Building a sand castle is one example of play based learning

Play based learning: Tips for parents

By  and

All children love to play!  Maria Montessori once said that “play is the work of the child” – but even this is a gross understatement of just how important play based learning is to the development of our children.  Play is a time when children can be free to investigate, explore, imagine, create, communicate and most of all practice what they have been learning.  Research tells us that play is vital in the development of social and emotional skills, self-regulation, cognitive functioning, and gross and fine motor skills.

Children who have been exposed to high quality play experiences are more confident. They also foster a respect for diversity, can understand and express emotions, and more readily develop concepts of fairness, equity, and acceptance.  These children grow into independent, life-long learners who are better equipped to handle the many challenges that life throws at them.

Early educators have been specifically trained to plan and implement valuable play based learning activities that promote quality learning, co-operation, inclusion, and self-regulation. So how can parents help support this type of play within the home?

Nurture the relationship with your child.

The relationship you have with your child during play is the most essential ingredient to its success.  Children need to feel loved, supported and encouraged to play without judgement. And they should not feel as though they must conform to adult expectations. By this we mean colouring between the lines, playing a particular way, not mixing colours, or getting too messy.  Let them know it’s okay to take risks and ‘have a go’, as this is when they learn and play best.

Play environment

Think about the layout and space of where your child does most of their playing at home. Does it support or hinder play based learning?  A clean, clear, uncluttered area is best for children to maximise playtime. It also makes it easier for them to tidy up afterwards.  A cluttered environment with too many toys leads to confusion and feeling overwhelmed easily.

Set the pace

Children need an unhurried environment where they have time to explore.  Turn off the technology and TV. This will allow them to play without hurrying off to the next activity.

Utilise the senses

Children love toys, objects and household items that invite sensory investigation and exploration.  Playing with anything that can be opened, shut, sorted, pulled, pushed, squeezed, poked, manipulated or has a different texture will significantly enhance their play based learning experience.

Toy selection

Think carefully about the toys you make available to your child.  Simple, natural toys that can be used in multiple ways seem to benefit children the most. These are the toys that they will most likely play with repeatedly.  Toys with flashing lights and loud noises tend to be attractive to children initially but are discarded quickly when the novelty has worn off.

Be careful when giving your child hand-me-down wooden toys and cheap imported toys. These can contain toxins like lead and formaldehyde.

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Child directed play

Let your child decide what they would like to play with, how they would like to play and extend on what they are naturally interested in.  If they show interest in building with blocks, you can expand on this by introducing them to building a box fort or using more advanced construction toys.

Outdoor play

Children are naturally inquisitive in outdoor environments. They should be spending a significant amount of time outside each day.  Gardening, water-play, sand play, mud kitchens, ball games, or climbing trees are all ideal ways to play and explore.

Variety of play

Offer a variety of different types of play (art, music, construction, physical activity, dramatic play or dress up).

Encourage independent play

When your child is happily playing on their own, try not to interrupt them.  This time is essential for the development of their creativity and imagination.  Do be sure to sneak a peek though and watch them for a while. Doing this will give you so much insight into their little world!


Give your child the opportunity to play and interact with a diverse range of people. That includes children of different ages and abilities, and other adults. This will help immensely with social and emotional development and communication skills.

If you are still not sure of the most effective way to help your child play, the best person to ask advice from is your child.  Listen to what they have to say.  They will know better than any adults, the best ways for them to learn, have fun and play games. After all, “Listening is where love begins” (Fred Rogers).