Learning is Playful

Key Takeaways

  • There is no such thing as "just playing"; through play, children learn how to solve problems, interact with others, and unearth new discoveries.
  • Repetition may look boring to adults, but it is essential for children to build and test hypotheses, understand patterns, and learn how to function in the world.
  • Play and learning take time, patience, and engagement with responsive partners.

To really believe in and understand the ways in which young children learn best, we just need to watch them.

Building a tower with blocks? Learning.

Dressing up in an apron and taking food orders? Learning.

Playing tag with friends? Learning.

Squishing the play-dough between your fingers and slyly licking it? A little gross, but still learning.

No adult has expressed the idea of playing as learning quite as well as Mr. Fred Rogers: "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."

Though not a radical idea, it can take a big shift in perspective to understand that a child who is playing is also learning.1 The direct outcome or learning goal is not always obvious in every element of a child's play and that's OK. Play of all types supports children's development.

Adult memories of learning often include desks, pencils, books, and facts. Those are indicators of learning, but they often leave out the love, joy, and determination involved in the serious and playful learning of children.

There is no "right" way to play -- it's all about balance. You can find beauty and lessons within independent play, free exploration, games, guided play, and social play. There are many types and stages of play, all of which offer children the opportunity to:

  • Discover what excites and interests them
  • Engage in wonder and inquiry
  • Understand how to relate to other people and build self-awareness1,2
  • Explore how things work
  • Figure out how to solve problems
  • Organize their understanding of the world3

Role Playing

In addition to the joy of creative expression, dramatic play is a type of play that helps children develop perspective taking skills and think flexibly. By taking on the role of a waiter, a child practices role playing in the world as someone else.3 They explore how to communicate with others and respond to differing needs and emotions (let's face it, not everyone at a restaurant is the ideal customer). Role play helps children practice these valuable social skills, while also building focus and persistence in carrying out the steps of the task.

Repetition is key

Children may return to the same activity again and again, and each time build upon past discoveries or unlock a new understanding. When a child continuously builds and dumps sand in a sensory bin, they are exploring texture, cause and effect, and discovering ways that help them regulate their feelings and bodies.3

Responsive Play Partners

Playing together helps build and maintain supportive relationships for children, and responsive play partners can strengthen children's self regulation, flexible thinking, social interactions, and language skills.4 A responsive partner is one who first follows the child's lead. While playing, they respond to the child's cues and interests, ask thoughtful questions to help children expand their thinking, and continue the back-and-forth interactions.5 Deep learning not only happens when children are engaged with the activities they love, but with the people they love.

As an adult, how do you learn best? Personally, when I love something and enjoy it, I am motivated to go farther with it, find out more, and immerse myself in the learning process. It took a lot of time, love, and scaffolding for me to learn how to sink the perfect free throw and successfully advocate for myself in a meeting (separate examples, but I like imagining a world in which both happened at the same time). I learn best by doing things I love, which is essentially a more grown-up way of saying that I learn by playing.


  1. Ginsburg, K.R., the Committee on Communications, & the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.
  2. Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3), 1-17.
  3. Whitebread, D., Coleman, P., Jameson, H., & Lander, R. (2009). Play, cognition and self-regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn through play? Educational & Child Psychology 26(2), 40-52.
  4. Weisberg, D.S., Zosh, J.M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2013). Talking it up: Play, language development, and the role of adult support. American Journal of Play, 6(1), 39-54.
  5. Weisberg, D.S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., Kittredge, A.K., & Klahr, D. (2016). Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(3), 177-82.

More Articles

Join OK Play
for free, today.

OK Play is a first-of-its-kind app that sparks creation, conversation, and connection between parents and their kids.

App Store Google Play