Five characteristics of playful experiences
The five characteristics listed below are inspired by seminal academic papers describing how children as well as youngsters of other species play, extensive work with practitioners in the field, and reviews of the professional literature about play and learning. We do not view them as providing any formal definition of play, but they do help unfold how playful experiences lead to deeper learning.
We say learning through play happens when an activity (1) is joyful, (2) involves active, engaged, minds-on thinking, (3) helps children find meaning in what they are doing or learning, (4) involves iterative thinking (experimentation, hypothesis testing, etc.), and (5) involves social interaction.
Joy is at the heart of play. From being in “flow” to the thrill of surprise or wonder, joy and positive experiences are linked to curiosity and learning. Recent work suggests that even infants show more learning after a surprising event than after one that is expected.
Learning through play also involves being actively engaged. Imagine a child who’s fully absorbed in playing with a set of building blocks. She is actively imagining how the pieces will go together and is so engrossed that she fails to hear her father call her for dinner. This mental immersion and ability to stay focused are especially powerful in the context of learning through play.
Meaningful is the difference between a child reciting numbers from 1–10, and actually being able to count, because he or she grasps the concept of amounts. It is about sense making, with children using the environment and opportunities around them to connect new knowledge to their own experiences, expanding and expressing their understanding through a variety of media, symbols and tools.
From a toddler testing how to build the tallest tower with blocks, to a young child discovering that the angle of a slide impacts how far a marble will shoot across a room, iteration – trying out possibilities, revising hypotheses and discovering the next question – leads to increased learning.
Social interaction is a powerful tool for both learning and play. Through the processes of sharing their thoughts, understanding others through direct interaction and communicating ideas, children are not only able to enjoy being with others, but also to build deeper understanding and more powerful relationships.
These five characteristics ebb and flow as children are immersed in each particular activity,. As a minimum, however, learning through play means children are both joyful and actively engaged. It is certainly hard to imagine either play or learning without children being minds-on, absorbed and actively taking in experiences. Adding any of the other three characteristics supports even deeper learning.
What we mean by: Learning through play
In this leaflet, we share our view of play as an important vehicle for children’s learning and about how playful experiences support children in developing the skills to serve them, their communities and society through a lifetime.
Learning through play
Skills for holistic development
Theorists, researchers and practitioners in child development and education have done an excellent job of extending our view of learning to go beyond memorising academic content, by highlighting a breadth of skills – physical, social, emotional, cognitive and creative.