How do you know if your child is learning effectively through play?

Playgroups are a paradise for young children; unstructured, free play and lots of other children to play with… and it’s a win for grown-ups too because after a morning of stimulation, those little ones are bound to be tired (hopefully!) But how can you tell if they are actually learning through play at playgroup?

We went to our local playgroup today after a couple of weeks off and my daughter zoomed from one activity to the next; visibly excited to be back! She looked busy and was certainly enjoying herself but the truth is she wasn’t getting the full benefit of what was on offer; she was not actually sticking at anything long enough to learn from it … have you experienced that before?

While my daughter zoomed about I noticed a little boy sat on a mat at the back of the hall playing with some instruments; he was engrossed in tapping a xylophone with a wooden beater and occasionally banging on a drum with the same beater, going back and forth between the two types of sounds. He didn’t try even half of the activities available but he learned more through his play than my daughter did… his grown-up sat nearby without interrupting his play; the perfect response and exactly what he needed.

What were the learning opportunities?

The little boy was exploring ‘cause and effect’: when I tap the xylophone it makes different notes but when I hit the drum it makes the same banging sound over and over. If his grown-up had encouraged him onto another activity she would have ended his exploration sooner – maybe he would never have tapped on the drum; his learning would have stopped at just the notes of the xylophone and he would have never compared them to the sound of the drum.

It is tempting to encourage our children to go and try all of the activities available, because it feels more like they are getting the full value of an experience, however if we let them follow their own interests they are likely to learn more effectively.

How can I tell if my child is learning when playing?

The Early Years Foundation Stage Framework has identified these characteristics of effective learning:

  • Playing and Exploring –using what they know in their play and are willing to ‘have a go’.
  • Active Learning – being involved and concentrating, keeping on trying, and enjoying achieving what they set out to do.
  • Creating and thinking critically – having their own ideas, making links in their knowledge and choosing ways to do things.

The little boy was definitely engaged in ‘Active Learning’ and he was also being ‘creative and thinking critically’ … but I’m not so sure my daughter’s zooming around was a characteristic of effective learning!

What to do when your child isn’t focusing on an activity:

  • Guide them – Try and work out what would interest them the most and introduce it to them, trying to encourage them to engage. Perhaps if they are being energetic they’d enjoy some physical activities such as playing on ride-on toys, or playing outside which would calm their excitement.
  • Invite them – (This is what I did today) I invited her to make me some dinner in the toy kitchen area – a favourite activity of hers – and then I sat and played with her; pretending to make and eat dinner and wash the dishes! Once she was engaged in play with me she became more focused and calmed down.
  • Model – Let’s face it, these little ones aren’t always keen on following our ideas! So if they didn’t want to be invited or guided, try going in a play area yourself and play; model for them the type of playing they should be doing. For example, tell them you are going to play with the play dough and then go and do it, (make sure you can keep an eye on them from where you are playing)! When they see you having fun playing without them, they’ll soon be sitting alongside you and joining in!

We’ll be back at playgroup in a few days and I am hoping for a calmer experience… fingers crossed!

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