How To Encourage Playful Learning In Kids

Playful learning encourages cognitive development, motivation, and longer attention spans. Here are some expert tips on how to make fun part of your learning strategy.

Girl using a magnifying glass in the classroom

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Children are naturally inclined to play—it's how they learn. Like all of us, kids learn best when they are having fun. That's why it's so important for young children to have unstructured time where they can freely explore and enjoy themselves. They will instinctively engage in activities that support their developmental needs.

Ahead, we break down what playful learning is and why it's so important for children.

What is Playful Learning?

Playful learning is any learning that occurs in the context of kids having fun and enjoying themselves. It can be self-directed play, such as filling a bucket with sand and water at the beach or bouncing a ball on a field, or it can be more structured such as a game of Pictionary or a challenge to see what kids can build out of magnets.

A sense of wonder and curiosity is ignited when we let kids play. "A child learns through interacting with his or her environment, trying new things, and seeking new experiences," says Lauren Starnes, PhD, EdD., a child development expert, author of Big Conversations With Little Children, and Chief Academic Officer at The Goddard School.

The Benefits of Playful Learning

There are many benefits to learning through play—beyond the fun factor, which is critical, of course. Here are some of the reasons to encourage playful learning in kids.

Cognitive development

Put simply, play is the best way to learn. It's a proven fact that we retain information better when the learning process is joyful and engaging. “When we engage children in learning where they are active participants in the learning we not only teach a concept but also build skills developed through play like sustained attention, motor skills, and social skills in a holistic way,” says Holly Peretz, a pediatric occupational therapist with over a decade of experience working with children and toddlers. 

Playful learning engages the prefrontal cortex, building problem-solving skills and emotional regulation. When play is collaborative, children build their social skills as well.

Intrinsic motivation

You probably want your child to develop a love of learning, rather than just doing the work for the grade. Playful learning helps intrinsic motivation and a sense of curiosity about the world. Equating learning with fun from a young age helps develop lifelong learners.

Hands-on learning

The younger the child, the more they need to learn through concrete, hands-on experiences. Playing allows kids to tap into their natural learning style. Learning and retention are maximized when children make and do things with their hands and their bodies.

Play can help kids understand abstract concepts by making them concrete. “Think of a triangle, which is an abstract concept—three edges and three corners,” says Peretz. “Building triangles out of sticks or playing a game where kids search for triangles around the room makes the concept much more understandable and concrete.”

Longer attention span

Children learn best when they have sustained attention and focus. Because of this, it's important to find ways to help kids stay engaged and on-task. Making sure that learning is fun and allowing children to participate joyfully is key. "Because play elicits curiosity, children are engaged, and they show longer sustained focus and attention, which yields a stronger learning," says Dr. Starnes.

Tips for Encouraging Playful Learning

Kids will find a way to play if left to their own devices. However, there are several ways that adults can help encourage productive playful learning.

Create a place to play

A thoughtfully prepared place space will encourage children to explore and engage with their environment. This does not need to be fancy or over-the-top—kids thrive in simple, clean spaces where they feel safe and encouraged.

Make sure that the games and toys in your play space are visible and easily reachable for small people. “A toy shelf that is at the child's eye level, offers open-ended exploration, and has resources that appeal to children will get far more active engagement than toys packed away in a closed cupboard,” says Peretz.

Focus on open-ended materials that allow the child to control the experience, such as plain wooden blocks, dress up clothes, baby dolls, or Legos. The space should be clean and well-organized. Change out the toys periodically to keep children engaged and try to choose activities or games that are related to their current interests.

Encourage freedom of movement

Too often children are required to sit still and listen. Instead, they need to feel free to move their bodies. Finding ways to incorporate movement will help to encourage playful learning. This also means that kids should be free to move as they would like to, and that they should be able to choose their body's position, such as standing to draw or lying on their stomach to read.

Foster social interaction

Younger children thrive on their individual learning experience, but as they grow, social interaction becomes more and more important. By the mid-elementary school years, play becomes a collaborative experience. "Playful learning creates a more relaxed and upbeat social and emotional climate for the child," says Dr. Starnes. "The child does not feel pressured to demonstrate learning but instead is able to actively engage with other children and the adult in what the child sees as a fun social interaction."

Incorporate choices

Find ways to incorporate choices into your child's play. Let them make some decisions, such as what to play with and for how long. For example, if you leave crafting materials out, make sure there are a variety of colors and materials to choose from. When kids play outside, let them direct as much of their play as is reasonably safe.

Make learning fun

Learning should be fun. When it feels like a drag, there are a few easy ways to make it more enjoyable. Anything you can do to make it feel more like a game will help. For example, instead of giving kids a sheet of math problems to complete, write the problems up and hide them all around the room to be found. This adds an element of fun while promoting physical movement. You can also have children dress up like literary characters or historical people they are learning about and act out a scene.

Encourage curiosity

Kids are naturally curious and it is our job as adults to help that curiosity flourish. You can do this by modeling curiosity yourself and praising your child's sense of wonder. Ask open-ended questions and engage in conversations with your child about possibilities rather than right answers.

Pay careful attention to your child's changing interests and find ways to bring these interests to the forefront. For example, if your child shows a growing interest in dinosaurs, provide realistic dinosaur figures to play with and display books about dinosaurs in your home. Take them out to a museum all about dinosaurs.

Remember to allow time for unstructured play each day. Kids need time to discover their interests and experiment without being told what to do. The curiosity is already there, we just need to let children access it.

Support playful learning

The best way to support playful learning is to create safe, inviting spaces for your child to play. This should not take a huge effort on your part—the outdoors is one of the best environments for playful learning. This could be the backyard, a creek nearby, or a sandy beach. Or it could be a neighborhood playground. Indoor learning spaces don't need a lot of fluff either. A few open-ended toys, some art supplies, and a dress-up box will do it.

Parents can also support their children's playful learning by taking a step back. It can be tempting to step in and make suggestions or you may feel that you're helping your child learn. However, those brain connections strengthen when kids explore, experiment, and make their own choices.

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