What does ‘learning through play’ mean to me?

The phrase ‘learning through play’ is now said so often that I worry its powerful meaning has become diluted. I must admit that for me, my true understanding of what ‘learning through play’ looks like has been a learning curve and one that has evolved over time.

As a teacher in my early career, I knew that I wanted learning to be fun and playful but what this meant to me then is certainly different to what it means to me now. I am not sure if it is having my own three children that has changed my view or whether it is working in different settings with a HUGE variety of children.

I have had the pleasure of working with children from all kinds of backgrounds with varying life experiences, parenting styles, cultures and beliefs. I’m not suggesting that my relationship/understanding of ‘learning through play’ has reached its conclusion, I’m quite sure I am still on my journey of discovery. I certainly hope so anyway as I’ve always said that the minute I think, ‘I know it all,’ I will stop doing my job. We can’t possibly know everything. Just as life evolves and changes, so too should our practice and approaches. Remaining open to change is crucial when working with children.

All that in mind; what does ‘learning through play’ look like to me (now)?

  • Children learn best when they are engrossed and interested. They learn best when they have initiated the play, discovery and learning themselves. As teachers, we spend countless hours trying to plan lessons that are engaging and will strike a chord with the children in our class. The thing is though, when children are playing, they ARE engrossed already. In my opinion, we don’t need to spend countless hours pre-planning. Being present with the children, whilst they play, will allow us so many opportunities to interact and develop their thinking and skills there and then. This is true of both teachers and parents: living in the moment with our children, during their play, is the best thing we can do to support our child/class in their learning journey.

Knowing when to interact with children during their play and knowing when to ‘butt out’ can be difficult. I feel this skill comes with practise and from knowing the child/ren. I will write more about this in another post as it is a WHOLE other aspect to ‘learning through play.’

  • I have recently shared a few examples on my Instagram and Facebook pages about how I interacted with child-led play last week  to develop them in their ‘areas for development.’ I will share these at the bottom of this post. When interacting/playing with the children in my class and my own children, I am aware of what it is they need to develop e.g. number recognition, counting with 1:1 correspondence, reading compound words, writing words using known phonemes etc. When playing, I have this in the back of my mind. I look for opportunities within THEIR play/ using THEIR idea to subtly bring in elements of what they, personally need to work on. IF they are fed up/ show they’ve rumbled me/ RUN AWAY, then I stop. I don’t force it, I don’t pressure them and I take a good, hard look at myself in the mirror! 😉 To be honest, this rarely happens as I’ve had lots of practise and I always remember to be animated/excited (think CBeebies presenter!)


  • I have often provided my children/class with an inviting play ‘set up’ to be used or not as they so wish. Just because I set them up… a) it doesn’t mean I force or even encourage my children/class to play with them and b) I generally ensure they are as open-ended as possible so that the children DECIDE how/what to do with them. This kind of play idea; often referred to as ‘enhancement’ to the continuous provision or ‘invitations to play,’ offer children opportunities to experience things they may not necessarily experience without the ‘invitation’ being set up in the first place. Sometimes this may be as simple as presenting their ‘forgotten’ toys/resources in a new way to make them exciting again.

I feel it necessary to reiterate two things here:

Firstly, I would NEVER force a child to interact with one of my play ideas and if a child is not interested/ready, it doesn’t mean they won’t be tomorrow/next week/next month. They will be interested in THEIR own time.

Secondly, if they interpret/play with the set-up in a way I hadn’t expected or anticipated… good. This means they’re learning in their own way and the idea was open-ended enough to make this happen.

Play is an amazing tool for every teacher and parent. We want our own children and classes to enjoy, engage and achieve the best they can. The fact that children are hard-wired to play makes our lives so much easier. Children love to play and therefore love to learn. Why then do we try to make learning so formal? Why can’t we use the best tool we have to ensure our children are confident, happy and independent learners? For me, play is fundamental to learning. Even as adults, we play in order to learn how to use something. Every time I get a new gadget, the first thing I say to myself is, ‘I’ll just have a little play to get my head around it.’ Remember this next time you sit down with a planning document.

Why not just see where the children take you?

It’s exciting! It’s powerful! It’s learning through play!


Examples of child-led play and adult interaction…

Reluctant writers! We all know them… the ones who want to race around being a super hero? Very common and not necessarily just boys as so often presumed.
The key is, make it fun and bring it into their play WHILST they are engrossed. How?
*A child racing around the playground shouting “Turbo Charge.”
Me: (got into role, I’m good at being a super hero)  “Turbo Charge Challenge.”
(I start to draw boxes on the board and write numbers inside. This child likes numbers.) “What challenge could we do with number 9?”
Child: Run?
Me: Great idea. Do me a favour and write run whilst I write some more numbers. What could we do for number 7?
Child: Kick?
Me: Brilliant idea. You write that and I’ll write another number. What could we do for number 6?
Child: Punch.
*(The child now so excited that they write the number 8, ‘zoom,’ 10 and ‘super’ with no encouragement from me at all.)
Me: “wow turbo charge 7!”
(Child reads the word kick and starts kicking the air.)
Me: “turbo charge 8.”
(Child reads ‘zoom’ and zooms off and back again.)
Other children: Can I play?
Child: ok, let me tell you the rules.
*The child explains all about finding the number, reading the word and doing what it says.

pic 1


Rehearse number recognition. Child pretending to talk to Daddy on the phone in the home corner. As she is pressing the buttons, I wonder what her Daddy’s number is! The child shrugs and says she doesn’t know. (This wasn’t the time to start quizzing her on number recognition. So I waited.) Later on, we chalked a large mobile phone on the floor and had to dial the numbers with our feet. We jumped, we hopped and we giggled.
Child: ‘I’m phoning Daddy!’
Me: ‘Ok, you need to dial 6482’
Off they hop. Followed by a chat with Daddy on ‘Facetime!’

pic 2

Let them lead, be ready to question to extend their thinking:

Person A: Do you want some cardboard tubes?
Me: Yes please.
Person A: Why?
Me: Well I don’t know yet but I think the children will show me…

It turns out they wanted to do some Real Maths: True child-led learning… What did they do?

* Four girls decided that they wanted to see how many tubes it would take to reach the ceiling. (measure, length, height)
*They attached them together (as a team) using celloptape and solved the problem of not being able to reach it anymore. After much thought they decided that lying it down would make it easier to work on. (fine motor, problem solving, teamwork)
* Through lots of discovery, problem solving and suitable questioning from me (to extend their thinking); they found out it took, “three and a bit more than half” to reach the ceiling.

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