Learning through play occurs naturally through everyday experiences. Children learn by exploring, using their imagination and by making decisions often through trial and error. Play changes as children grow, and many different forms of play support children’s agency.

Families can promote play by encouraging and participating in children’s play. Playing together is one of the most influential things you can do. Set aside time each day for your child to play and learn even though there may be times when you want to do something else.

Young children, including babies, use play to learn about their world. They use their hands for sensory experiences and may reach up to feel and explore your face. Play builds connections, fosters family bonding experiences and encourages a child’s development.

Read on to discover:

  • The importance of learning through play.
  • Why play-based learning.
  • Ideas for learning through play with babies, toddlers and preschoolers.

Children learning through play develop new skills forming lots of neural connections in the brain.

Why is learning through play important?

Play encourages a child’s learning and development. Even newborn babies learn and develop skills through sensory experiences. While physical change is most noticeable during a newborns’ first few weeks, being playful promotes attachment and communication skills.

Playful habits encourage physical and sensory development which strengthens hand-eye coordination, motor control, curiosity, exploration and sensory integration, forming lots of connections between different parts of the brain.

Unlike preschoolers, babies frequently need adult interaction to provoke play. You are your baby’s favourite plaything, and we’ve provided a few playful activities for both of you below. Older children, however, are led by their own imaginations and curiosity.

Lyn Bower in Play and Learning published by Early Childhood Australia says play benefits children’s “social, emotional, cognitive (thinking) and physical skills”. Through play, children learn many new skills which promote :

  • Develop communication and social skills with other children.
  • Ignite their creativity and curiosity.
  • Expand active skills like jumping, climbing, running and digging.
  • Work together and share with other children.
  • Control emotions and improve empathy.
  • Explore problem-solving using their imagination and creativity.
  • Conceptualise shapes, colours and letter recognition.
  • View objects, like a block, as a representation of something else, like a phone.

Children participate in play-based learning.

Why play-based learning?

If you’re familiar with early childhood education and care, you may have heard of play-based learning. It’s an approach to learning where children actively engage and make sense of their environments and everything in it, including other children or people.

Play-based learning experiences are child-led, giving children the freedom to explore their ideas and decisions. They focus on the process rather than the end result. It involves providing open-ended resources that reflect a child’s development, interests, knowledge, strengths and culture.

Play can be planned or spontaneous. Meaningful planned experiences are based on a child’s interests, abilities and development needs. Play-based learning engages children in both planned and impromptu play where Educators recognise teachable moments.

Learning through play engages and fosters a love for long-life learning.

Mirror experiences encourage babies to explore learning through play.

Learning through play with babies

Newborn babies rely on their connections with a parent or carer to guide them through play. As they develop, they grow more independent reaching for things of interest. Learning through play with babies depends on secure relationships where you observe and respond.

Babies are full of wonder. Simple, everyday objects bring hours of joy and learning. Talk to your baby about what you are both experiencing. Ask and answer questions that you think they will have even though they cannot vocalise them yet.

When babies play, they learn about language, colours, textures and temperatures, and develop their gross and fine motor skills.

  1. Give them you. Let your baby feel your face, pull your hair, pat your cheeks and wiggle your ears.
  2. Get an old ice cream container and put a hole in the top. Knot differently textured scarves and ties together, put them into the box and close the lid. Pop a little of the material through the hole to invite their curiosity.
  3. Nature’s sensory experiences are full of learning surprises for babies. Let them feel the gentle tickle of a feather, light rain, grass, or wind. Surround them with different smells, tastes, textures and sounds.
  4. Mirror play can stimulate a baby’s cognitive development and self-awareness. Babies are curious about faces, including their own. Place a reflective surface beneath them during tummy time to help with the development of their physical and cognitive skills.
  5. Sing nursery rhymes with your baby, especially ones that are interactive and involve hand motions.
  6. Play games like “Peek-a-Boo” or “This Little Piggy”.
  7. Read to your baby and let them explore picture books during floor time.
  8. Messy play encourages older babies to learn about temperatures and colours. Give them a bowl of jelly to mash and squish. Invite them to play with colourful melting ice cubes or place several dollops of different coloured yogurts on a plate and observe as they taste and mix them together.
  9. Floor time strengthens a baby’s physical development. Place several safe items around them on the floor like a pot, large spoon, musical instrument and cellophane paper.

