Playing is Learning

Many times I have had parents mention, or ask, about their child needing to go to preschool to learn and get ready for kindergarten. Some of these parents already have their child in full time daycare. But now that they are three years old, or soon to be, they feel their child needs something more, that they are not learning enough just from going to daycare. They say their child needs structure, and all they do at daycare is play. They aren’t learning enough.

Yes Preschool Or No Preschool?

Yes, preschool is good for socialization and added learning opportunities when full day care is not needed. Children in full day care are exposed to the same learning opportunities as preschool children. However, the quality of program will be different from center to center. From my experience, more childcare centres are going towards a play based learning rather than structured (like most preschools).

As more and more studies are being done the results are proving how important it is for children to have free play. And I have seen, first hand, the amount of things children learn from being allowed to have uninterrupted play for long periods of time.

Scheduled Activities

Young children do not need to have scheduled and instructed activities, some people may argue with me on this and that’s okay, we are all entitled to our own opinion.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do think children benefit from some instructed activities like swimming, dance, gymnastics, sports etc. However, too many children have schedules that are so full they barely have any free time to just play.

Importance of Free Play

Why do I say that the free play is the most important?

It is important because children learn through playing, observing, and interacting with the world around them, at their own freewill. Rather then someone telling them “sit down and do this puzzle” to work on their fine motor skills. They are choosing what activity they want to do.

That child may love doing puzzles, however, when someone is telling them that they have to do it, the child may resist and, as a result, you could end up with negative associations because of it. If you feel puzzles (or whatever) are super important then make a play invitation (put it out and make it look enticing) and let the children think it was their idea.

No Need For Extra Toys

Children don’t need fancy expensive things, hundreds of books, or an overabundance of toys. They just need a little help from us, their parents, or caretaker.

If you watch closely you will see how every area (math, science, language, arts, fine motor, gross motor, emotionally, and socially) are covered rather quickly.

Learning Opportunities

Here are some examples of how free play is full of learning opportunities and covers so many different areas:

2.5 Year Old

Child is playing with small wooden shape blocks. He carefully stacks them one on top of another being more and more cautious the higher it gets. The tower tumbles down, his chin drops and he has a look of defeat for just a moment before picking up the pieces and starting again.

Through this simple activity the child is developing in Math/ Science (shapes and sizes, tipping point, numbers), Sensory (touch and sound), Fine motor skills, and Emotional (overcoming the feeling of defeat).

  •  “Wow, that tower is really high.”
  • “How many more do you think can go on before it falls?”  
  • “May I play too?”
  • “Do you think the square blocks work better or the rectangles?”

From commenting and asking questions the adult is prompting further development, and socialization as you carry on a conversation. Asking to join will also create more social development as child learns teamwork, taking turns, and problem solving.

18 Month Old

A little girl is playing with the same small wooden blocks. She picks one up and looks at it, turning it around in her hand to see all sides. Then she gently puts it in her mouth and then pulls it back out to look at it. She repeats this several times and tests it with her teeth as well. After that, she picked up a second block using the other hand, banged them together multiple times, and then on the table.

As she bangs the blocks on the table she starts bouncing up and down as if she is moving to the rhythm. She sees another child (or adult) stacking the blocks into a tower and carefully watches, looking back and forth at the blocks in front of her and the other person’s tower. She tries to copy and stack them up, with the 3rd block it topples over. The play finishes with her swishing her hands back and forth on the table tossing the blocks to the floor.

The same objects and the 18 month old is learning just as much, but at a lower level. Sensory (blocks in hand and mouth, testing with teeth, difference of sounds of the blocks banging together and on table), Fine motor (manipulating the blocks in hand, stacking), and Gross motor (bouncing up and down, swishing arms back and forth).

  •  “Those blocks look like a lot of fun, can I play with you?”
  • “Look at all these small square blocks, and there are big square blocks too. I wonder how many we could stack, lets count them.”

