Play-Based Learning


That box your new television was in is now a castle for your daughter and her friends (she’s the queen, of course). The hammock in your backyard is a ship sailing the high seas with your son as its captain, using an empty paper towel roll as a periscope. 

Research has shown that when children pretend to cook, reenact a doctor’s visit, fight wild bears, or put out an imaginary fire, they are using imaginative play to help them make sense of the world. During pretend play, kids use words to interact and move plots along, plan and carry out sequences of events, solve problems for their real and imaginary friends, process information, predict the things that will happen next and cooperate with others. These factors encourage language development, empathy, concentration, problem-solving abilities, logical thinking, creativity, comprehension, and social skills in young children.

Although schools and other organizations are doing their best to provide programming to keep young children engaged during these unparalleled times of stay-at-home orders and educational and recreational closures, having resources to facilitate play-based learning at home has taken on new importance. 

While The Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry remains closed to slow the spread of COVID-19, stop by our site for activities to do at home and get updates on our Facebook page. In the meantime, here are ideas to help you encourage play-based learning at home:

  • Re-enact your child’s favorite books. Make puppets from material scraps and buttons or build a jungle in a box with items found in the garden. It’s not only fun but can help children to focus and improve their listening skills and speech.
  • Use the bushes and trees in your yard to create a jungle, where you can be lions, tigers, monkeys, snakes, giraffes and hippos!
  • Use cushions and pillows to create “islands” in the living room or family room. Try to jump to each one without getting wet or bitten by a crocodile or try to catch fish or go swimming.

Unstructured play is also an important learning experience for kids. So, while it’s not that you’re not a fun parent, but sometimes, Mom and Dad, you just need to leave playtime to the kids. While parent-child play is crucial to a child’s development—it’s been shown time and again to enhance their vocabulary, school performance, and self-esteem—playing on their own is equally important.

Free, unstructured play happens when your child isn’t following any rules or guidelines, like when he’s busy building forts, pretending to be a superhero, or finger painting. It cultivates independence, imagination, creativity, and problem-solving skills, says Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D., a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of a special report on play from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Free play also works wonders on stress. Neuroscientists say that play is fundamental to every kind of learning, and it even physically shapes the brain. The more playful an animal is, scientists point out, the bigger its brain is.

Here are some ways you can make free play an organic and exciting part of your child’s world. Here’s how:

  • Praise their play. Your child probably already engages in some amount of free play every day. Encourage more of it by regularly telling your little one what a great job she’s doing. “I’m so impressed that you built that tower all by yourself!” or “What a great game you invented!” Resist the urge to give suggestions like “Here, why don’t you use a towel instead of that sheet as a cape?” Your kid’s play is perfect just the way it is.
  • Offer open-ended toys. Playthings such as blocks, dolls, and balls that can be used in more than one way encourage imagination better than things like coloring books or board games, which have specific rules to follow.
  • Teach by example. Do you have free-play activities of your own? If not, how can you expect your child to? Don’t feel guilty about the time you take to yourself to work out, paint, read, garden or go for a walk. You’re teaching your child an important lesson: Play is a priority, no matter how old you are!

We’ll be back with all kinds of play-based learning experiences as soon as it’s safe. Until then, help your child unlock the power of play!