By Andie Stallman, M.A.
It is no coincidence that the phrase “childlike wonder” is a cliché. People come into the world needing to learn a lot really fast and the excitement, readiness, and motivation to learn are characteristics of childhood for a reason. Curiosity is an evolutionarily beneficial trait that allows us to improve year to year, generation to generation, and species to species. The foundation of learning is a hunger for information about the world and investigating what is happening, why it happens, and how we might replicate it. While a lot of children’s learning comes in the classroom, just as much, if not more, is found elsewhere: play.
Learning Through Play
Play is the primary tool children use to learn about their world. Research shows that children actively explore through play. As they grow up and their play becomes more complex with language and the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes, real or imaginary, this exploration remains, albeit in more complex forms.
One study presented children ages 4 to 5 with two boxes. One group of these children played with levers and puppets in a way that made it clear the levers on a red and yellow box were responsible for specific puppets rising up from the box. For the other group, the levers and puppets were shown, but it was unclear which level pushed which puppet up on a red box, but the yellow box remained clear. They found that the children in the second group, when left alone, spent more time playing with the red box to figure out which levers did what and less time on the yellow box, for which the researchers showed how the levers worked.
This study is only one of many that exemplify the exploratory nature of children’s minds and how play can significantly affect their learning about the world. They use play to experiment with unfamiliar toys to learn about levers, springs, balls, gravity, etc. As they grow up, games like playing house or cooking a toy kitchen, or even playing teacher (a game I forced my parents to sit through) give children the freedom to step into roles they see every day and learn about them. Famous psychologist Jean Piaget (1930) coined this as “constructing knowledge.” Children seek out opportunities to learn. When provided with the creative freedom to design their play experience, they can create situations to explore topics that interest or puzzle them.
Child-Directed Play: What is it?
Before getting into the good stuff, I want to define key terms.
Adult-directed “play” focuses on a teacher or parent, such as story-time or puppet play. Play is in quotes because many experts argue that an adult-directed activity cannot be played since play is often characterized as being self-directed and motivated by a child’s interests. Therefore, the benefits that play has for children come from child-directed play.
Child-directed play is really what we mean when talking about “play.” Child-directed play is led primarily by children and consists of activities they have chosen to participate in based on their interests and desires. This may look like independent block play or playing house with friends. Still, it does not include activities a teacher or parent has guided them toward or created rules for.
** It is important to note that parent-child or teacher-child play is precious for creating relationships and for helping a child learn more complex topics that they may not be able to figure out independently. Adults must also be around during child-directed play to ensure that the environment remains safe. Moreover, problems will arise in free play and are great opportunities for children to develop problem-solving skills and creative thinking. However, in the case that a problem is preventing the child from continuing to play, for example, if they cannot lift a structure or have become stuck on the problem for an extended period, adult intervention may be necessary to ensure the child can continue to enjoy the learning experience.**
Child-Directed Play: Benefits for Your Child
We know that children learn through play, but more importantly, they learn most from self-guided play. However, learning is only one of many benefits that come from this experience. Research also shows that child-directed play:
Emotional well-being: Play is characteristically motivated by the child’s own wants and needs. Creative play, in which children can explore other roles or worlds, such as playing pirates, house, or chef, is an opportunity for children to confront situations that have upset them in a safe and fun way. This can reduce the negative impact of these events and help them learn how to navigate them going forward. This improves children’s emotional well-being in the present moment but also long-term. In fact, research shows that children in programs that prioritize child-directed play were more likely to go on to live with spouses, complete higher levels of schooling, and spend fewer years on average in special education due to emotional problems.
Creativity and cognitive skills: When children are free to explore without rules or guidelines, they can investigate novel connections and experiment. The opportunity to try, fail, and learn through experience in a way they create during play is crucial for supporting imagination, creativity, and curiosity. Furthermore, this freedom to experiment requires a certain level of problem-solving. It is essential that kids are exposed to challenges and are allowed the time and space to work, think of, and try potential solutions on their own. Problem-solving is like a muscle that will strengthen over time when practiced.
How Can You Create Free Play Opportunities?
I cannot overstate the value and importance of child-directed play. As kids grow up surrounded by video games, social media, and television, parents and educators play a vital role in ensuring that opportunities to actively engage the imagination, curiosity, and independent exploration exist. While it may be challenging at first, creating opportunities for children to get away from screens and adult-directed activities will force them to engage their creative minds. Instruction-less block play and make-believe play are great ways to get the ball rolling.
Additional resources and reading material:
This is a TED Talk by one of play’s leading researchers, Dr. Peter Gray, about the importance of self-directed play and the negative consequences of its decline in our society.
Bateson, P. (2015). Playfulness and creativity. Current Biology, 25(1), R12–R16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.009
Miller, E., & Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. In Alliance for Childhood (NJ3a). Alliance for Childhood. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED504839
Kidd C, Hayden BY. The Psychology and Neuroscience of Curiosity. Neuron. 2015 Nov 4;88(3):449-60. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.010. PMID: 26539887; PMCID: PMC4635443.
Peter Gray (2013) Definitions of Play. Scholarpedia, 8(7):30578.
Schulz LE, Bonawitz EB. Serious fun: preschoolers engage in more exploratory play when evidence is confounded. Dev Psychol. 2007 Jul;43(4):1045-50. doi: 10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.525. PMID: 17605535.
Meet Andie Stallman, Imagination Playground’s childhood and play expert. Stallman holds a masters degree in Child Studies and Human Development with a special focus on clinical and developmental health and psychology. She is currently conducting research through McLean Hospital on adolescent mental health as she prepares for a PhD. Additionally, Stallman has experience in school and childcare environments working directly with children and teens who have a variety of needs and diagnoses, including schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, and autism spectrum disorder. This range of experience and knowledge brings a unique aspect to Imagination Playground’s commitment to researching the importance of play and promoting lifelong well-being starting in childhood.