Playful Learning

By Rita Brhel, managing editor & API leader

I am quite happy with the preschool that my children attended, although it took a lot of interviewing teachers and visiting sites, and a bit of trial-and-error, to find a program that I agree with. And now that my daughter is entering Kindergarten, I wonder if we will begin the process of finding an appropriate, like-minded school all over again?

A major concern of mine about organized school programs outside the home is the lack of child-led play offered. The preschool programs that I turned down for my children were focused so narrowly on teaching reading, writing, and math for “school preparation” that they missed the best learning opportunities provided by a child’s natural inclination to explore. Preschoolers are wired to learn through play, not through deskwork.

Nicole Polifka, MEd, Head of Early Childhood Professional Development at the Minnesota Children’s Museum in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, shares my concern, adding that even childcare programs designed for infants and toddlers are increasingly becoming more geared toward academic testing and orienting away from free play.

“Play is very complex,” Polifka explained. “A very big difference between promoting intelligence in a child and just promoting academics: With the latter, there is a lot more they need to learn.”

Teachers tend to view play and learning as opposing forces when in fact they are synonymous for children, she said: “Play and learning are partners, not competitors. Learning is a whole-body experience. Learning by doing creates a ton of positive things for the brain.”

Five Stages of Child’s Play:

  1. Onlooker – younger infants watching others play, objects such as ceiling fans, or themselves such as their hands.
  2. Solitary – older infants and young toddlers playing by themselves away from others.
  3. Parallel – toddlers playing near others but without interaction.
  4. Associative – three- and four-year-old children playing together but without a story line, role, or theme.
  5. Cooperative – older children playing together with a story line, roles, and themes.

This theory was developed by American sociologist Mildred Parten in 1932. While children often go through the play stages according to developmental stage, it is not unusual for children to flit in and out of the first four stages. Once children reach the cooperative play stage, usually by five years old, they may continue to visit the other stages but prefer cooperative play.

Polifka explained that there are two types of play, both of which are important to child development in their own rite:

  1. Free play – when the child is in control.
  2. Guided play – when the adult is in control.

Whether child- or adult-led, play creates connections in the brain, sharpening both existent and emerging skills. Play is well-researched and consistently shown to nourish the whole child – cognitive, physical, social, and emotional. Furthermore, by utilizing creative thinking and imagination, play establishes a positive disposition toward learning – which should be the primary purpose of preschool programs, Polifka said. In addition, play promotes the development of underlying self-regulation skills such as persistence, risk-taking, and acceptance of others.

Beyond Brainiac

As much as the traditional 3 Rs – reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic – were valued in the 20th Century as indicators of future career success, these academic skills are no longer enough to keep employees competitive in the workplace. In addition to the 3 Rs, according to a 2010 American Management Association survey, future employees – today’s children – will be expected to enter the workforce also possessing the 4 Cs:

  1. Critical thinking and problem-solving
  2. Communication
  3. Collaboration
  4. Creativity and innovation.

Both free play and guided play are useful in developing these skills in a child, but there are ways to specifically encourage creativity during play:

  • Simply state what you see without placing value or judgment on it – Make observations and state the facts; rather than “That’s a great picture!” say “You used red paint.” As described in Attached at the Heart by Lysa Parker and Barbara Nicholson, the overuse of praise, rewards, and value judgments “can place an inappropriate value on a child’s activities, interfering with the child’s intrinsic motivation, decision-making skills, and his ability to self-evaluate; inadvertently encouraging the child to constantly seek approval or stifling his motivation.”
  • Use new words for common words – Teach synonyms, and don’t be afraid of using big words with small children.
  • Ask open-ended questions – Avoid questions that can be easily answered with a yes or no.


Especially with infants and toddlers, younger children often like to play the same games over and over. While introducing children to a diversity of activities broadens their experiences, there is something to be said for the same activity. By participating in the same activity over and over again, the child is actually building his skills and will eventually master the activity. Even once self-mastery is accomplished, the child may like to play the activity again and again to reinforce the skill.

It depends on each child’s unique temperament and natural talents as to how quickly to introduce new play activities. Some children are excited by change; others are easily upset. While it’s good to challenge your child, it’s not recommended to overwhelm her. If your child is easily upset, transition slowly and gently.

(As an aside, sharing typically isn’t mastered until at least five years old.)

