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The Five Characteristics of Learning Through Play

In this article, we will look at the Five Characteristics of Learning Through Play, and think about what they look like in early childhood.

A child’s interest and ability to play develops from the moment they are born. As young children’s bodies and brains develop and grow – so do their play skills! In this article, we will look at the Five Characteristics of Learning Through Play, and think about what they look like in early childhood.

Infant play begins with rich, short interactions, often initiated by a caregiver. As a baby grows and learns to move, they will even initiate play themselves and will start to playfully explore their environment using all of their senses, learning about the world through touch, sight, smell, and taste! Later, toddlers start to engage in more complex play, like acting out everyday scenarios during pretend play, and playing with other children, during which they learn how to get along with and cooperate with others.

The 5 Characteristics of LtP in ECD


Learning through play is meaningful as it connects new information to something a child already knows or is familiar with. For babies and toddlers, this can be connecting to the people or routines that they are closest with.

In early childhood, this might look like:

  • A baby seeing their caregiver ‘reappearing’ in a game of peek-a-boo.
  • A toddler acting out their own bedtime routine by bathing their doll and putting it to bed.


Babies and young children are more likely to learn through experiences that are fun and joyful. They are learning how to express their emotions, and positive feelings ensure playful learning opportunities are motivating and exciting. When a baby smiles, smile back and mirror their joy back to them!

In early childhood, this might look like:

  • A baby smiling and laughing when playing aeroplane.
  • A toddler celebrating when they build a really tall tower, and celebrating again when they knock it down!


Playing and exploring would be no fun or help if it always stayed the same! Trying out different possibilities helps children learn and think of new ideas. If something doesn’t work the first time, they think about it and then try again. Babies and toddlers are constantly iterating as they learn new ways to solve problems – like crawling and walking.

In early childhood, this might look like:

  • A baby banging an object against different surfaces to make different sounds.
  • A toddler rotating and flipping a shape to work out how it fits into a puzzle.

Socially interactive

Babies are born ready for socialising with others and love to engage in back-and-forth interactions with their caregivers. As they grow and develop, so do their play skills. Toddlers start to engage more with other children in social play, and get better at forming relationships and learning how to cooperate and collaborate with others. Using their developing language and social skills, toddlers love sharing their ideas with others; this helps them think outside the box and achieve new things.

In early childhood, this might look like:

  • A baby copying their caregiver’s sounds, facial expressions, and movements.
  • A toddler sharing toys and playing alongside siblings or friends.

Actively engaging

Babies and children learn best when they are immersed in hands-on and engaging activities. Babies love playing with things that stimulate their senses (i.e. sensory play). Engaging play means children are highly motivated, active learners, and can be completely focused on the task at hand! Their minds are always working, exploring, rethinking, and testing out different ideas.

In early childhood, this might look like:

  • A baby captivated by different sounds, sights, and touch sensations.
  • A toddler creating different shapes with playdough.

Example Activities

0-1y – Caregiver/baby playing Peek-a-boo:

  • Meaningful: Recognising their caregivers face and playing with someone they have a bond with
  • Joyful: Surprise seeing the face reappear is exciting and fun for a baby
  • Iterative: As a baby gets older they might start to look for their caregiver behind where they’re hiding, an adult can try variations on the game too, like hiding a toy so the baby can look for it
  • Socially interactive: A back-and-forth interaction between baby and adult; shared eye contact and feelings of excitement and joy; engaging in the natural rhythm of social interactions
  • Actively engaging: Babies love faces and find the ‘boo!’ moment exciting, capturing and holding their attention. They might join in and copy the adult’s actions.

1-2y – Block building with a caregiver:

  • Meaningful: A toddler might build something like a house or a bridge, based on what they’ve seen in their environment
  • Joyful: A child gets pleasure from building a tower and expressing their creativity, and pushing the blocks over and watching it crash down is fun and exciting!
  • Iterative: Trying out different ways to build with the blocks (trying out different shapes or constructions), or testing how things fall over when they push the constructions over.
  • Socially interactive: When playing with their caregiver, a child might communicate their ideas about what they’re trying to build. They can learn in these playful interactions by listening to and watching their caregiver.
  • Actively engaging: A child may be fully absorbed in the block building activity, imagining how the blocks go together and staying focused on their task

2-4y – Doing a puzzle with a similar age friend or sibling:

  • Meaningful: The finished puzzle might be an image of a favourite book or television character
  • Joyful: The satisfaction of completing the task as well as the social interaction and seeing the character in the complete picture when they finish
  • Iterative: Trying to get a piece to fit can be tricky! It can take a lot to think about which piece to choose next, where the piece you’re holding might go and which way around you need to hold it to get it to fit
  • Socially interactive: Doing puzzles with friends and siblings gives children a great chance to practice their talking, sharing, and turn taking to reach the goal of the finished puzzle together
  • Actively engaging: With all the different pieces and all the different ways that they might fit together, it can take a lot of brain power to work out how to complete a puzzle! Even more so when you’re trying to work out how to finish it as a team.
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