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Playing to Learn and Learning to Play

When a baby is playing, even with his toes, he is busy discovering. In this case, about his body and the fact that those toes are part of him. He’ll want to know everything there is to know about them, including what they taste like. Play is a baby’s main mode of learning and the more he plays, the faster he’ll learn!

A baby needs to thrive socially, emotionally, physically, and cognitively to experience a fulfilling life. Playing is a child’s way of learning, not just about his body, but also about his environment, the people in his life and everything else he needs to know, such as what an object feels like, what sounds they make, what happens when something is pushed or pulled, or falls down, etc.

As a child plays, he will also discover his own capabilities and what his body can and cannot do. While doing that, he will learn too that he will have to move closer to a desired object if he wants it and hence, begin to hone his motor skills in learning to crawl, pull up against furniture, cruise, walk, run, etc…

Exploration is the heart of play, and in your child’s mind any experiment counts, even hurling food off the highchair tray and making a mess on the floor. Development experts are fond of saying that play is the work of children (and cleaning up after play seems to be the work of parents). This is important for parents to know, especially those who are bent on teaching their child how to ‘behave themselves’ from a very young age.

Do take care that you won’t, in the process, be denying your little one precious opportunities to learn, discover and thrive.

Learning independence and problem-solving skills

If you take the time to watch a toddler play quietly by himself, you will surely notice that he is paying great attention to detail and that his play is becoming more imaginative and complex. Through play, he’s exercising key skills and qualities, such as independence, creativity, curiosity, and problem-solving. During the toddler years is also when a child explores feelings and values and develops social skills. Many parents have reported that long before their child was open to sharing a favorite toy with a sibling or another family member, he first ‘offered’ it to another toy, e.g. a doll.

Similarly, a little one’s first attempt at saying ‘please’ and/or ‘thank you’ or even ‘sorry’, may happen during an imaginary scenario during playtime.

This of course, depends on what he sees and hears going on around him on a daily basis, so parents, do remember that!

Types of play

Depending on the stage of development, parents can help a child thrive through play. How? Well, since play is the tool your child uses to learn about the world, the skills he’s working on right now are your biggest clues to choosing the best activities.

For instance, if your 3-month-old is learning how to grab objects, a wrist or ankle rattle will encourage him to use his free limbs to grab the one with the rattle. Letting him play with large, soft toys will also encourage his efforts in reaching out and grabbing objects.

On the other hand, if a 12 month-old seems to be exploring cause and effect, playing a simple version of hide-and-seek or hiding an object with a blanket and uncovering it to reveal it will help him along nicely.

Here are some guidelines for the types of play your child may be most interested in at different stages.

Social play

This kind of play mainly involves a whole lot of interaction with you and others. It is an important element of play throughout the first year. Infants like to smile, look and laugh, so engage them in these expressions as much as you can. Older babies enjoy games such as peekaboo and games involving songs and nursery rhymes.

Object play

Touching, mouthing, throwing, pushing, and otherwise experimenting with all sorts of things is fascinating for a 4- to 10-month-old baby. Parents need only ensure that their child has safe objects/toys to play with.

Functional and representational play

As they watch and observe what goes on around them and what their family members are doing, babies and toddlers will try to use familiar objects in an appropriate way – such as pushing a toy to ‘vacuum the floor’, or calling daddy with a remote control, for instance. If a child is seen attempting any of these, it is a sign of a healthy and functional imagination.

Early symbolic play

This is a more complex type of play and commonly starts to take place around the age of two. It’s when a child seems to create something out of nothing, so to speak, like playing with a shoebox as if it were a school bus, complete with motor noises, for example, or pretending to eat an invisible object, or even talking to an imaginary friend!

Role play

Around 30 to 36 months, little ones are highly impressionable, so parents will really need to watch what they’re doing in the presence of their little imitators! This is the time when playing Mummy, Daddy, Doctor or Teacher will be the highlights of their playtime and an indicator of what they’ve been observing on a day to day basis!

Make the most of your child’s playtime!

Think of playtime as more than toy time. Playing is really any enjoyable activity that involves people, objects, or movement. Everything from blowing bubbles at each other to singing songs to splashing in the tub to chasing each other around the room qualifies.


  • Get into it! You are the ultimate plaything, and any activity will seem more fun if your baby can share it with you. Talk to your baby while you play and you’ll help boost his language skills.
  • Know your child’s limit. Children have different thresholds for stimulation. When yours seems bored, fussy, or tired, it’s time for a break.
  • Give your child a chance to play alone and with others. Both types of play are beneficial.
  • Leave the direction of play to your child. You can suggest new things or present new options, but your child should be the boss. After all, play is about fun, and if there’s one thing your child is an expert at already, it’s having a good time.


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