Child Development: Play to Learn

Children learn about the world through play. Playful exploration is how children acquire knowledge and build critical skills that produce a strong foundation for success later in life.

As the chief advocate of a child's learning, parents can encourage curiosity through enriched play to stimulate brain development and contribute to physical and mental health. When children have opportunities to interact with others, they cultivate social-emotional abilities such as focus, self-control, empathy, problem-solving, and persistence.  And ensuring a degree of agency during play promotes self-choice, motivation, and decision-making that extends through their lives.

There are many ways parents can nurture child development: conversation, storytelling, reading books, and teaching life skills. At a minimum, providing the space, materials, and free time for dynamic play helps children grow.

Activity samples to develop early skills

Literacy skills    Create a menu for a pretend restaurant or play a game to find everything in a house that begins with a specific sound

Vocabulary     Supply open-ended materials like blocks, foam pieces, ribbons, or scarves to promote creativity and use of new words

Cognitive skills     Use a make-believe grocery store to develop math and problem-solving

Social skills     Pretend together in a situation like an imaginary car wash

Physical abilities    Balance blocks or imitate animals by running, jumping, and hopping 

Example: encouraging a toddler during play

Jordan’s dad feeds his curiosity. He comments, “I see you trying to get that last ring on the post, but it just won’t fit.” Or asks Billy questions: “Where did that ball go? Do you see it hiding under the table?” He connects play to learning by affirming Billy's interest: “I've noticed you like to look through the basket. Does everything look different from under there?” His father also inspires him to keep trying even when he gets frustrated. “Those blocks keep falling down, don’t they? Can you try to put one on top of another gently? Let’s see what happens. I’ll help you.” The encouragement fosters perseverance, focus, and initiative at problem-solving, all positive approaches to learning.

Example: encouraging a preschooler during play

Alicia’s parents recognize that pretend activities keep Alicia engaged for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. They play alongside her, asking Alicia to “bake cookies” or to “go grocery shopping” for them. Her parents give her paper and crayons to pretend to write grocery lists. They encourage her to count how many items she put in her toy shopping cart. Alicia's parents accept her scribbles and letter-like shapes as writing (consistent for 4-year-olds) and help her when the numbers get a little mixed up.

Alicia enjoys working with puzzles for long periods, especially when her dad works with her. They figure out strategies for putting the pieces together. She turns pieces around, trying out different ways until they fit, developing problem-solving and persistence in the process.

Exploration through open-ended, engaging play allows children to persevere even when difficulties arise. When you ask questions that elicit multiple solutions, you inspire a trial-and-error approach rather than leading the child towards one answer. Ask open-ended questions such as:

I notice…
I wonder…
Tell me more…

What, Why, and How...
How did you…?
What would happen if…?

Above all, eliminate any pressure you've put on yourself that your children have to learn. Their learning journey is enriched by you participating in the world side by side. Ask questions and have conversations and experiences together. Playful moments provide an opportunity to connect and create fun memories: one of the most precious gifts you can give your children throughout early childhood and beyond.


n.a. (2021, January 21 updated). Importance of Play in Early Childhood, opens a new window. [website article]

Bongiorno, Laurel. (n.d.). 10 things every parent should know about play, opens a new window. National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) [website article]

Galinsky, Ellen. Mind In The Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, opens a new window. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Gronlund, Gaye. (n.d.). How to support children's approaches to Learning? Play with them!, opens a new window National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) [website article]

The Lego Foundation. (2018, October). Learning through play, opens a new window. [advocacy brief developed by Education Section of UNICEF’s Headquarters Office]

Mader, Jackie. (2018, March 5). Eight ways to introduce kids to STEM at an early age, opens a new window. The Hechinger Report [website article]

Mader, Jackie. (2021, February 4). 5 ways schools hope to fight Covid-19 learning loss, opens a new window. The Hechinger Report [website article]

Photo by Kamaji Ogino from Pexels