How do children learn? How do they grasp entire language systems, codes of communication, symbolic thinking, and mastery of the skills they need to read and write? The answer is so simple that it’s sometimes too difficult to grasp. Babies and young children learn through play!

How can that be? Well, do you remember those first games that your baby played intuitively with you, the first pretend game of peek-a-boo? The elaborate, imaginative play of three and four year olds grows out of this. The give and take of conversation stems from a baby’s first playful smiles and our response to them. The manipulation and solving of puzzles develops from a baby’s first reaching and grasping of objects we use in play with them. If we play with our babies in a loving, nurturing, joyful way, they learn to grow up trusting in people, forming solid relationships with those around them. Knowledge of the world grows out of a baby’s early play.

When the two-year old begins make-believe play, it contributes to the goals of early education. Let’s examine these.

Representational Thought 

Through imaginary play a child practises many different ways of representing reality, by creating symbols. They make homes, farms, animals, people, food, or an outing to the zoo with paint, blocks, play-dough and sand, or by dressing up. Their creations are symbols of representational thought. Symbols are things that represent something else – an object, idea or event. What’s important is that all later education is based on the assumption that a child has symbolic competence. Literacy and numeracy are about understanding symbols. So, it’s crucial to pay attention to this symbolic mastery in the preschool years. Symbolic mastery is gained and practised through involvement in a wide variety of play activities.

Conceptual Thought 

Children at play are young scientists and mathematicians. As they explore the boundaries of their worlds, they ask themselves “what happens if I mix mud with water, red with blue, blue with yellow?” When a child plays with sand and a bucket, or water and jugs, they are laying the foundations of mathematical understanding. It’s only through experience that they will come to understand concepts like greater than, smaller than, density, gravity, weight, size and conservation of liquids. It is only through play that they will gain this concrete experience and knowledge.

Language and Communication Skills 

During play, children’s language is more complex than in most other activities. They are practising using the adult language they’ve heard, by using it in role play. A child ‘playing’ at being the teacher, mother or father, will recreate the language patterns they overheard, using correct grammar and a wide range of advanced communication skills.

Early childhood literacy foundations are primarily about talking and playing with words and language. These natural forms of learning and development come before reading and writing or exposure to print.

Physical Development 

Children at play are exercising their bodies and mastering physical coordination in the most natural way. Rhyme games for clapping, jumping, crawling, miming daily activities and ‘freezing’ the movement are excellent ways to help your child develop mastery of gross and fine motor skills. They’ll need these for later literacy. A child who can’t sit at a table and cut, can’t learn to write, so it’s not only fun, but also beneficial, to enjoy cutting and making a collage together at home.

Social and Emotional Development 

Through play, children learn to work cooperatively, solve problems collaboratively and how to win friends. Social rules are absorbed naturally by observation and practised through play. Play can help young children deal with things they can’t put into words: distress at Daddy going away, fear of monsters or the dark or going to school. Tension, fear and anxiety can be acted out in play, and it can be replayed again and again while the child gradually comes to grasp, understand and master their emotions.

Yet, pressures from society and expectations of formal education encourage us to view with suspicion an early childhood education based on play. It’s easier for the non-professional to see the value of the formal approach to learning rather than one with play at its centre. But, structured activities that are heavily adult directed, such as worksheets and drills, are demotivating and not the most effective way for preschool children to learn and develop. They won’t give children the skills they need to be able to adapt to the pace of change and demands of the future.

Today’s children are preparing to enter a competitive, turbulent world of rapid change. What are the skills they need?

  • versatility and flexibility
  • imagination and creativity
  • self-motivation, so they’re able to make their own choices and act on them
  • social skills, which enable understanding of self and collaboration with others
  • courage and confidence, so they’re able to learn from their mistakes and try again

We believe that helping children to develop these qualities is the education and that play is the perfect context for mastering these life skills. And the best environment to nurture them in? At home, within the family. We encourage all families to play hard at their homework, and enjoy it together!

At Julia Gabriel Centre, we empower students to communicate confidently through EduDrama®, a unique learning philosophy inspired by educators passionate about children, language and the arts. For more information about our programmes, workshops and seminars, contact us here.

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With a wide range of programmes available, we are home to a large number of educational specialists and developmental experts. We are happy to share our experience and support you in your parenting journey.

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