Video introducing the five characteristics
The five characteristics
Learning through play also involves being actively engaged. When children are immersed in hands-on, minds-on play, they learn. Imagine a child who is intently absorbed in playing with a set of building blocks. She is actively imagining how the pieces will go together and is truly immersed. This mental immersion and resistance to distraction is a hallmark of both play and learning separately, but seems to be especially powerful within the context of learning through play.
Meaningful is when the child can relate new experiences to something already known. In play, children often explore what they have seen and done, or noticed others do, as a way of grasping what it means. By doing so, they can express and expand their understanding through a variety of media, symbols and tools.
Social interaction is a powerful tool for both learning and play. By communicating their thoughts, understanding others through direct interaction and sharing ideas, children are not only able to enjoy being with others, but also to build deeper understanding and more powerful relationships.
Joy is at the heart of play whether expressed as pleasure, enjoyment, motivation or thrill. From a child enjoying playing with a friend to the thrill of building that tower just right, joy is a key facet of play. Saying that learning through play must be joyful does not mean that there can be no negative or neutral emotions at all. Sometimes frustration with a problem is necessary to feel the joy of breakthrough when it is finally solved. Just as the power of surprise or the thrill of the unexpected can bring joy to an otherwise boring or even potentially intimidating situation.
From a toddler trying different ways to build a high 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.
These five characteristics ebb and flow as children are engaged in learning through play activities and all five are not necessary all the time. But over time, children should experience moments of joy and surprise, a meaningful connection, be active and absorbed, iterate and engage with others.
Read more in our white paper: Learning through play: A review of the evidence.