play - the most powerful mechanism for understanding the world

Play – The Most Powerful Mechanism For Understanding The World

The Purpose And Beauty of Play

From The Learning Child set of talks and materials

Through playful experiences, your child is learning to improvise, to interact and to listen.  They are relating to their surroundings as they explore ideas and concepts. And they are gaining an understanding of how the world works and their place within it. Play is then the most powerful mechanism your child has for this deep level learning.

When your child is playing, both inside and out, they are explorers on an expedition to undiscovered territories.  As they play make-believe games they get to “try the world on for size”. They are testing difficult ideas in safe ways as they consider “What will happen if?” or “I wonder why… or how?”  As they develop this highly personal understanding of the world, they can begin to make sense of it and work out their responses to the people in it. 

Learning and play interlink so freely as to be indistinguishable within children’s actions

Play and learning will naturally feed off each other. So much so that your child will find ways to include both whenever you overlook one.  They may use ‘silly’ or ‘playful’ words when you expect them to behave in more constricted ways. Or be unable to sit still as they make a game of balancing their chair on two legs.  

When you allow children to play, they develop a deeper awareness of the knowledge and principles they are playing with. Take for example, understanding how weight works; how something can be heavier or lighter than something else. And the meaning this might give us about what is inside. 

As your child plays with water, they experience how different a jug feels as it empties. Lessons they are learning throughout their whole body.  When they then apply this idea to a bucket of sand or a bag of feathers, they learn to utilise new information. Broadening their understanding of familiar situations with every experience. 

Unlike surface knowledge, meaningful understanding of the concepts beneath needs exploring and hands on engagement

As you offer your child opportunities to use and combine their newly acquired skills and abilities, they are learning to continuously perfect them.  They are experiencing what it means to arrive at answers for themselves. 

Not only are these far more meaningful than anything they are told, but this is also helping them to understand what new abilities they need to explore next.  And so much more than this, they are learning about their own abilities as a learner. Something that they will take with them into every new experience going forward. 

Recognise the importance of playful learning experiences and offer your child the deeper understanding that comes from them

This is especially important when the demands of more formal classrooms limit your child’s access to environments and experiences that are more naturally rich in play.  You will see the signs – as soon as your child suggests they are bored or don’t like school.

Playful learning is not something that should be limited to the early years, it remains our deepest form of understanding throughout life.  Ask yourself how you learn anything… from creating an elaborate evening meal, to managing the huge project at work.  You need to get stuck in; to play with different ideas as you see what happens, learning from mistakes and perfecting your skills.

If you are concerned about the lack of playful learning your child is receiving, ask the question.  Where are they having opportunities to really play? Retaining this most powerful mechanism for understanding the world. After all, Children love to learn – just not necessarily in the way it is expected of them.


Dr Kathryn Peckham is an Early Childhood Consultant, author and researcher and the founder of Nurturing Childhoods.  Providing all the knowledge, understanding and support you need to nurture your growing child.   www.nurturingchildhoods.co.uk

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