNICATION, LANGUAGE & LITERACY – 3.1 Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication, 3.2 Vocabulary, 3.3 Conversing with Peers and Adults,

  • COGNITIVE – 4.1 Self-Regulation, 4.4 Memory, 4.5 Inquiry, 4.11 Games with Rules

  • PHYSICAL – no physical skills to list from ELECT, however there is definitely some fine motor skill refinement happening through this type of play


Children practice and reinforce their learning in multiple areas during play. It gives them a place and a time for learning that cannot be achieved through completing a worksheet. Play provides rich learning opportunities and leads to children’s success and self-esteem.

There is so much natural learning happening through child-directed play, and you will notice this when you take the time to really observe and absorb what’s happening. There are also plenty of opportunities for parents and educators to extend upon, and enhance, that learning by using the “Environment as the Third Teacher”.


Classifying I could set up a storage container for all the Barbie accessories so my child could classify and sort them, without my direction, or while playing with my child, we could pretend the Barbies were going to go to a clothing store and set up the “store” based on type of clothing and accessories for display.


Measuring Time – while playing with my child, I could try to negotiate turn-taking for a special prop with a time-limit and show her how to look at the clock or use a timer to know when that period of time is up.


Spatial Relations, Directions, Maps – while playing with my child, I could include spatial relations concepts, such as over, under, behind, left, right, naturally in my language through play, or create a road with tape and a map for my child’s Barbie to drive to a specific destination.


If you want to take a look at ELECT for yourself, here is the link. You can flip through to the Continuum of Development for your child’s age group and see what skills you notice in your child’s play. The document even includes some suggested interactions for educators/parents/adults and children to have to support specific skills. This will be a great practice for parents for when we return to the centre and introduce Individual Developmental Portfolios for each child! You’ll already be pros at observing and identifying your child’s learning through their experiences at home, and hopefully you will have a lot of information to share with the educators as partners in your child’s learning adventures!


I challenge parents to submit an example of one of their own favourite play experiences as a child, and an example of one of their child’s favourite play experiences. I would be happy to post them anonymously in the comment section if you don't want to yourself, and hope they inspire another family in their home! Spread the joy… learn through play!

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