Learning Through Play
Play is fundamental to a child's intellectual, social, emotional, physical and linguistic development. It is an active form of learning that engages the senses, body and brain. Play immerses children in complex experiences. It enables them to be aware of how they are thinking and feeling, without pressuring them to achieve.
Children are likely to play in any physical environment - if the play area lacks materials or is emotionally hazardous, the nature of the play will change. As parents we can provide interesting and challenging spaces for play. Creating an environment that promotes high-quality play will enhance learning and development.
Read on for a journey through your child's development through play. We outline benefits of particular types of play to particular age groups so you can encourage your child to engage in activities as they grow.
Exploratory and Practice Play
Babies and children explore the physical environment around them with smell, sight, sound, touch and taste.
Babies start to play within weeks of their arrival. They begin exploratory and practice play as they discover that they can control their own bodies. They open and close their tiny little hands and reach and grasp, firstly for Mum and other familiar people, then objects such as rattles and soft toys. Infants use their senses - smell, sight, sound, touch and taste - to explore their environment and discover the world around them. Young babies love to practice and refine their skills and achieve great sensory, gross and fine-motor development rewards for their efforts.
As the child grows their exploration continues through the investigation of the properties of things within their environment. Children will continue to explore cause and effect through experimentation. Children will use water, magnets, sand and magnifying glasses - to name but a few - to explore and discover the "why" and "how" of the world
Functional play allows infants and children to find out what they can do with objects, or what objects can do themselves.
Infants from 12 to 18 months delight in toys that react to their actions - pop up characters, jack-in the box and books that emit words or music when toddlers press a button. At this age, infants use their play to experiment with what objects can do, and learning what it is they can do with these objects. They are discovering what effect their movements have on the environment around them.
As children enter their third year, they focus on a self-chosen play goal. They begin to discover that more and more activities can be under their control. For the three year old, most play is functional. Manipulative materials such as clay, finger paints, water play toys, blocks, books, dolls, stuffed animals and puzzles take on greater importance.
Constructive play is about creating things with constructive and goal oriented activities, such as painting or playing with dough.
As children develop they exhibit less functional play. By four years old, constructive and goal oriented play emerges. Constructive play is about creating things - playing with dough, building with blocks or painting a picture are all forms of constructive play. Constructive play is an excellent means of developing fine-motor skills and hand eye co-ordination in the younger child.
Children thrive on complex constructive projects that produce identifiable products. Five and six year olds particularly enjoy constructive play with higher levels of social collaboration.
For seven and eight year olds, the finished product becomes important. These children enjoy the challenge of construction sets with complex interlocking pieces and models that result in detailed and realistic productions. It is at this age that concrete operational thinking emerges. Children engage and develop this new type of thinking through object manipulation and experimentation. The manoeuvring of individual pieces in order to reproduce design patterns or create an original design requires the use of reasoning and problem-solving strategies as part of play.
Motor Development and Active Play
Motor skills control all our physical movement and coordination, and are developed through various physical and visual activities.
Motor learning involves building increasingly complex movement skills upon simpler movements. This is done by gaining motor control to regulate and monitor the motion of muscles for coordinated movement. Gross-motor, fine-motor and hand-eye coordination are all types of motor learning.
Gross-motor activity involves large body movements. They are used in sitting, crawling, standing, running, climbing, jumping, throwing, kicking and catching. Toys that infants can push and pull are particularly good for encouraging gross-motor development. Balls, skipping ropes and balancing bikes set the scene for active play for the toddler and beyond. Active play is particularly important for physical development of gross-motor skills and is a means of gaining strength, agility and co-ordination.
Fine-motor movement refers to the movement of fingers, toes, eyes and tongue. Infants use toys that they can activate by pushing a button, or by placing shapes in their matching hole, to enhance fine-motor control - including hand eye co-ordination. Once children reach around 12 months, they become interested in objects that make marks. This is where crayons, pencils, chalk and textas become useful play tools. By age three, many children begin to practice their skills through cut, paste, threading and manipulation of all types of materials such as clay, sand or play dough.
Imaginative play enhances social, emotional, linguistic and mental development with creative role playing.
Imaginative or pretend play is a major play form in childhood. Imaginative play enhances cognitive development, increases social interactions, gives young children outlets for fears and frustrations, and provides a foundation for good mental health.
Imaginative play supports and promotes social development, allowing for your child to learn cooperation, sharing, leadership, negotiation and problem-solving skills. Pretending helps children overcome fears and cope with feelings at transitional stages in their development. Imitating, imagining and dramatising allows children to represent and re-enact their actual experience using symbolic, language and social skills at each stage of their development.
