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Five key characteristics of learning through play

In this article, we will learn how the five characteristics of learning through play evolve from early to middle childhood.

Children between the ages of 4 to 9 go through big changes in social and emotional development. These changes manifest in the ways in which children play.

The importance of learning through play

For instance, four-year-olds might be focused on physical play like learning to skip, riding a bike, jumping, and climbing. Nine-year-olds might spend more time asking questions and designing experiments.

Play serves an important function – it enables children to learn about the world and explore how they fit into it.

A four-year-old playing with a doll may act out the concrete activities they observe in their own daily life – for example, acting out caregiving routines such as feeding a baby, changing a baby’s diaper, and rocking or putting a baby to sleep.

As children get older and their capacity for abstract thinking grows, they may shift to more complex imaginary games and trying out different roles or make-believe situations. Playing with friends helps children build key social skills like listening, compromise, and problem-solving.

These changes in how children play are an important part of healthy development. Adults can support children’s development by recognizing and supporting children’s play.

Below, we describe the five characteristics of Learning through Play and how they manifest in middle childhood.

1. Meaningful

Children learn through play when it is connected to something they are already familiar with. In Middle Childhood, play can be meaningful in many ways:

  • When it is connected to words or concepts learned in school.
  • When it calls-back to a favorite book, story, song, television show, movie, or character.
  • When it is linked with a memorable occasion like a family event, a celebration, time spent with friends or relatives, etc.

2. Joyful

Children learn through play when they find it joyful, exciting, and motivating. In Middle Childhood, play can be joyful when:

  • It is aligned with children’s social needs, such as developing close relationships with a caregiver/parent or building friendships with peers.
  • It is physically active, which can involve outdoor activities, rough-and-tumble play, or building balance and coordination, depending on the child’s interests and age.
  • It is challenging but within reach, i.e., children might struggle initially but can feel success in an activity or task with a little bit of support.
  • It brings laughter or delight, and feelings of competence (e.g., “I did it!”).

3. Iterative

Children learn through play by trying to solve a challenge through repeated attempts or by figuring out different ways to approach the same game or problem. In Middle Childhood, play is successfully iterative when:

  • Children seek to engage with it again and again (even without adult encouragement).
  • Children face new challenges when they go back to the same problem or game.
  • Children have the opportunity to fail, make mistakes, and keep trying.
  • Adults present similar games or problems with new twists or hurdles.

4. Socially Interactive

Children learn through play when it allows them to interact with peers and adults. In Middle Childhood, play is socially interactive in many ways:

  • For younger children, interactions with familiar adults, caregivers, older or younger siblings, and relatives is common. Children this age (4-6 years) are learning how to listen and respond to the ideas of others, take turns and share, ask for and give help, and show kindness and flexibility as they play with others.
  • As children grow older, peer groups become more important and children may spend more time playing with friends. Children this age (7-9 years) are learning how to build on the ideas of their peers, negotiate disagreements or different points of view, and create their own complex games and other forms of play.
  • Social play is often both motivating and challenging for children this age; they participate in the give-and-take of relationships, they receive feedback from their peers, they are challenged by the skills and abilities of others both older and younger, and they experience pride and affirmation in mutual enjoyment.
  • When physically being together in groups is not possible, older children can play social games online through video calls, or children can play in person one-on-one with a close friend or sibling.

5. Actively Engaging

Finally, children learn through play when it actively engages their attention, interests, and developmental needs. In Middle Childhood, this can mean many things:

  • As vocabulary grows, play that encourages and boosts children’s language development is engaging for children.
  • As concern for others grows, playful activities that involve thinking about and helping others is engaging for many children.
  • As peer relationships become more important, play that helps them build and maintain friendships is engaging for children.
  • As their thinking and understanding skills grow, play that moves from concrete to abstract helps to engage children’s full mental capacities.
  • Active engagement often looks like deep focus, sustained effort and attention, and full involvement or participation.

If you’d like to learn more about learning through play, check out the full online course, from the LEGO Foundation, below.

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Coping with Changes: Social-Emotional Learning Through Play

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