Play Based Learning & Self Directed Play


Toddler- and preschool-aged children learn through their five senses. They need to be able to TOUCH, FEEL, SMELL, SEE, & TASTE. A play-based curriculum is derived from this concept.  Children learn by doing what they do best…PLAYING!

Examples of play activities that promote learning:

  • Matching games & puzzles support fine-motor skills, social skills, & memory skills.
  • Creative expression such as painting, drawing, & coloring support fine-motor skills, self-discovery, & writing readiness.  
  • Playdough, blocks and discovery activities develop perception, spacial reasoning & thinking skills.
  • Books & stories support language development and reading readiness.
  • Musical instruments, songs, & finger plays provide visual stimulation, logical thinking, physical movement.
  • Free play, creative play, and dramatic play teach cooperation, self-discovery, social skills and self-help.
  • Outdoor play encourages large-motor development, science, & social skills.

Children learn best in ways that are meaningful to them. For instance, a preschool child is not going to learn about apples by looking at a picture of an apple. They will, however, learn about an apple if you give them an apple. Encourage the children to bring different kinds of apples.  From those apples there are several activities that you can conduct over a week’s time including apple art projects, making apple sauce, and cutting apart an apple to discover the inside core and seeds as an inquiry focused science activity.  Play based learning in preschool is about learning science and math through discovery and developing language skills, social skills, self-help skills, fine and gross motor skills through meaningful play activities.

The Early Years Learning Framework defines play-based learning as: ‘A context for learning through which children organize and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations.’ This definition links with the notions of belonging, being and becoming. One of the most important ways children make sense of their social worlds is through playing with others. Social play helps children to develop a sense of belonging in a group as they interact with others and learn how to negotiate rules for positive social interactions. The development of a positive sense of self is promoted through early play experiences because there are no right or wrong ways to do things. This freedom from rules helps children to feel confident and competent as learners and teachers of others.  Play provides opportunities for children to learn about themselves, their being, and others.

Play is associated with the development of intellectual skills and understandings. In play experiences, children integrate emotions, thinking and motivation that establish neural connections critical to effective brain functioning. When children play, they use imagination and imitation which requires complex cognitive or intellectual processes. The development of cognitive skills, including dispositions for learning (such as curiosity and persistence), memory and thinking skills, and language and literacy skills, have strong links to play.  Play is associated with the development of creative skills. Play fosters creativity of thought, imagination, strategies for problem solving and the development of different thinking ability.

Play is associated with the development of social and emotional skills and understandings. Research shows that play assists children in building social skills that support positive relationships. Playing also helps to teach children how to regulate their behaviour, and understand others’ feelings, as well as promoting a sense of independence. Early play experiences between adults and very young children have a central role in developing strong attachments in children. Emotional competence and empathy are developed through play experiences as children become aware of their own and others’ emotions, motivations and desires. Through collaborating and cooperating in play, children learn how to negotiate and problem-solve their personal dilemmas.


How do we support CHILD DIRECTED PLAY?

A big part of your daily routine should include child directed playtime. “Floor time” or “child directed play is creating an opportunity for the child to bring you into his or her world. When adults spend just short periods of time engaged in play with children we enhance our relationships with them. Many adults do not know HOW to play with children.  They may feel embarrassed at doing childish things, feel they have to supervise play, give too much structure or feel the need to get things done “right” and “act like a teacher” in order for the child to learn.

The Elements of Floor Time or Child Directed Play:

Time: During free play, there is plenty of time to commit to 10 minutes devoted solely to play with a child.

Activity: Try to choose an area where there are toys that foster open-ended play such as with blocks and building toys, playdough, dramatic play, baby dolls, cars and trucks.

Observe:  What is the child doing? What is her play looking like? How might you approach him?

Follow:  Follow the child’s lead. Let the child do the leading and deciding.

Imitate: Physically imitate or mirror what the child is doing in a way that indicates that you are interested in playing with him.

Describe: Describe what she is doing. “You’re building a tower.” Descriptive comments take the place of questions and commands and give you something to say. Overall adults should not do a lot of talking.

Body Language: Show with physical cues that you are interested in what she is doing: sit near her, look where he looks, make eye contact, smile.

Pace: Slow down! Follow the child’s pace. Don’t hurry him along. Though it may seem boring or slow to adults, children learn through repetition.

Ending the play:  Give some notice that you’re almost finished. Let the child know that you are going to move on to something else. 

A FURTHER NOTE ON TIME:  It can take a good 40 minutes for a child to become involved in their play (considering the set up time required in gathering all pieces needed to play).  Allow sufficient time for the child to fully explore what it is to be a train engineer or a veterinarian, etc.