Play is one of those universals of childhood – given the opportunity, it seems children of all backgrounds will play, and play enthusiastically. But did you know that simple play is more than just that – it’s how they learn, as well. Learning through play has a wide range of benefits to children and is, in fact, becoming an increasingly important part of school curriculums. Today we’ll look at what exactly is meant by play, what some of its benefits are, and which Haakaa products can help encourage the development of motor skills and imaginative play in our wee ones.
Children’s play in this context is exactly what you’re probably picturing – it’s primarily voluntary, self-directed, spontaneous, and is often complex. It can also be divided into broad (and sometimes overlapping) categories as described by Jean Piaget, one of the early psychologists who focused on child development1:
- Functional – in which children play with objects according to their intended function, e.g. rolling a ball, or repetitive actions – think dropping things from the highchair!
- Constructive – when children build or construct something out of other items – for example, making a tower from blocks or playing in a sandpit
- Symbolic/imaginative/dramatic – instead of using objects according to function, children instead use an object to symbolise something else – such as using a block as a phone – while imaginative/dramatic play is more similar to roleplaying, such as playing superheroes. It's a real chance to develop and use their imaginations
- Games with rules2
These are stages that children tend to move through as they learn more about themselves and the world around them. Imaginative play and games with rules in particular help children learn to move out of the more egocentric ways of thinking and behaving that very young babies start with – instead, they use these types of games to learn how to relate to others and take other people’s thoughts, ideas, and feelings into account.
So, when does play become learning? The answer to that is pretty much always. There is more to gaining knowledge and understanding than just sitting down at a desk and doing structured book work – aka academic learning – especially with young children. All of the previously mentioned play categories help children learn about themselves and the world around them. They help them learn how to use their bodies. They teach them how to interact with other people and how to enjoy their own company. They boost their imaginations through roleplaying and ‘dramatic’ play and are essential in helping them learn, create, and navigate the complex social rules that govern our lives. Symbolic play, in particular, is also tied to literacy and numeracy – after all, what are letters and numbers if not symbols of communication? A lot of this learning occurs through play because children are ‘hands-on’ learners – that is, they learn by doing, rather than just sitting down and being told3. Play gives them a safe environment in which to not only figure out themselves and the world but to test their own capabilities, in much the same way a lion cub learns to hunt by pouncing on its mother’s tail or play-fighting with its siblings.
But while play is often self-directed, this doesn’t mean that we as parents can’t provide the environments and tools that enable this type of creative play. Toys don’t need to be complicated or expensive, nor do they need to be particularly ‘high-tech’. All children need is the chance to use their imaginations and their bodies to build a whole world in which they figure out what they can do, alongside the opportunity to problem-solve so they can make sense of those things they don’t know. For example, the pots in the cupboard are an age-old favourite – they make noise, are often shiny, and colanders in particular make the perfect hat in the eyes of an adventurous toddler. Add in a wooden spoon, and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect – albeit noisy – toddler afternoon. This simple game shows them cause and effect while letting them learn their own strength as they develop their gross and fine motor skills.
Sometimes as a parent, a toy that’s a bit quieter than drumming on pots can be a needed alternative, though. Haakaa have the perfect choice with our Silicone Arch Stacker Set. Made of 100% soft, sturdy, and – most importantly – durable silicone, each of the ten pieces of this set are easy to keep clean. Designed with imaginative play in mind, the individual arch pieces can not only be used as a traditional stacker but can be rearranged over and over for limitless open-ended play opportunities. Whether you have one precious one at home or siblings who play together, the Stacker Arch Set is perfect for developing hand-eye coordination, problem-solving abilities, fine motor skills, and more!
Another of Haakaa’s soft silicone toy range is the adorable Nesting Dolls. As they are also made of 100% silicone, they (along with the Arch Stackers) are able to withstand teething! Also designed to provide open-ended play opportunities, these dolls are ideal for helping your little one learn such early concepts as shapes, colours, counting, and sequences – and what’s more, they come with the choice of cat or bear shapes!
However your little ones play, and whatever they do, they have the opportunity to learn. Being able to experiment, explore their surroundings, and make discoveries in their own ways helps them build their minds and bodies in a way that is not only useful, but fun for them – definitely the best of both worlds. Allowing them to start building a love for discovery early on, in a way they enjoy, is an ideal way to set them up for their later years.
1Storli, R., & Hansen Sandseter, E. B. (2019). Children’s play, well-being and involvement: How children play indoors and outdoors in Norwegian early childhood education and care institutions. International Journal of Play, 8(1), 65-78. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2019.1580338
2 My Teaching Cupboard. (n.d.). Developmental stages of play – Piaget. https://www.myteachingcupboard.com/blog/developmental-stages-of-play-piaget
3Unicef. (2018). Learning through play. https://www.unicef.org/sites/default/files/2018-12/UNICEF-Lego-Foundation-Learning-through-Play.pdf