Learning is Child's Play

Free play is a wonderful way for children to learn important things by using their personality and imagination.

It’s free play time at the community child care centre. Sixteen-month-old Hailey* is crawling through the tunnel of the play structure. Two-year-olds Arash* and Matthew* are moving their construction trucks through the sand box. Three-yearolds Myriam* and Anton* are playing pizza parlour. The children are having fun and they are learning valuable skills.

Children learn to play naturally. Play can help children learn the skills they need to do well at school and later in life. For example, when Hailey crawls, climbs and jumps in the play structure, she’s developing gross motor skills. Arash and Matthew are learning problem-solving skills by building their sand box construction site. The stories and situations that Myriam and Anton are creating in their pizza parlour are helping them lay the base for learning to read. Playing with other children teaches them social skills.

Unfortunately, many children today do not get enough time for free play. Families lead busy lives with many structured activities. They may not have suitable, safe play spaces in their homes. Their neighbourhoods may have too much car traffic or parks with out-dated and dangerous equipment. Also, some parents and people who work with children don’t recognize the value of play and may try to get children to learn in a more structured way.

Parents can help ensure their children get play time that is fun and will help them learn. Here are some ideas:

  • Provide long, uninterrupted periods (45-60 minutes per day minimum) for free play.
  • Provide space for free play. Parents have to supervise children’s play, even in safe places. Find a room or part of a room that can get messy and that doesn’t have sharp or breakable objects. For outdoor play, find a park or open area where children can play safely and get lots of physical exercise.
  • Provide a variety of materials that will stimulate different kinds of play. These don’t have to be expensive toys. Blocks, cardboard boxes, sand, clay and water can be tools for learning to problem solve and to be creative. Dress-up clothes and props (plastic dishes, menus, play money) can encourage make-believe play. Balls, obstacles for climbing and open space are ideal for active play.
  • Let children lead their play. Play along with them, but don’t take over. Take a few turns down the slide. Help them load a dump truck with sand. Pretend to be a customer in their make-believe store.
  • Encourage play with their friends. When children get frustrated in their play, give them a hand or help them find an easier activity. Also, they will enjoy playtime better if they’re not tired or hungry.
  • Children who are 3 to 4 years old may enjoy games that use words (rhyming games), singing, and numbers (Snakes and Ladders). Playing these types of games sets the stage for learning reading and math in kindergarten.
  • Find out about play at child care. Ask the child care practitioner questions about the time, space and materials she provides for playtime. Parents can find out what type of play their children enjoy at child care. Then, talk about their play, and show an interest in it!

* not real names

Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development (CEECD)

The mandate of the CEECD is to foster the dissemination of scientific knowledge on the development of young children with an emphasis, but not exclusively, on the social and emotional development and on the services and policies that influence this development.

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