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The mind of a child is an amazing thing. During the first three years of life, their brains develop rapidly, creating 1 million new neural connections per second 1. It is during this sensitive period that positive social and emotional experiences lay the foundation for future growth and learning. And what is one of the best ways to gain these experiences? Through play!
Play is often dismissed as something fun that all children do or is overlooked as something less important than structured academic learning. What many people don’t realize is how much learning takes place during play and how many important skills are nurtured within the context of creative and imaginative play.
In this blog, we will discuss the research-backed connections between play and learning, what types of learning and skills children gain through play, and how educators and caregivers can foster the development of these skills through guidance, environment, and activities. We will also include resources and a fun downloadable activity, just in time for Halloween.🎃
Play and learning are interrelated. Play gives children the space to process formal instruction, opens their brains to creativity, provides problem-solving opportunities, and gives children independence.
As a whole, research proves that creative play helps to develop and strengthen children’s emotional, cognitive, and social skills while fostering their capacities for problem-solving, perspective-taking, empathy, compassion, and resilience. Creative and imaginative play further promotes and enhances concentration, self-control, and regulation – all critical in achieving academic, social, and personal success throughout life.
Through creative play, children gain independence by pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion. Play allows them to internalize important concepts and act them out in enjoyable ways that focus on the process of learning, not the product. During play, children are able to process and work through their emotional and social world when faced with daily experiences or new events.
"There are many definitions of "play," but when thinking about young children's play, it is important that it be imaginative, creative, and self-directed." - Dr. Donna Housman.
Play is an activity that children take part in for the sake of enjoyment as a way of engaging with and making sense of their environment. In other words, the value of play is in the process itself, rather than any external goal or reward. But while play may not be focused on an end goal or product, the amount of learning and development that happens during play is remarkable.
Children are constantly learning from others in their environment, including their peers. When children are given the opportunity to interact with each other through play, they get to learn about experiences other than their own and work together to shape their own creative and collaborative ideas.
Through collaborative play, children can practice prosocial skills such as empathy, perspective-taking, teamwork, cooperation, and sharing. Children can also safely explore different social dynamics through play with adult guidance such as how it feels to be excluded, how to be a kind friend, and what to do when someone needs help.
Imaginative play sets the stage for children to explore their many different emotions and build their emotional intelligence in creative ways. Emotional intelligence consists of four quadrants: emotional identification, understanding, expression, and regulation. While children need support from trusted adults to learn these skills, they can build upon them through pretend play scenarios with their peers and with guidance from teachers and caregivers.
When children imagine and become different characters through play, and act as these characters in role-playing scenarios, we can see how they also navigate different emotional situations:
“Okay, let’s pretend that you are the baby and I am the mommy, but you’re scared because you can’t find me, so you hide behind the tree and call for me.”
“I’m the superhero and my power is that I’m super fast. I’m gonna run up to save you guys and then you all shout, “Hooray!” because you’re happy you’re not stuck anymore, okay?”
These snippets overheard while children play may just sound like fun and make-believe, but they show that children can identify different emotions, connect them to a cause, practice expressing them to communicate with others, and come to conclusions that can change the way we feel.
Adults play an important role as a guide to help children continue building these skills as they play. When teachers and caregivers model empathy and kindness around heightened emotional moments, guide children in their understanding of emotions, and respond in appropriate ways to answer emotional questions, they are in turn socializing them in emotionally intelligent ways. When children are then left to their own imaginations, this is the way they choose to interact with others.
Play can also offer an escape – a creative outlet for children to navigate challenging situations on their own terms and find strategies to help them regulate their emotions and feel better. Adults can support this by teaching strategies that children can incorporate into their play, either alone or with others.
While play is not the only important aspect of early childhood learning, it is essential. The opportunity to play provides the “brain breaks” children need to process and put their formal learning into action and fosters fundamental skills that impact several educational outcomes that more formal, teacher-directed learning does not.
Using creativity and engaging with their imagination through play also allows children to exercise executive function skills like learning new things, practicing what they have previously learned in new ways, following multi-step directions, and building memory retention.
