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5 Simple Ways To Engage Your Child In Play-Based Learning

Curriculum-Based Advice & Activities from the Experts at Wee Watch

5 Simple Ways To Engage Your Child In Play-Based Learning

Have you ever stopped to watch your kids just play? It never ceases to amaze me how vivid their little imaginations can be when left to their own devices. Just this afternoon my four-year-old had all of her dolls lined up outside our powder room giving them “manicures” by rubbing soapy water on their hands and faces. At the same time, her 16-month-old sister was snatching up the dolls, plunking them into her toy high chair, and feeding them lunch. Whether they realized it or not, my kids were operating a full-service day spa in our living room and I had no part in any of it. 

According to the article, Let The Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning, written by PhD Jane Hewes, “Children need time, space, materials, and the support of informed parents and thoughtful, skilled, early-childhood educators in order to become ‘master players.’ They need time to play for the sake of playing.”

Cathy Power, a Registered Early Childhood Educator and business owner, is the area supervisor for Wee Watch and agrees. Wee Watch is a licensed home-based child care organization with agencies across Ontario. They have been caring for infants and children up to 12 years of age for 30 years. Cathy and the other Wee Watch supervisors across Ontario work with each home childcare Provider to help train and monitor their exclusive “Wee Learn” educational program which is based on each child’s age, developmental stage, and interests—all with a focus on learning through play.

We’ve heard the phrase “learning through play,” but what does it really mean? Well, according to Cathy, the key is to harness the child’s natural curiosity and explore it in a way that’s enjoyable and fun. She says play-based learning is flexible—it’s about following the child’s lead. “When kids are interested in something and having fun doing it, they’re more likely to remember it; they’ll learn without realizing they’re learning.”

Here are Cathy's top five ways to engage your child in play-based learning:

1. Create opportunities for sensory play

This can be as simple as getting a large plastic bin and filling it with various manipulatives (i.e., cornmeal and coffee grounds, dried beans, sand, macaroni noodles, shaving cream, water, etc.) and then adding other materials (i.e. rocks, combs, vehicles, funnels, shells, spoons, buckets, bath toys, etc.) that encourage the child to interact with the bin’s contents in different ways.

In my house the sensory table is a sand box and I’ve loved watching my daughter collect rocks, stones, leaves and other things she’s found in nature and integrate them into her sand and water play. With caregiver involvement the sensory bin can lead to language, social and emotional, physical, and creative development.

2. Set the stage for dramatic play

When children take part in dramatic play (i.e. playing house, trains, school, etc.), they use their imagination and develop storytelling and problem solving skills, Cathy explains. These skills will help them learn to read, write, and communicate verbally. When children pretend by using objects in their play, they learn that symbols such as letters represent a spoken word (ie. when they play “store” and use objects such as shopping lists and price tags, they learn that the letters and numbers on these objects have meaning).

My kids transition easily into dramatic play thanks to the huge costume and prop collection we've gathered together. You don't have to buy expensive costumes—things like old clothes, jewelry, hats, glasses frames, and scarves work perfectly.

3. Don’t worry if your toys get all mixed up

While some classrooms might have a ‘blocks station’ and a ‘dolls station’ and a ‘balls station’—the best way for kids to learn through play is to mix up their toys and integrate them as they see fit. Perhaps that will mean building a city with blocks and driving cars through that city, or it might mean ‘bowling’ a block tower down with a ball. Perhaps blocks won’t be used to build anything at all, but rather will become food for a doll picnic. Give your children the freedom to explore the toys available to them and gravitate toward those toys and activities that they’re most passionate about—you’ll notice amazing results when they’re fully engaged in whatever it is they’re playing.

This one is great for moms like me who find it impossible to organize their kids' toys. The chaos, in some cases, can actually be educational!

4. Choose open-ended activities and have the right materials on hand

Fill a box with craft supplies and let your child pick the materials she’s interested in and use her imagination to create something beautiful, rather than buying a craft kit with a set of instructions and a final product that’s pre-determined. The process of making the craft, mixing colours, exploring textures, seeing how things fit together, is much more important than the end result, Cathy says. Having the right materials on hand; craft supplies, puppets, costumes, etc., will lead to imaginative play and more learning than could ever be accomplished sitting down with a workbook and pencil.

Tip: Before you go to an expensive craft supply store to fill your bin, take a look at your local dollar store—ours is filled with amazing arts and crafts supplies and they're all super cheap.

5.  Step back but remain engaged

Take an interest in your child’s play, ask questions, and offer suggestions, but don’t feel you always have to be on the floor playing with him/her. Sometimes there’s great value in stepping back and allowing your child the freedom to play on his/her own. Let your child’s imagination guide the play, give him/her lots of uninterrupted time to be creative, and see what transpires.