Most preschool programs provide ample guided-play opportunities; these are any activities where an adult is guiding the exploration and play. But free play opportunities are just as important – free play specifically inspires creative thinking. There are ways that an adult, without leading the interaction, can enhance the child-led activities, Polifka said. Keep these guidelines in mind when creating an environment for free play:

  • There is no right or wrong way to free play – “Children’s play is natural and beautiful and it has no limits, so resist the urge to hijack the process by giving them answers,” Polifka said. “Even when your intentions are good, there’s more to be learned by empowering their thinking.”
  • Embrace the process – The result of a play activity is important because it teaches a child how to be successful, but the energy and time and skills it takes to get to a result is as important as it teaches a child how to deal with frustration and disappointment. A results-oriented comment: “You got the puzzle together!” A comment that encompasses both the result and the process: “You did it! You moved the pieces together to make the picture!”
  • Encourage inquiry – Pose challenges and encourage children to find the answer on their own. This teaches problem-solving as well as how to delay gratification.

The Inquiry Loop

Wonder and Ask –> Plan and Predict –> Do and Discover –> Review and Reflect –> Repeat

Even though playful learning should never look like deskwork, this doesn’t mean that academics can’t be introduced. Here are examples of how literacy, math, and science can be incorporated into everyday activities to make a playful experience:

  • Literacy – Whisper during the day’s routine. Literacy is more than reading; it’s also vocabulary-building and conversing. Plus, children love to whisper.
  • Math – Count the letters in the mail and sort it according to size.
  • Science – Gather objects of different material, such as wood, plastic, and metal.

Play for School-Agers

Play can easily become a central theme in a preschool program where testing scores aren’t a requirement, but what about school-age programs where children must meet certain academic standards? It’s true that deskwork is inherent to most schooling programs for elementary-age children through teenagers, but Polifka said there are ways of better balancing deskwork with the need for play and exploration. Many programs use such strategies as:

  • Hands-on learning
  • Frequent breaks from deskwork in the classroom
  • Regular play/recess breaks outside the classroom.

Many parents consider organized sports as the play activity needed by older children and teenagers – and it can be, but it depends on the experience. The coach’s attitude and approach is important – posing challenge is OK, but unrelieved stress and pressure is not.

Sports would be considered guided play. They teach important skills, but free play shouldn’t be discouraged, Polifka said. “Sports isn’t that child-driven, natural, curiosity-involved type of play, so if your child is watching an airplane during the game, don’t discourage that.”

6 thoughts on “Playful Learning”

  1. I have been researching school options these past few weeks for my family, since we might be moving. I, too, am very concerned with having plenty of play time for my child up through kindergarten at the very least. Unfortunately, it looks like the only options we will have in our new location are private schools or homeschool. We are very fortunate that these are, in fact, options for us.

    It really saddens and upsets me that policy and the need of our policy makers to “ensure” our tax monies are spent “well” are driving early childhood learning rather than childhood development itself. For one of the better ranked school districts where we may move to, kindergarteners spend 350 minutes a week, or 42%, studying reading/language arts. Only 90 minutes a week, or 10%, are allocated to physical education, music, and art in total. Of course to be fair, I will need to determine if all the time is adult guided.

    Thank you for including some aspects of play that I can look for in the schools that we will ultimately visit.

  2. I’ve been hooked on trying to find a way to “unschool” our two boys since I found out the sort of means to get them a great and varied, but completely unorthodox, education actually had a name! This article reinforces exactly why I’d like to keep them out of any organized (public or private) school system. Especially our oldes, who would most certainly be labeled as having ADHD. A few years ago my being able to stay home seemed impossible, but now there might be a way to make it happen, and I think it is more than worth the (financial) fight. I don’t want them to have to survive school and have it be luck alone that keeps their love of learning alive! Learning is something that should never be stifled yet it seems that’s all schools set out to do.

  3. Pingback: Playful Learning
  4. Thanks for this informative post! I’ve spent several months visiting different preschools in my community and was repeatedly disappointed: “more geared towards academic testing” is quite an understatement from what I observed! Many schools only give 2-3 year-olds 30 minutes of free play all morning long. Yikes! It seems that both parents and educators forget (or are unaware) of how and what young children learn. As you point out, the things that best prepare a child for the “real world” aren’t academic in nature. Thanks for breaking it all down!

  5. Thanks for a well written article! We are at the beginning of our unschooling journey with two boys ages four and two. Our approach is to simply provide as many uniques resources as possible that support the boys’ various passions, all of which are child led play based for the most part.

    Your article helped me clarify a frustration I’ve had recently as I seek social activities for my oldest son. So many of them appear to be geared toward adult convenience and teaching my child patience vs. child appropriate play. Gymnastics and dance classes are jammed full of eight 3-4 yr olds who are expected to sit on their bottoms and wait their turn for 5-10 minutes at a time, craft classes are full of reprimands of how to paint to avoid splatters instead of experiential play, music class requires silence !!?? and hand raising to be heard, yet the kids are supposed to bellow once the music begins (how a young child grasps that I don’t know).

    It’s truly a challenge to find activities that meet children’s needs. We are leaning toward private lessons that are more in tune with individual needs and respect for the child.

    Thank you again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *