Play based learning is the main focus of many child care centres, and the benefits are huge. Kids learn numeracy and literacy skills, they learn about language and patterns, they develop ways to regulate their emotions, and they develop a sense of creativity and imagination. All skills that we want for our tiny humans.
What is play based learning?
Kids make sense of the world by exploring their surroundings, interacting with other children, getting dirty (thank goodness for stain remover) and manipulating objects such as cars and blocks. Rather than sitting down for a lesson in how to share for instance, they learn to share by actively engaging with other people. They learn what it’s like when people share with them (or not!) and this helps to form pathways in their brains for learning.
There are four main areas of play based learning. Sensory play, dramatic play, manipulative play and cognitive play.
Here is a description of each, and some easy ways you can facilitate play based learning at home.
Children use their senses to explore the world. All that squashing, smearing, picking up, and moving is a terrific way to strengthen the little muscles in your child’s fingers and hands. Sensory play improves their manual dexterity, meaning they’ll have a stronger pencil grip when they’re older.
Open-ended play such as playdough or a sandpit to explore is a great way to get little minds thinking outside the box. There is no wrong way to play with it, they can just have fun.
Need a simple play dough recipe? In a jug, combine a cup of water with a tablespoon of oil and a few drops of food colouring. Pour this into a bowl with 2 cups of plain white flour and 1 cup of salt. Mix well with a wooden spoon, adding more flour or water until the consistency feels right. Place onto a floured surface and knead until smooth. ‘Are you going to roll out the dough and make cookies? Or should we make a family of worms?’
2. Sand play
Even if you haven’t got space for a sandpit, you can set up a fun sand play space on the kitchen table. Find some clean sand at the hardware shop and fill a big wide tub. Add dinosaurs, figurines, sticks and leaves – anything goes! ‘Let’s see if the trucks can pick up this sand and move it over to the beach!’
3. Finger painting
If you haven’t got a garden to paint in, make your own non-toxic paints to use indoors. Add blobs of plain yoghurt to some plastic tubs. Mix in food colouring and use your ‘yoghurt paint’ to facilitate finger painting that won’t stain clothes or little fingers. ‘I love the colours you have chosen for your painting. Can you cover the whole page?’
Dramatic Play Does your child love to play pretend? This is a fantastic way for them to develop their language skills and try to solve problems.
4. Dressing up
Kids get such a kick out of dressing as an animal, a grown up, or a super hero (even if it’s just a tea towel pegged to their shirt!). They learn to play with others, develop conversation skills and allow their imagination to run wild as they play a role for a short time.
5. Playing with dolls, trucks, figurines or puppets
When children give a voice to their doll, car or toy, they’re again learning how to be more sociable. They learn the natural flow of conversation, asking questions, listening and sharing. You can get involved by getting down on the floor and taking part in the game.
6. Pretending to be adults
By taking on the role of the grown up, children learn problem solving skills. ‘I’m shopping for groceries. What shall we have for dinner tonight?’ They love pretending to be Mum or Dad, and you can have fun by letting them wear some glasses, a tie, or one of your old shirts while they pretend to be you. Why not swap roles and you can pretend to be the child? Manipulative Play Develop your child’s thinking skills and fine motor skills by encouraging them to play games like these.
7. Counting games
You don’t need any fancy equipment for this one. Grab a bucket of pegs, plastic cutlery, soft toys, or anything you have plenty of. Use the items to encourage your child to make groups of two, four or five. Older kids can be asked to count how many pegs are in the tub, or how many bricks go up the wall? Little ones can help you count items of clothing as you fold the never-ending pile of washing. Kids also love helping you divide up treats between the family. ‘If there are 8 crackers, how many do we each get?’ Make counting part of everyday life to encourage a love and understanding of numbers.
Don’t put those pegs away! Can you ask your little one to make a pile of blue, a pile of red, and a pile of green pegs? You can find ways to make sorting fun using everyday items. ‘Can you tell me which apple is the biggest? And which is the smallest?’
Cognitive Play Teach your child to be able to recognise patterns, classify, sort and make sense of the world.
There are puzzles for all ages, and they allow children to develop critical thinking skills. The fine motor skills required to make the pieces fit the frame, or fit together, are a great way to get ready for manipulating pencils and paintbrushes. Puzzles help kids learn to keep trying until they get the right answer, a valuable skill for them to have in day to day life. Want to combine cutting skills with puzzles for the older kids? Print out some of your photographs on A4 paper, or use old images from calendars. Using a ruler, draw four or five lines on the picture, which you will then cut out (or assist them to cut them) to make the puzzle pieces. Kids get a kick of making a puzzle using a photo of them with Grandma!
Walk into any child care centre and you’ll see kids on the floor building creations with blocks. You can facilitate this at home with some chunky wooden blocks for little ones, DUPLO style bricks for the toddlers, or LEGO style blocks for the older kids. ‘Can you build a castle for your dinosaurs with these blocks? Can we use the LEGO to make a stable for the unicorn?’ Again, open ended play with no right or wrong ways of having fun can help encourage your child’s brain development. Time to get busy playing!