Play: It’s the Way Young Children Learn (page 3)

— Action Alliance for Children
Updated on Jul 19, 2010

The teacher is key to play-based learning

Children learn more through play when they have well-trained teachers who know how to respond to, guide, and extend their play to increase learning—and how to assess their development by observing their play.

Teachers can:

Guide and extend play to help children learn more
  • Respond to play: A teacher sees a child playing and builds vocabulary by providing new words: "That's interesting. You've lined up the animals from tiny to gigantic."
  • Extend play: A teacher hears children making silly rhymes: "You're juicy, goosey, foosey."; She extends this play by teaching songs that play with the sounds of language, such as "Apples and Bananas." She knows that this helps children learn to recognize the separate sounds in words.

A teacher observes a child pretending a chair is a car and “driving.” She encourages imagination by asking "Where are you going? What do you see along the way?"

  • Guide play: One week a teacher turns the dress-up area into a shoe store. Children practice language and social skills by acting out "customers" and "sales people." They learn new vocabulary (canvas, boots). They use art to make signs for the store. Some older preschoolers may write letters and words for the signs, or practice simple math by making change for purchases.
Assess children's development by watching them play
  • Observe the child's activities: Seeing a child line up toy dinosaurs by size shows her understanding of size comparisons and putting things in order.
  • Listen to the child talk: Hearing a child talk about what letters “say” shows his understanding that letters represent words.
  • Take photos: A series of photos of a child's block structures over time shows that she is learning more about spatial relations.

Policy recommendations

Because play is so important to developing the skills, concepts, and approaches children will use throughout their lives, public policy should support early education that emphasizes play. Parents and child care providers can urge policymakers to:

  • Adopt early childhood learning standards that identify play as the primary method for early learning.
  • Require curricula and learning materials that emphasize play
  • Fund in-depth training and ongoing education for early childhood educators, including elementary school teachers, about how to use play to promote learning
  • Educate parents about the importance of play.
  • Assess young children’s learning through observation, not formal tests.

Parents can

  • Provide playthings that kids can use in a variety of ways: blocks, paper and crayons, dolls and toy animals, balls, playdough, etc.
  • Encourage kids to play with ordinary household objects like pots and pans and outdoor materials like sticks and grass
  • Provide simple playthings that encourage children to be active and use their imaginations, not to watch while the toy does tricks.
  • Play with your children, ask them questions about their play ("What are those animals doing?"), and point out things you notice ("You used a lot of bright colors in that picture!")
  • Look for child care and preschool programs where children learn through play. Ask: How does this program use play to help children learn?

For more about play and learning

  • Zero to Three has many brochures explaining the importance of play, with tips for understanding children’s play and ideas about how to make the most of play time. 202-638-1144,
  • National Association for the Education of Young Children publishes Early Years are Learning Years, short articles for parents and child care providers, including many on “play and learning.” 800-424-2460,
  • A Place of Our Own, a television show and web site with many ideas for activities, check your local PBS listings for show times,
  • Play at the Center of the Curriculum, by Van Hoorn, Nourot, Scales, and Alward, 4th edition, 2007, Merrill/Prentice Hall
  • For parenting and child care education, contact your local First 5. Info from 916-263-1050,

Thanks to the Bay Area Early Childhood Funders for their support for this special supplement.

Extra resources from the Children's Advocate bulletin

  • The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, discusses why play is essential to child development and what factors have reduced play. Includes recommendations for promoting the importance of play with families and in communities. Online at
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