How do toddlers actually learn through play?

This question comes up almost every time I post it on my Instagram or share a post about how beneficial learning through play really is about. We often hear about how children adopt many skills and habits from their parents as they get older but what we don’t really talk about is how their play affects their skill sets and their cognitive development. Learning through play is how children learn to make sense of the world and their surroundings. They understand the experiences and learn to connect them to something they already know using their prior knowledge. Children learn to develop emotions, understand experiences, utilise their skills, trial and error activities and then modify their approach to situations and face new obstacles with the right skillset.

This may all sound like fancy technical language but I’ve had a close connection to the concept of learning through play due to my experience with my own children.  Learning through play never fails to amaze me; its results and the benefits are limitless.

How my learning through play journey began?

Hi ELB fam! I’m Almas; a primary trained teacher turned stay at home mum of two in Sydney. We began our learning through play journey when our oldest was just around 6 months, I read a bit about how play can actually benefit my child and I also needed something to keep him busy throughout the day. My then 6 month old would play with items other than his toys in the most unusual ways, which made me think about how I can actually use these items for structured and unstructured play. Sensory play was evidently the first play I set up for him which of course at first resulted to an absolute mess which bothered me but what I did notice that he was so engaged and it kept him occupied for a good 20 minutes. He was scooping and transferring with cups and spoons, it was heaps of fun for him.

We then moved onto more structured forms of play as he grew older and what we did notice was that not only was he responding to all forms of play well but he was all thriving from it. I began planning routine play activities for my toddler in our tiny 2-bedroom house with barely any space to store our toys and resources let alone create a play space. I would find any spot or opportunity to create meaningful learning experiences for him, as he grew older. We would often visit local libraries for playgroups and also find play environments to engage in.

From mini science experiments at home to heaps of DIY Cardboard play, you name the activity we did it! Not only was my toddler having fun while playing and learning at the same time, I was also improving ways of providing these experiences for him.

We then soon moved to another home and then to another, which provided us with more room to create a play space for him and our new daughter who was just born. By creating an open space with toys, which were accessible to both children, I realised how important it was to create an inviting place space. Not only does it create a tidier home but also promotes cooperative play and children learn to share as well.

Creating inviting outdoor learning through play experiences allowed my children to connect with nature and the outdoors. Learning and play doesn’t have to contain to a small space, it’s almost everywhere and anywhere. Children learn to appreciate the outdoors and gain opportunities to explore and discover the real world when they’re outside playing. By having more open clean spaces for play and to store our never-ending stock of toys and resources, I then began working towards creating themed weeks and “shelfies” which is a fancy word for a shelf that is specifically curated for that week’s theme of play. From dinosaurs to community workers and so much more, each week we focus on a theme and do activities based on that theme. Not only does that bring interest in each week of play but also both toddlers learn a whole heap of information about the world around them. Here are some shots of a few of our shelfies last year.

Benefits of Learning through Play

Play is a major part of every baby and toddler’s learning process. We all know how much I believe in play and the benefits it has developing your child’s intellectual function. It can be hard to fit in play with our children everyday, especially if you’re managing a busy work life with a household and meeting the many day-to-day challenges of getting things done. We naturally think learning is developing a specific new skill, such as memorizing alphabets, counting, writing, etc. We believe that playing is only for fun and involves no actual learning. But that isn’t true at all, play isn’t an option; it’s vastly imperative for growth and development and does in fact promote early-based learning.

During the first year, children observe almost everything around them including objects and people. They’re just like sponges, which is why it is crucial to understand the importance of what they learn and adapt from their parents and how their parents choose to raise them up. As they get older they will learn to explore these things in more detail. Before you know it, your child will be crawling, shuffling or walking towards these objects and examining them in depth, using their mouths and hands. This is all helping them to develop an understanding of the world around them as well as their thought process, memory, attention and other functions of the brain.

Early brain development

Play develops the brain’s executive function, which is the frontal lobe of the brain, the main centre. How that works is that play promotes imaginative/pretend play, which gives the executive function of the brain a workout. Children who play more have a more mature executive function and tend to do better at school, get along with others well and also make well informed decisions.

Neuroscientists discovered that enrichment such as toys, games, and playing could revise a brain’s chemistry and physiology. The brain area associated with higher cognitive processing (the cerebral cortex) can benefit from environmental enrichment and play more than other parts of the brain.

Fosters Creativity and Intelligence

Allowing your child to use their creative juices can only be through play, whether that be structured or unstructured play. Children thrive in all forms of play, whether that is sensory or imaginative; they all promote creativity and critical thinking. Many studies have shown that playing is associated to divergent thinking, which promotes finding solutions to problems and ideas. Children might engage in pretend play in imaginative scenarios, whether that be invitations to play settings or free play with props given; these all enhance a child’s level of creativity skills.

Improve communication skills

When children play they may not necessarily talk but they are improving their communication skills as well as increasing their vocabulary. We know reading from an early age promotes vocabulary development but so does play. When a child pretends plays, he/she might create phrases or words to communicate with themselves or peers/siblings as well as their parents if they’re playing with them. This allows their language skills to develop and in time they learn to speak earlier to, if they haven’t started speaking formerly yet. During social play, they often reciprocate each other’s words and actions to reach agreements

Emotional Regulation

A child learns to self regulate with time; it isn’t a walk in the park for any parent to teach self-regulation skills to their toddler. It surely takes time and a whole heap of effort. However play can lessen the burden for parents trying to teach their toddler to regulate their emotions. In a New Zealand study, psychologists examined how children handled negative events during pretend plays. They found that children who had more pretend-plays with their caregivers were better at regulating their emotions to continue playing. Well-regulated children can wait for a turn, control their emotions and continue on with hard activities.

Improves Mental and Physical Health

A child’s mental and physical health depends on how they spend their day, and if that constitutes to constant screen time, there is neither active learning being taken place nor any physical activity. Therefore play allows those skills to develop as children are getting up and using their energy to play. Their mental health is also better as children love to play and it only promotes more happy endorphins to be released, which in turn produces happiness.

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