How children learn through play

Play is the work of the child.

Maria Montessori

Play can look very different depending on the child, the toy, or the location… so how do children learn through play and what are the different types of play? Here is some information which will help you to identify what your child is doing when they are so busy playing.

Firstly, there are different types of play:

  • Physical Play – climbing, jumping, running, balancing, swinging, ball games.
  • Social Play -playing alongside others, joining in, cooperating, making friends.
  • Constructive Play -building and creating.
  • Imaginative Play – acting out roles or creating pretend worlds.
  • Quiet Play -quietly observing, solving a problem, thinking, exploring.
  • Creative Play– painting, drawing, singing, dancing, playing instruments.

Children also learn through developing schemas. Young children often repeat a pattern of behaviour when they are trying to make sense of the world around them. The repetition of an action is the child working through trial and error to develop their understanding, adjust their understanding, and fill in gaps in their knowledge. A familiar example would be a child who empties a toy box into another box or a bag and takes it somewhere else and empties it, and repeats it again and again… sound familiar? That’s a transportation schema.

So what are the different types of schemas? There are many types but the following are 7 most common schemas and examples of what you might observe your child doing:

  • Connecting -joining things together; lego, building blocks, wooden blocks, train tracks; sticking with glue or selotape; holding hands, exploring velcro or fastenings on clothes.
  • Orientation– how things look from different angles; hanging upside down, peeking through railings, sitting the wrong way round and walking backwards.
  • Transportation – moving something from one place to another; all their teddies, emptying a box and putting it all into another box.
  • Enclosing – creating enclosures for toys, adding a line around a drawing, creating a fence around something they’ve built with blocks, building a sand castle and drawing a circle around it in the sand.
  • Enveloping – making something disappear; a baby wrapped up completely in a blanket or hiding (themselves or objects).
  • Positioning – lining their toys up, putting things away in a certain place, arranging their toys in a particular way.
  • Trajectory – this can range from throwing balls, pushing trains and cars, to blowing bubbles.

Let’s take sand for example; a toddler has a sand pit at home full of dry sand, he spends a long time filling a bucket and pouring it out (exploring using a trajectory schema). But then the toddler goes to the seaside and experiences wet sand for the first time; it sticks to his fingers, it is harder to dig and he makes his first sand castle (exploring using a connecting schema). He learns that wet sand behaves differently to dry sand and can stick together to create a sandcastle. His understanding of sand has changed and his knowledge has developed.

So taking all these types of play into account, how can you tell that your child is learning in a progressive way? Early Years practitioners look for ’characteristics of effective learning’:

  • Playing and Exploring – finding out and exploring, using what they know in their play, and being 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.

All types of play are connected and overlap and children use a range of different types. It is worth being able to recognise when your child is learning effectively through play.

Follow the PlayWorth Blog for more in-depth information about how children learn through play, schemas and characteristics of effective learning.

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