When children play, they learn twice. Or maybe thrice. I don’t mean using video games or pushing buttons on their newest electronic toy… I mean playing the way children naturally do before we teach them to look for the nearest technology and zone out: seeing how many ways they can move a ball, stacking Legos until they fall over, trying to figure out what makes the slinky slink down the stairs, and molding play dough for hours on end. These toys have stood the test of time and continue to be favorites today because children naturally CONNECT with them. These “toys” tap into the vast potential for fascination and learning in the child’s mind. They challenge the child and allow them to discover and develop their abilities, while learning more about how the world around them works.
Some systems of education draw a distinct line between playing and learning. Time spent playing is time away from learning. Heaven forbid lengthening recess; 30 minutes is already too much away from the 7 hour school day.
This distinction is not only arbitrary, but destructive in terms of its effect on the child’s learning process. Play in education is important. Instead of divorcing the way a child naturally learns, why not harness all that potential and channel it toward the goals set forth by the system of education we work with? Children learn exponentially in their early years when they are able to do so naturally, through play and discovery.
The best thing we can do as parents and teachers is to keep children “playing” – to support and prolong that natural connection between their experiences and their skills, their interests and their environment. Toys and games are not always effective ways of introducing new material, but they can be very effective in reinforcing and practicing concepts that have been presented, and enhancing critical thinking skills.
That being said, not every game or toy is education worthy. In general, you can instinctively tell when play is teaching your child; games, toys and activities that naturally engage kids ACTIVELY for long periods of time (staring at the TV screen or X Box doesn’t count!), are usually highly educational. But, if in doubt, look at four main criteria when deciding whether or not a certain game or toy is educationally beneficial. Activities that meet all four criteria are the best, but as long as the game meets a minimum of two or three, it will usually be worthwhile.
Content: This is simple. Does the content of the game or toy (themes, information included, etc.) pertain at all to what your children are studying? If so, why wait till break? Let your kids use it during their class or study time!
Process: Does the process of the activity stimulate learning in your child? Activities that require your child to discover how something works, learn how to fulfill different roles, or follow a set of steps strengthen critical thinking. In addition to providing information, such games require the student to think, discover and experiment in order to learn. Another great way to integrate the learning process into play is to assign your kids to develop their own game. Give them certain criteria, and let them come up with the rest! This stimulates their creativity while also cementing their understanding of specified content or skills.
Skills: What skills will your child develop by playing this? Think of skills not just in terms of the skill objectives associated with the lesson/unit at hand, but in terms of the holistic education of the child. Play can reach far beyond academics and help students develop in areas of communication, group work, respect, responsibility, facilitation, listening, etc.
Active Participation: Does the activity actively involve the children at all times? This becomes particularly important f you are dealing with a large group of children, in a classroom setting or homeschool co-op, for example. I avoid games that have most of the kids waiting while one child takes a turn. There’s nothing wrong with taking turns, but if you have twenty children and each child takes a one minute turn, then every child has the potential to be idle or distracted for 19 out of every 20 minutes. I strongly recommend games that work by groups or pairs, so kids are required to be actively involved most of the time.
So let you kids do what kids to best: play and learn, learn and play!