Play can be a powerful tool for supporting children’s problem-solving skills. As we have highlighted before, creative play allows children to safely explore various challenges and social dynamics in imaginative ways that can help them in real-life scenarios.
Through imaginative play, children take on different character roles and responsibilities, encounter obstacles they need to work through together, and even disagree with each other on how an idea should continue. They learn valuable skills like negotiation, compromise, and conflict resolution and by facing obstacles in games or play scenarios, children learn perseverance, strategy, and adaptability.
Play-based learning is child-led and teacher-facilitated. It allows educators to guide children toward meaningful discoveries, making learning both enjoyable and effective. In early childhood education settings, play is an important vehicle for learning. When children are actively involved in what they are learning in ways that they can best access this new information (hands-on, creative, and imaginative), they are more likely to retain what they have learned.
Educators and caregivers can integrate play with different learning areas, including math, literacy, social-emotional learning, engineering, science, art, and so much more to make learning meaningful and fun.
Ensure a safe, inclusive space is available for all children. These environments respect each child’s experiences, developmental stages, and abilities. For example, make sure materials in the space are accessible at the child’s level, provide developmentally appropriate challenges (e.g., opportunities to practice fine and gross motor skills), and promote inclusion.
To make the space relevant, include prompts and props based on what children are currently learning about or interested in to guide their creative ideas. For example, if you are learning about the ocean, posters or images of ocean animals, an underwater scene, and a sensory bin full of seashells and sand can prompt many ocean-themed dramatic play adventures!
Include toys and play items such as dress-up clothes, baby dolls, books, pretend food, and play money that represent different cultures and countries. This way children can learn from different cultural perspectives, engage authentically with their materials, and even connect to their own cultures through play.
Rather than directing, adults should observe and guide when necessary, allowing children to lead. Asking open-ended questions while children play gives them agency over the narrative while supporting their critical thinking skills.
Here are some examples of questions that can guide children’s play without interfering:
While a great deal of learning happens during unstructured or “free play,” intentionally integrating play into curriculum activities can yield similar outcomes. Here are a few examples of play-based curriculum activity ideas, plus links to ECSEL Curriculum Library (ECL) lessons, if you could use some guidance and specifics.
Role-playing games and activities allow children to express themselves creatively and build empathy for others. Have children create their own play (or musical) based on the characters they want to be and a problem they need to work together to solve. Encourage them to describe and name their very own characters, dig deep from their own experiences to think of a problem the characters may have, and figure out ways they can solve it. Then it's time to act it out! With Halloween just around the corner, dressing up or creating your own costumes can be a fun artistic addition to this activity.
ECL Activities Promoting Pretend Play:
Many children gravitate towards the block center to create their very own vehicles, towns, and structures – a world of imaginative play can emerge from simple construction! Constructing with blocks can also build fine motor skills and help children understand shapes, sizes, and numeracy skills like counting and sequence. Tap into this type of play and encourage teamwork at the same time. Observe what children create together and how they interact with the materials.
ECL Activities Promoting Building:
Storytelling is a powerful tool that helps children identify their own feelings and those of others, practice perspective-taking, and learn from their favorite characters. When children are allowed to tell their own stories, they learn valuable literacy skills like vocabulary, comprehension, and sequencing. Play “Add to the Story” by saying “Once upon a time...” and let children take the reins in coming up with what happens next or put on a puppet show and let children decide what each character says!
Engage in dramatic play this Halloween season with our cutouts of Hemmy and Shemmy. Encourage emotional exploration and understanding through role-play! Who will you be for Halloween?
Remember, play is not just fun and games. It's a child's bridge to understanding the world and developing the essential skills they need for life. Celebrate play, and ensure it holds a prime spot in the learning journey!
About the Main Contributor: Lauren Sturtz is a begin to ECSEL educator who has worked in the field of early childhood education for eight years. She was a preschool and Pre-K teacher for five years, where she developed curricula and activities that incorporated social-emotional learning. For the past few years, she has been working at Housman Institute developing ECSEL curriculum, educator training course content and resources, and blogs about content she is passionate about, including equity and inclusion, trauma-informed teaching, and process-based, child-led learning opportunities.
For more insights, follow Housman Institute.