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How 3-5 year olds learn through play

Goodstart centres

Author: Kirsty Brown, Educational Leader and Early Childhood Teacher, Goodstart East Perth

Children learn naturally through play. It’s how they make sense of the world around them, express their curiosity, and have fun.

Play-based learning is the foundation of our approach to early education at Goodstart East Perth, and of course in all Goodstart centres, but not all parents know what play-based learning actually is.

To some it just looks like play, but I believe parents having an appreciation of the learning taking place can help them understand what we do in the centre each day and extend their child’s learning at home.

So what is play-based learning?
Play-based learning is a simple concept but because so many of us are accustomed to seeing learning occur in formal settings, it’s easily misunderstood.

Play-based learning is all about the process that children embark on, rather than achieving a specific outcome. To understand play-based learning it sometimes helps to contrast it against formal learning.

Let’s say we wanted children to start exploring the letters of the alphabet. In a formal learning setting you might sit them down and ask them to memorise flash cards, while with play-based learning you would set up an area where children could pick up letters and use them in a variety of open-ended ways.

In the play-based learning example, a skilled educator or teacher will extend the child’s learning as they play with the letters by talking about how they can be used, the sounds they make and the letters in their name.

What skills do children develop through play?
The first five years are when children form their neural pathways and connections. Through play and active exploration, children’s brains are shaped and designed and many skills are developed such as:
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Resilience
  • Emotional regulation
  • Relationship building
These are all critical skills needed for school and adult life, and quality play-based learning is the best way to develop them.

How do we use play-based learning for 3-5 year olds?
Recently my kindergarten children have been investigating floating and sinking, so in our science exploration area I set up a tub of water and left a variety of materials next to it. I also provided some clipboards and pens for children to use in their play.

Each day the children would explore whether the objects floated or sank to the bottom. Without interrupting their play, I would talk to them using language such as ‘float’ and ‘sink’ so that they were able to describe what they could see.

The children experimented and recorded what they saw on their clipboards – some drew pictures, some put down symbols, while others tried to write words.

Each day they discovered something new, and after a week they wanted to make their own boats which they did by using a variety of materials and drawing on what they’d learned when experimenting.

When they tested their boats they noticed they all had good features, but that they all sank eventually. So they decided to work together using the things that worked best to make another boat.

This one floated all day! The children were so excited and kept coming back to check on it.

During this activity the children were developing a range of skills such as scientific understanding, communicating using symbols and verbal language, using fine motor skills, working independently and collaboratively and also using creativity.

That’s a lot of learning packed into play!

Play-based learning tips for home
Try these things to extend play based learning at home:
  • Let your child lead the play. Follow their interests without taking over.
  • Keep play open ended. It’s about the process, not the outcome.
  • Play alongside them. Get down to your child’s level and play as an equal, not as an authority figure. And don’t be scared to let go of your adult inhibitions!
  • Allow moments of quiet and silence. This gives time for children to think about where their play is headed.
  • Take time to just be an observer. See what happens as you step back, and think about different ways you could help extend the play.
  • Introduce children to new vocabulary. Think about the language you use as you are playing.
  • Play with a variety of things. Children will use many things that you might not think of as play materials. Boxes, cartons, tins and more can all be recycled for play.
  • Balance inside and outside play. Different environments help to build a range of skills.
You can also find out what your child has been playing during the day in their centre and build on that at home or on the weekend.

And remember – it’s play, so have fun!

Learn more about our approach to early learning here, and find a centre near you.
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