Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Play is Learning
By Philip Mott, www.philipmott.com
If you’ve read many articles on early childhood development, you’ve probably come across the term “play-based learning.” For many parents, play can be a little silly. It’s hard to imagine that it could be all that valuable. “Fun is good,” we think, “but it would be better if they were learning something too.” So, we insert little games and activities into the play to make sure they are learning some of the academic skills that will become important in school.
From my perspective, as a homeschool dad, former teacher, and play advocate, learning is not simply based on play — the two are inseparable. Play is the engine that drives all valuable learning. Play is the way social animals naturally learn skills crucial to survival and reproduction. It’s the way they develop an awareness of their senses and abilities. Since humans are social animals, we play too.
You might imagine kindergarten and older kids when you think of play, assuming babies and toddlers do not experience anything similar. However, infants and toddlers do play, especially with objects, exploring and manipulating anything within reach.
Consider a familiar scenario, an infant or toddler mouthing and exploring a ball that fits in her hand. This is not a passive activity — her every sensation is focused on that experience. Adults see the discovery unfolding, and we talk about the object in ways that are familiar to us. We’ll offer words like “red,” “round,” and “ball.” Of course, we’ll quiz them on these new words soon after.
“Red ball,” you say. “Can you say, ‘ball…ball?’”
She stares at you with those big eyes and maybe mouths a quiet, “buh.” You cheer and feel elated because she’s mimicking you. She’ll go through this process tens of thousands of times to learn to walk and talk the same way you do. But the mind is not just focused on the words we use but also in the touch and smell sensations, ones that abled adults often take for granted. These senses help our children create connections in their brains as they continue to make sense of the world. For instance, “ball” isn’t as memorable as the way “hot” feels.
Along with the name, color, and shape of an object, the child is experiencing weight (gravity), texture, taste, smell, and temperature, not to mention the concept of trade-offs — putting down one object to pick up another. It’s hard to tell which of these phenomena children are noticing, but they are there, constantly shaping her sense of the world. That’s why babies can play with something for so long. There are so many sensations to compute that they feel compelled to repeat the process several times before they are ready to move on.
We often assume learning is just about the language adults use but just because a baby lacks language doesn’t mean the mind is simply waiting. Babies are incredibly intelligent, hungry to create meaningful maps for navigating the world. Maybe their explorative play doesn’t look like learning all the time or even some of the time, but the more we look for it, the more we’ll notice it. If we think play is only silliness, it’s all we’ll see. If we think play is learning, a process of creating mental maps of the world, that’s what we’ll be open to.
If you interrupt the learning with your own ideas of what’s important in that moment, you might distract her mind from the things she’s already trying to understand.
The world is new to them. They don’t have to stop and smell the roses like you, and I do; everything is a rose to them. When you see them focused on something, let them focus, even if you can’t tell what it is they’re focusing on. Because kids don’t just smell the rose — they touch it, find the thorns, and might even yank it out of the ground. In other words, little kids will explore the world as deeply as you let them.
The mind can only handle so much. Because things are new, trying to fill up the time with more stuff can be overwhelming. I’d rather my toddler get to explore a square foot of sand fully than to be carted down the whole beach without being able to stop. A baby cannot appreciate vastness as we can. They’ll appreciate a bucket of dirt for more than a wide-open prairie.
We’re not them. Not only is the world new but their interests will often vary from our own. We can participate, we can point out what we find interesting, but we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t find it particularly interesting or engaging.
When you look at your kids being silly now, you might not see only the silliness, but sometimes you’ll see young explorers, creating fresh maps of their new and wild terrain. Their random play may not be the learning you had in mind, but most of the time, it’s the only learning that matters.
About the Author
Philip Mott is a former elementary teacher and a homeschooling father of three young children. He lives in Indiana with his wife and three children and writes parenting and education advice for families on his website, www.philipmott.com