Updated: Aug 21, 2021
At this unprecedented time of worry and uncertainty the very last thing that we need are battles over completing school work, after all education should be a positive experience, right? So here is the question: how can we cover all the learning areas required in a way that the children do not realise that they are learning? Ultimately my advice comes down to these two simple principles: playing IS learning, and play IS enough. We all know that children learn best when they are engaged, and when are they more engaged than in play?!
Here are my top 10 ways to support learning through play, first lay the ground work:
Meet your child's basic needs first: do not start when they are hungry, tired, cold or upset. This can be so easily overlooked, but is the absolute baseline for success; think how difficult it is for you to focus when you have worked through your lunch break, or barely slept the night before. Basic needs are priority, fulfil these and you will have much greater success.
2. De-clutter your space: clutter feeds distraction, and when your end game is for your children to be fully absorbed, you need to clear the decks to allow this to happen. Now, I’m not talking a complete Mari Kondo clear out, I simply mean have a quick pick up so that the only toys you need (resources, if you like) are within reach.
Build play time into your daily routine: children will look forward to this time of fun if it’s at a predictable time of the day; for example in our house, the children have breakfast and watch a little TV, whilst the TV is on I quickly set up an activity for them, often they see me doing this and curiosity wins – they want to play and the TV goes off
3. Get moving: Did you know that just the act of movement stimulates neural activity and growth? This is precisely why play is such a fantastic vehicle for teaching. Ask your child to throw a wet sponge at a diagraph target instead of simply reading it. The movement will get their hearts going, and release dopamine (the feel-good learning hormone!), they will be buzzing, laughing and learning!
4. Keep it short: Do not expect to set up an activity to keep your children entertained for hours at a time. A neuro-typical child has the capacity to focus on an activity for 1-5mins per year of their age, therefore a 3 year old can be expected to play independently for between 3-15mins, longer if supported. By keeping games snappy you don’t risk fun-fatigue creeping in, that said very young children do thrive on repetition. So use your judgement in the moment, but prepare for only 5minute bursts, any extra is a bonus. You can always add a timer if your child enjoys an element of competition, or needs a visual guide to maintain focus.
5. Follow their interests: if your child is interested in dinosaurs for example, use this to your advantage. Spend a moment writing numbers (or the desired learning outcome) onto bits of paper, stick them to the dinosaurs and then hide them about the house. Ask your child: “Can you find me the dinosaur that is wearing a number 7”? Once all the dinosaurs are found, can they order them? If you child is interested in vehicles then “How many stones can the lorry carry in the back? What letter is this road (hand drawn on paper) shaped like? Can the racing car zoom around this letter? Is the letter in your name? Can you find this letter if I write your name down?” They are much more likely to be engaged in new activities if it involves their favourite thing.
10. Don’t force them to play! This is perhaps the most important of all, if you insist that they take part in an activity you have instantly removed all the fun from it and you have destroyed the all important opportunity to connect. If they’re not initially interested, don’t feel disheartened! Leave the game or set up out and available to the child to explore at their leisure. I promise you, they will show an interest eventually!