Many people used to believe that learning primarily took place in the classroom. But now we know that’s simply not so — children are always learning by engaging with the world around them. By now, parents and educators have also realized how counterproductive it is to treat learning like a strictly serious pursuit. The truth is, kids want to move around. They want to play, explore, ask questions and push boundaries.
The good news is that children can absolutely learn important lifelong skills and lessons through play. Here are three examples showing how this happens.
Develop Fine & Gross Motor Skills Through Games
As adults, we generally don’t think twice before using utensils to eat, zipping up a jacket, picking up a stray sock that’s fallen out of the laundry basket or turning the pages of a book or magazine. It’s easy to forget we were all born helpless and had to learn these skills — and develop the muscles required to execute them with precision and strength.
Gross motor skills involve large muscle groups throughout the body, like arms, legs and the core. As the experts at Michigan State University Extension note, young children need to actively practice these skills to “develop their control and coordination of their bodies.” What might look like a simple game of tag or catch is actually an opportunity for kids to practice these key movements that’ll serve them throughout their entire lives. This is why it’s so important for kids to get outside starting at a young age.
Parents and teachers can help by encouraging kids to play games focusing on different areas of the body. Dancing, jumping, throwing, balancing, catching and climbing are all formative motions toddlers and preschoolers need to help them develop strength and control.
Explore Different Schema (Behavioral Patterns)
While many toddlers’ and preschoolers’ actions may seem random at times, children actually act out behavioral patterns known as schema. And caretakers can use this knowledge to help engage kids in meaningful play that’s fun and formative. Here are some examples of common schema in childhood development from Tinkergarten:
- Connecting: Building train tracks, snapping together Lego pieces, building block towers/fences, using craft supplies to attach objects to others.
- Transporting: Putting objects into containers and moving them, carrying around heavy objects, filling up wagons/carts with things to move around.
- Circulation/Rotation: Spinning around, rolling down hills, watching circular objects rotate.
- Positioning: Arranging objects, putting things in order, making art displaying lines and patterns, lining up people.
- Enclosing/Enveloping: Wrapping up in blankets and towels, hiding in snug spaces, climbing in boxes, tucking small objects into pockets and containers.
Knowing about schema can feel like holding a key to unlocking much of children’s behaviors and fixations. It’s also very helpful when choosing games and activities to do with little ones — ensuring the sessions will be a hit with the kids and give them an opportunity to reinforce important life skills.
Strengthen Interpersonal Skills & Teamwork
Sociodramatic play in particular helps kids develop the social skills they’ll need to draw on again and again throughout their school years, careers and relationships. This is why a group of kids playing together in a made-up scenario — like a pretend car wash — is much more than just a game. It’s a chance for children to relate to one another and take turns leading and following. It helps kids get comfortable divvying up roles, cooperating on tasks and communicating about their ideas and needs as they go.
Unstructured play with props is an excellent catalyst for helping kids get creative while world building collaboratively. Children absolutely learn through play — physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. It’s more than just a way to blow off steam; it’s a way to practice the skills they’ll carry into adolescence and adulthood.