Five Playful Activities That Support Development & Learning In Any Environment

written by: Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Chair of Learning through Play


We are facing an unprecedented situation of a global lockdown with schools closed, events and community activities canceled, friends separated, and families isolated. During this time of uncertainty, many parents are having to transition and navigate their new role as educators and playmates.

For many families, this also adds a lot more stress to daily life, and maybe even expectations to take on even more responsibility for children’s play, development, and learning.

In this time of isolation, parents have an excellent opportunity to make use of the time together to exercise critical skills through playful activities. Activities which have been recognized as being valuable for both parents and children, and doesn’t require a formal learning environment.

According to the Play Well Report, play is the critical thing that brings families together. Families who do well play together, and are often happier, have better connections to their children and are reminded about what is important in life.

Children need a breadth of skills, and in this case, also a breadth of play opportunities. Research suggests these five types of play to support development and learning, which can be used as a balance over the day or week.

Physical Play

  • This includes physical activities (e.g. jumping, climbing, dancing, skipping, bike riding and ball play), fine-motor practice (e.g. sewing, coloring, cutting, manipulating action toys and construction toys) and ‘rough-and-tumble’ play (pretend fighting with peers).
  • Physically active play provides children with exercise and is also linked with academic progress, self-regulation, and social competence.
  • Getting outdoor in nature is one of the activities that have clear positive benefits, but one can also start with basic and simple activities indoor, like turning the floor into 'stepping stones' in a river, trying to balance toys or objects on your head and shoulder, or building tricky towers.

Pretend Play

  • Pretend play, such as the classic games of make-believe and role-play, is the most researched type of play. It develops reasoning skills, social development, and creativity.
  • It’s also possible that pretend play could be crucial to the development of language, narrative skills and emotion regulation and good evidence that fantasy-orientated play enhances self-regulation and learning-to-learn skills.
  • We know that if a child pretends to be a fictional character (like a super-hero), they become more immersed and stay focused on a task. Maybe trying to clean out the dishes as batman, or acting out what it means if family members change roles, would spark more ideas.

 Play with Objects

  • This begins early, with behaviors such as basic object manipulation, rotating objects while looking, hitting and dropping. It progresses to arranging and constructing objects as toddlers and then develops into sorting and classifying until the more complex building, making and constructing larger objects.
  • Certain studies link play with objects with the development of representational abilities (e.g. a banana becoming a telephone), reasoning and problem-solving strategies. Some studies have provided evidence of links between play with objects and the development of language, mathematics, spatial and fine motor skills.
  • Engage your child in different kinds of creative activities from painting to play dough, from sandbox to complex maker activities, baking and cooking together. Maybe ask your child to rebuild and combine two of your LEGO models, which exercises both problem-solving, self-regulation and creativity.

 Symbolic play

  • This type of play begins when children first start communicating and progresses to include spoken language, mark making, numbers, and music, by using the first signs of symbols and representations.
  • There’s good evidence that symbolic play enhances children’s language development. Language in itself has relationships with other important skills and goals, including self-regulation and academic achievement. Some research indicates that musical play could aid the development of communication skills and that it is related to higher cognitive functioning.
  • Laying out a few basic blocks or objects from your household on the table and assign a new word or rhythm to each of them. When you touch the objects, you can use the new meaning of the objects to create a new song or rhythm. You can also help the child chose a favorite book and engage them in building a physical model of parts of the story, or maybe an alternative ending.

 Games with Rules

  • These include physical games, such as chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching, and, as children grow up, electronic and computer games as well as the whole range of more organized sporting activities.
  • Board games (especially those involving numbers) are particularly about systematic thinking, problem-solving and helping to improve numeracy. Physical games with rules help children adapt to follow sequences and instructions, including formal schooling. Games with rules may act as a substitute for adult oversight, enhancing children’s freedom and agency.
  • This is a great opportunity to find a favorite game, and remember that for children, sometimes the most enjoyable part of the game is to change and agree on the (new) rules, whether it is catching a ball or in a board game. Online games can also be engaging for the family, in particular, if they are active, and a great way for adults to understand and participate online.

When we are thinking about play, we often think about free and unstructured forms of play. These forms of play have tremendous benefits to a broad range of skills, language and mathematics, health and well-being, and research suggests that the benefit comes from a balance of free play and guidance.

In this case, when we are at home with children, it's good for them to have opportunities to freely explore different forms of play, but also for adults to help demonstrate concrete examples of play activities and articulate ambitions and goals. A critical requirement for learning through play is for children to be actively engaged in making the choices of what to do and how to do it. This makes it meaningful, more enjoyable to succeed and a more effective learning experience. In this case, it might be good to invest a bit of effort in trying out and modeling some of the activities. When you get the concept, you are able to develop new ideas, and children will iterate and come up with new activities.

When we are in a condition of uncertainty, whether it's about when we can return to work, when schools will reopen, or if any of us, family members or friends are sick, play is a very effective approach to deal with uncertainties, cope and engage in stress relief. Research says that play and creativity help to cope with changes in everyday life, it enhances our subjective well-being and releases positive energy to think about alternatives.

Most importantly, parents who are more open to taking risks, be playful, test and try out new things, are also supporting children to be more adaptable and emotionally regulated.

Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen is the Vice-President and Chair of Learning through Play in the LEGO Foundation. The function of the Chair is to be the expert at the highest level to the executive leadership on how children and adults learn through play.

The Types of Play