From a little bit of external dialogue the child is also learning Math (counting, names of shapes, big/small), and Social (sharing, taking turns, conversing verbal and non-verbal). If child started to bang again and the adult began to sing now you’ve covered Music as well.

Follow Their Interests

It has been proven that children retain more knowledge when they are interested in the topic. Not all children will be interested in sitting down for circle time and learning the days of the week, what the weather is, or that particular story that you’ve chosen, for example. And do you know what? That is 100% okay; they don’t need to sit down at circle time to learn about all those same things.

Prompt The Learning

It’s as simple as, when you are looking out a window, or you’re playing outside you can easily strike up a conversation about the weather. Just a couple questions and you will have their gears turning.

Because it was not forced and it happened naturally, there is a higher chance they will retain the information. A simple “Do you think it’s raining out?” as you get ready for outside. “I wonder if it’s cloudy” “I think it might be windy, should wear our coats?”

All of these prompts will make them start thinking about the weather. When you get outside continue the conversation with them.

When you start talking about the weather they will also be learning about science, for example:

  • Hot in the sun
  • Cold in the shade
  • Wind makes you cold or cools you down
  • Wind can push things around
  • The clouds move and change shape
  • Rain makes things wet and possibly slippery
  • Cold temperatures make things turn to ice

The list goes on and on. But every moment throughout the child’s day is a possible learning moment without it being structured.

When Interests Are Strong

Some parents say “My child is only interested in trains, she won’t talk about anything else.” So you use their interest to cover all areas. And remind yourself that “trains”, or whatever the interest, is only temporary and they will (most likely) not be this obsessed for the rest of their lives. Interests change, and for some young children it can change day to day.

Examples Using Trains:
  • Math –
    • count the wheels
    • how many tenders does it have
    • big train or small train
    • which one is bigger/biggest
    • what shapes can we use to create a train
    • colours
  • Social/ Emotional –
    • Playing trains with someone else
    • sharing
    • taking turns
    • conversing
    • problem solving
  • Science –
    • How do steam engines work
    • magnets
    • gravity and momentum (letting a train go down the hill and it keeps going for a bit with no help)
    • how do trains stay on the track
  • Language/ Literacy –
    • Songs
    • Books
    • Felt stories
  • Fine motor –
    • Building train tracks
    • Pushing trains along track
    • Connecting/ disconnecting trains
  • Gross motor –
    • pretending to be a train
  • Art –
    • Drawing or painting trains
    • Building a train using recycled materials

Incorporating The Areas Of Learning Into The Interest

Once you’ve figured out your child’s favourite activity (using trains as an example) you can turn anything to make it related. When talking about the weather, ask “what happens when the track gets icy or covered in snow?” When it’s bedtime, “where do you think trains go to sleep? Why?” If it’s time to eat, “how do trains get energy if they don’t eat food?”

The possibilities are endless and remember that it doesn’t always have to be the child asking why. It’s beneficial for their development if you sometimes ask them why. Instead of just telling them the answer help them figure it out. If children are able to figure it out for themselves they will retain the information better.

If you feel that your child needs to work on a particular area, then you can set out activities and let child you child come and go as they please.

Example: Fine Motor Skills

Child needs more work with their fine motor skills

  • Put out a colander and pipe cleaners with a couple stuck into the holes
  • put toothpicks into some playdough and give cheerios, or beads, for child to put onto the toothpicks. And if child puts 2 beads on and walks away leave it out for a bit, and they may come back.
  • Work on it at meal time, cut finger food up really small and only a couple pieces at a time so they have to use their pincer grasp.

The possibilities are endless and there are learning opportunities everywhere.

How do you aid in your child’s development using free play?

Check Out These Other Posts:


  1. Nick Gortman

    Howdy! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept talking about this. I am going to forward this article to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Ally Agostini

    This was very informative ! Can’t wait to try these skills and techniques out. This makes play time sound so much more exciting & interactive!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.