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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Top 4 Ways Kids Learn through Play

As a play therapist, one of the most common questions I hear from parents is, “How does play help my child?” The truth is that there are so many ways children learn through play that it would be difficult to list them all! Here are the top 4 ways children learn through play:

1. Using all Senses to Explore: 
When a child engages in play, they eagerly explore their world in a multifaceted way. If you’ve seen a child with a new toy, you’ve seen this discovery process. Typically, the child visually inspects a toy while using their hands to feel the object. In younger children, the toy commonly enters the mouth for a taste as well. The toy may be hit to hear what sound it can make. All of these experiments provide information for the child to take in about the toy and its potential for different uses. 

2. Accessing Imagination: 
When children play pretend, they learn what it is like to take on a different persona and imagine how it might feel to be someone else.  This is key for building empathy. They may explore what it might be like to be a chef, a doctor, a teacher, a parent, or another role. These experiences give them the opportunity to develop their own self-concept.  In addition, it allows them to see alternate paths for themselves.

3. Problem-Solving on their own Terms: 
During play, a child will likely encounter problems within the activity or around the logistics of play. For example, how do you build a bridge out of blocks that will connect the couch with the coffee table that will also support the people that need to cross? Allowing space for a child to solve his or her own problems provides tools for doing so in other situations and promotes self-esteem and independence. 

4. Experiencing Social Cues to Build Skills: 
Children playing together will inevitably create times of harmony and times of chaos. As children navigate the play, they learn how to share toys, take turns, experience disputes, and resolve the conflict. Each action will have a reaction, and when a child is motivated to continue playing with their friend they learn that their decisions and behaviors will impact how long they are able to play. Although children sometimes benefit from adult input (especially guiding questions that help them resolve the situation rather than telling them what to do), children are generally able to create their own resolutions, learning important social skills in the process.

The next time your child is stuck, consider what elements of play could be infused to improve their learning. Would a multi-sensory approach allow for better understanding of the problem? Would playing pretend improve their understanding of the assignment? Find regular times to include play in your routine and see how your child responds.

Best, Emily

Emily Herber is a child and family therapist at the Center for Psychological Services.
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