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  • Writer's pictureVicki Manning

Learning through play

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When I had my eldest over a decade ago, I’ll be honest, I thought of play in one corner, and learning in the other - they were two separate things. I could see him learn new skills, but I didn’t make the connection - how in every car pushed around, every little drawing, he was putting down the foundations of reading, writing, social interaction and much more.

When my second came along I read about learning through play, and my eyes were opened! All those times when he was ‘simply’ shaking a rattle or scribbling, he was developing the skills he would need to do other things. Playing was at the core of everything that he learnt. I realised that it was important he had those opportunities to develop skills playfully so that his next steps would come easier.

If I could help him to have those rewarding and playful experiences, then even better!

Child playing and learning with blue playdough

What is play theory?

Children have an inbuilt desire to play without a defined purpose, to understand the world around them, through role-play, exploring, testing theories, and learning cause and effect

In 1962 Psychologist Jean Piaget published his Theory of Cognitive Development in which he found that children’s knowledge, abilities and language skills are directly linked to play.

Play helps children in all areas of their development – physical, social, emotional and mental

Blond toddler mark-making with Crayon Rocks

Types of play and how children learn through them


Children are naturally curious, and when playing creatively they enjoy learning how to manipulate their environment. Through mark-making, children learn to use tools to create pictures and patterns in preparation for early writing and maths. They are also learning how to test ideas such as colour-mixing, gravity and friction. Creative play helps them express thoughts and ideas non-verbally.


Using gross motor skills (whole body movements), such as climbing and running, children learn spatial awareness, coordination, control and balance. Aside from the obvious physical benefits of active play, children can develop socially through team games, build confidence in their bodies, and learn how to judge space and distance.


Using fine motor skills (hands and fingers) in activities such as stacking and threading, children learn how to control objects and manipulate tools. They also develop the skills needed to write, draw, dress and feed themselves. Picking up and handling objects also helps improve hand-eye coordination and teaches cause and effect.


Children love to use their imaginations to carry out role-play or create fantasy scenarios, which can help to make sense of the world around them. They enjoy mirroring people's actions and reactions, and in doing so develop their social skills. When playing imaginatively with friends, children learn to cooperate and compromise. Acting out experiences can also help children deal with challenging situations and aid their emotional development.

Child playing corona facemask with bandana
Mr 5 wearing his pirate bandana as a face mask during the Covid-19 pandemic - to "look like the delivery man"

How to help your kids can get the most out of their play

1 – Avoid interruptions

Where possible, allow your child to play uninterrupted. If you need to stop for anything, such as a trip to the dentist or lunch, try to leave their play undisturbed (as much as you might want to tidy it away) so that they have the option of returning to it at a later time. Once they are showing signs of moving on to other things, you can get them to help you tidy up.

2 – Keep it accessible

Where children can easily see toys and help themselves, it encourages independence in their play choices. And if you rotate the toys they're less likely to get bored! We have a small storage unit which is a great height for little ones, we also use baskets to display our toys.

3 - Start modelling

You're probably already doing this one without thinking about it. Modelling in play means showing children how they can explore toys, how to experiment, make predications and problem-solve.

Be interested in what they have to say and enjoy yourself

It sounds complicated but really it can be as simple as getting down on the floor and playing alongside them. If your child is under 2 just sitting next to them is often enough - for older children roll your sleeves up and get stuck in! Try being curious and inquisitive; this will encourage your child to be much more engaged in their play.

toddler playing with tongs and colourful pompoms

4 – Think open-ended

Toys which don’t have a ‘fixed’ way to play are known as 'open-ended' - think wooden blocks, loose parts or just some recycling. Open-ended toys encourage children to experiment and play more creatively. I remember one morning watching my middle child playing with a stick in the garden for an hour. It was a sword, a flag pole, and goodness knows what else! He was delighted with this piece of wood - just a random thing in the garden, but his imagination took hold.

Just think of all those times you’ve had a cardboard box and all your kid wants to do is climb in it!

If you fancy trying toys that are more open-ended' you can begin by placing a small selection of things from around the home on a tray (anything clean, non-toxic and safe). Sit with your child as they explore. Another option is pick up an old basket from a charity shop, pop a book and teddy in it and see what play comes about.

5 – Less is more

In the early years I bought all the toys we were ‘supposed’ to – play sets from favourite TV shows, plastic food… we had great big bits of plastic everywhere to be honest! And so often it ended up in a big mess on the floor.

Tipping boxes of toys out is a fun game, but not so great for mummy!

Once I started buying a small selection of quality toys, displayed carefully, I noticed a real difference. No more tipping boxes! Yay! My children would think more carefully when selecting a toy and get more out of playing with it. Less choices = meaningful choices.

Child in blue jumper stacking star toy

6 - Mistakes are good

This is a tricky one as it can go against our intuition to 'teach' our child. But letting them make mistakes is the best way to help them learn. Of course you need to keep them safe, but I'm talking about the little mistakes that are natural trial and error. That will help them understand cause and effect, and ultimately how to persevere to get something right. So the next time they go to stack a block and don't quite balance it, resist the urge to help.

"I don’t have the TIME for all of this!" you might say

That's ok! Being a parent is tough and exhausting! Sometimes the last thing you want to do is play - you've got to clean, do the laundry, catch up on emails, spin plates... (well maybe not the last one, but it sometimes feels like that doesn't it 😉). Just start with 10 minutes dedicated play time per day.

"I don't have a playroom or lots of space!"

You really don't need it! Our living, dining and play space is all in one small room so we have to be careful about what's in it. We make use of an IKEA storage unit, with pull out boxes and labelled mini tubs, a basket of wooden blocks and a cupboard of art supplies. This is where your new 'less is more' approach will come into its own.

"I don't want to spend a fortune on new toys!"

That's ok too! Check out this old telephone - it was a steal at a car boot (garage) sale and we love playing with it! Half of the things my kids play with are thrifted or household objects. Maybe suggest to relatives they club together to buy one quality open-ended toy rather than lots of smaller close-ended toys when it comes to birthdays.

Child playing and learning with phone
So many opportunities for role-play with just this one thrifted item.

Where to start...

The next time your child is playing, get down to their level, sit on the floor next to them, and join in a little. It doesn't need to be for long, just 10 or 15 minutes is a great place to start. You don't need to direct their play, toddlers are just happy with someone next to them (parallel play) and pre-schoolers will often have strong ideas about what they want to do!

Try and think about the different skills they're learning (are they physical, creative, imaginative, manipulative, a mix of these?)

Give them lots of chances to play and you'll be amazed at how much your child learns!

Pin it for later!

Child playing and learning with phone


Hi, I'm Vicki!

I'm an author and mum to three energetic boys who love learning in a playful and creative way! For more playful learning, creative inspiration and crafts, visit us at:



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