Child plays and learns about balancing in outdoor play.

Play and learning with toddlers

Toddlers are explorers. They’re independent doers who are bursting with curiosity. Toddlers have interests in shapes, fitting things into other things and collecting. They’re super excited about investigating their world.

Nurture your toddler’s imagination as it promotes problem-solving. Provide them with old clothes such as hats, scarves, shoes and handbags. They’ll be awed by the clothing you no longer need — they’re perfect for playing dress-up.

  1. Give them boxes of all shapes and sizes: big ones and little ones, shoe boxes and other larger cardboard cartons for repurposing. There’s so much they can do with them. Will they fit the boxes inside each other or turn them into new creations?
  2. Let your toddler loose outdoors where they can use buckets, Hoola hoops, mud kitchens and sandpits. Invite them to garden and discover exciting paths to follow. Or take your child to a park where they can explore and build their motor skills.
  3. Encourage your child to use loose parts and natural materials. Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, pulled apart and rearranged to make all sorts of wonderful things. They encourage invention and abstract thinking.
  4. Promote the use of open-ended art materials like play-doh, paint, popsicle sticks, tissue paper, wool, string, googly eyes, glue, twigs, pine cones, seeds, flowers and other art resources that can be used in multiple ways.
  5. Invite your child to use chalk, crayons and pencils to produce marks and scribbles. Grasping writing instruments are one of the building blocks for writing as it builds strength in a child’s hand.

Child uses open-ended loose parts in play-based learning experience

Play-based learning experiences for preschoolers

Preschoolers, like toddlers, enjoy dressing up, playing with boxes, loose parts and natural materials. Their creativity and imaginations are boundless. Preschoolers are also more adventurous as they feel extra confident with exploring and discovering how things work.

Preschoolers’ confidence also extends to social interactions. They’re more likely to form friendships and participate in group play. They like to run and jump, test each other’s skills, take control and explore. Learning through play develops their neural pathways.

  1. Give your child access to a variety of art materials. Choose open-ended, loose parts and natural materials as these ignite the imagination.
  2. Let your child lead their play. Ask questions that encourage your preschooler to tell you about what they are doing. Invite them to participate in activities that develop their interests and support your child’s ideas.
  3. Encourage your preschooler to seek out materials they can reuse from the around the house for special projects and play. Use old sheets, blankets, boxes, old pots and pans and spoons, broken branches and twigs and plastic bottles.
  4. Read books together, encourage them to dress up and act out their favourite stories. Join in for a family theatre night.
  5. Play, Hide and Seek together to encourage counting.
  6. Balls of different sizes are great for kicking, rolling, pegging, bouncing and throwing using both sides of the body.
  7. Set up sensory and science tubs where preschoolers can choose to experiment with all sorts of things that provoke their interest.

Experience a balance of indoor and outdoor play with your child. Observe and join in their games at their level, releasing your inner child. Give your preschooler the lead in what they choose to play and learn. Provide them with the materials and see what they do.

Preschoolers use open-ended materials to engage in learning through play.

Explore learning through play with Petit Early Learning Journey

There are many ways for families to contribute to their child’s learning through play. At Petit ELJ, we empower parents to share their ideas, values and customs, focusing on nurturing partnerships and not just participation.

We encourage you to share your child’s interests, abilities and strengths with us so that we can plan play experiences they will enjoy. Our Educators actively listen to children’s ideas, using them to enhance our curriculum and design invitations for play.

Learning happens over the whole day at Petit ELJ with daily routines and rituals providing meaningful learning opportunities. Book a tour at your nearest centre and discover how we can nurture your child’s love for lifelong learning.