During role play children can assume an identity through which they relate to other people and objects as if they were not themselves. It is common for children to extend themselves to a higher level of maturity and development during role play. This is particularly important for language development as a child becomes a different person, of a different age, in a different place.
During the period between ages two and eight, it is quite common to see children take on a whole host of pretend characters - common, familiar and everyday occupational roles through to superhero and other fictional roles.
Ages five and six get great pleasure from overt socio-dramatic play - role playing in the home or supermarket, travelling to a distant country or being on an adventure at sea in the middle of the night.
Older children continue their imaginative play through more elaborate role playing, such as the direction of a puppet show or dramatisation of a circus performance. Costumes and props encourage and enhance the child's experience of their pretend situation.
Creative play can be any original, experimental or imaginative activity.
Creativity is found in any activity or behaviour that exhibits originality, experimentation, imagination or self exploration. Creative play provides opportunities for originality and experimentation - allowing a child to formulate a goal, develop ideas from their own previous experience and to see a novel use for an idea or material.
Musical play allows children to express themselves, experiment with creativity, and develop sensory and motor skills.
Musical play provides an interactive activity that develops the whole child. Music is part of a child's life from within the womb and provides sensory and motor development, cognitive conceptualisation, self expression, creativity and language development at all ages.
Electronic technology can challenge and enhance cognitive and creative development in an interactive way.
When selected with care, developmentally appropriate technology can provide challenging opportunities to enhance cognitive and creative development and enhance fine-motor skills.
Our sensory system provides the foundation for all forms of learning.
Our sensory system not only gives us information needed for visual perception, motor planning and body awareness, but provides the essential building blocks required for achieving academic learning, emotional security and social confidence.
Integration of the sensory system, whereby the sensory system is well organised and responding efficiently, is integral to developing:
- academic learning ability
- abstract thought and reasoning
- the ability to concentrate
- the ability to organise; and
- the capacity to effectively interact with the environment
Sensory play is crucial in assisting a child to achieve sensory integration. Sensory play can be achieved through objects and soft toys with varying surface types for the young baby to feel, suck, chew and look at. The older child engages their sensory system through handling water, clay and finger paints, and focusing on and identifying the sounds and scents of everything around them. Swings, rolling after a toy, kicking a ball and other forms of active play ensure that children's movement systems are being engaged.
The tactile system is essential in determining physical, mental and emotional behaviour. Tactile stimulation refers to our sensory receptors in the skin. Tactile sensors respond to pressure, vibration, movement and pain. Our tactile system allows us to explore our environment, and once developed, distinguish what we are touching (or being touched by) and where it is touching us. It also allows us to determine the intensity of touch, and to perceive the attributes of an object we are touching - the size, shape, density, temperature and texture of the object. Tactile based play allows a child to physically interact with objects that provide a variety of textures, shapes, sizes and other characteristics that will allow them to identify the attributes of the things in their environment. Children learn best from the handling and manipulation of tangible objects that provide a tangible experience. Young children in particular are still developing memory processes; therefore they are much more likely to remember input that is physically experienced.
The vestibular system provides information through the inner ear and the registering of movement. Our vestibular sense makes us aware of our body positions in relation to the earth which helps us balance and orient ourselves, and assists us to resist the pull of gravity. Any activity which provides for a swinging movement or for a child to practice balancing will stimulate their vestibular sense.
The proprioception system consists of muscle, joint and ligament receptors and responds to deep pressure stimulation. Our proprioception system provides our central nervous system with information about movement, muscle tension and pressure to establish where our body parts are and what they are doing. The proprioceptive sense facilitates motor skill acquisition - the fundamental skills which we discuss in Motor Development and Active Play.
The auditory system responds to movement, sound and vibration and enables us to receive, identify, discriminate, understand and respond to sound. Musical play, talking with and reading to your child can provide your child with an auditory play experience.
The visual system provides information about physical properties and spatial relationships. Visual development is the process of identifying sights, understanding what the eyes see and preparing for a response. Spatial awareness allows for the perception of our proximity to an object, and the perception of the relationship of body parts. Babies in particular love to look at shapes and objects with a multitude of colours and textures, at varying distances as their development progresses.
Cognitive Development & Academic Learning
Cognitive development is the development of your child's mental structure and functions.
Cognitive refers to the mind and how it works - what is known and how it is thought about. Cognitive development refers to the changes in structure and function that takes place over time. Children's concepts are central to cognitive development. Academic learning occurs when we build on conceptual skills and develop the ability to apply these skills to future situations.
Children actively construct basic concepts - such as classification, ordering, space and causality. Cognitive development occurs when we provide a rich environment for exploration to allow children to freely construct their own knowledge.