How kids start to learn through play

New parents
Feb 25, 2020

The term “child’s play” signals something that is almost too easy, juvenile, or maybe not even worth your time. As kids, we’re all born to play – it’s a universal human trait we share across countries and cultures. It’s how we learn to interpret, interact with, and change the world we’ve arrived in. Regardless of what (if any) toys a child has access to, there are specific types of play that seem coded in our DNA. Here are some of the ways your baby learns through play, and how you can encourage them.

Singing, making noises and music

The first babbling sounds babies make are fairly indistinguishable. But they’re already training their vocal chords to get ready to speak the language(s) they hear around them. And it’s not just the sounds of voices that are exciting to decode and imitate, it’s all the noises around your baby. Animal noises, simple baby songs, music, clapping, tapping things to make your own amazing noises. If you notice your baby reacting to certain sounds, tell them what it is. “This is a hair dryer” – “This is the coffee maker” – “This is a dog barking”. All these simple activities will help build their vocabulary and understand and ask questions about life, the universe, and everything.

Stacking, building, and deconstructing

Stacking towers of stuff is another universal play activity that is conveniently adaptable to wherever you are. Toddlers and pre-school-aged kids will stack pillows, building blocks, books, sticks, rocks, boxes, pots and pans, unlucky pets, dad’s records (although the results of the latter two may end in tears), and anything else they can get their hands on. It’s your child’s first physically creative activity and attempt to combine or turn things they can find into something else. What happens if you do this or that? Anything is possible, until the tower comes crashing down. But that’s okay – because then you get to do it all over again! This is an amazing age. Your child develops motor skills, organising skills, analytical skills, and – without knowing it – early science and engineering skills.

Building and deconstructing things to figure out how they work is another classic, creative activity that sparks curiosity and stimulates their motor skills. Kids will love getting toys for their birthdays, but often the paper and boxes the toys came in are much more interesting. Hand them a roll of tape and watch what happens. When kids build or break things to put them back together or turn them into something else, it’s because they see a need, a problem, or an opportunity they want to pursue. They learn to plan (or just dive in head first), fulfil a need, turn an opportunity into something tangible, or solve a problem. They can learn to sort, count, and cooperate and negotiate when building with friends. It starts with a creative idea, and who cares what the results look like at first – it’s all good practice. 

Role play

Around pre-school-age, your child’s way of playing with others evolves by leaps and bounds. This is when they’re becoming aware of their own role around others, interacting, and building relations with other adults and kids their own age. Around the same time, their imagination develops at lightspeed, and role play becomes their first “test drive” with social skills, empathy, sharing, and fair play. They’re rehearsing for real life. They can be super heroes, act out everyday scenarios that mimic real life, play with dolls and action figures and start to create more intricate storylines. Fact and fiction are interchangeable, and invisible friends are just as real to them as the ones you can see. Benefits of having invisible friends: They’re quick to take the blame for any messes you’ve made, they don’t eat much, and they can keep all your secrets.

This is a good age to engage them in your daily activities, with simple, age-appropriate tasks, tools and responsibilities. Let them mix ingredients for dinner, set the table, pull up dandelions (which they’ll probably want to pick, anyway), feed or brush the dog, sort nuts and bolts in your garage, or whatever they’re interested in. And they’ll be so proud to master new grown-up skills.

We sometimes forget to play as we get older and face life challenges, responsibilities, crisis, or grief – and play is reduced to a frivolous, pointless activity. Kids are your time machine back to when the world was at your feet and anything was possible. Creativity is not just for kids – it helps us solve problems the rest of our lives if we let it. So play along like no one is watching and enjoy the ride.