Learning through play
What does learning through play mean? Playing is how young children naturally learn about the world around them. Children play in order to find out new things, develop their skills and build their understanding of the world around them, from babies all the way up to teenagers. Play is the best way for young children’s brains to develop the foundational structures needed for learning and achievement throughout their lives.
Teachers use play-based activities to improve children's learning in the classroom but parents can help their children learn through play at home too.
How does play-based learning work?
Play-based learning works because kids are intrinsically motivated to play. Intrinsic motivation means that kids naturally want to play. They will play anyway, regardless of whether someone plays with them or whether they have toys in front of them. Learning through play is so valuable because it means that we can turn activities that kids love to do anyway into learning opportunities which help them develop their skills and understanding, whilst also enjoying themselves! What’s not to love!?
What is intrinsic motivation? People can be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to do things. When kids are intrinsically motivated to do something, they want to do it purely because they like doing it. Intrinsic motivation in kids means that they have no outside motivation or external influences for doing something, they just want to do it for the pure enjoyment of doing it and the desire to do it comes from inside them.
Extrinsic motivation is the opposite and is when kids do things because they have been externally influenced - sometimes by parents at home or by teachers in the classroom. Kids can be extrinsically motivated by rewards like stickers or a treat or by their desire for praise or recognition from others. (Often both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators can be influencing kids to do or not to do something.)
Why is intrinsic motivation important for kids learning?
When kids are intrinsically motivated they will want to spend more time doing something, they will focus their attention on what they are doing more and they are more likely to want to do it again and again and for longer periods of time. For kids who aren’t really doing much home learning at all or are completely uninterested then a little intrinsic motivation might be just what they need to get going.
I’m sure you’ve noticed how half-heartedly kids do things that we have told them to do. You might see kids day-dreaming or getting distracted in the middle of doing something that you’ve had to persuade them to do. You never have to persuade kids to play video games or nag them to run around and play outdoors though, do you? When kids are intrinsically motivated to do something they can also become much more absorbed in whatever it is whereas they will struggle to stay focused on things they’ve been told to do.
Why do kids learn more when they have fun?
When it comes to learning, more focused attention helps kids to learn better. It’s always harder to pay attention and remember what you have learned from a boring work training session than it is to learn the lyrics to a catchy new song that you like, right? You might learn all the words to the song without even trying. How? Because you enjoy the song and you listen to it over and over for the pure enjoyment you get from hearing it.
What does play-based learning at home look like?
Even things that aren’t traditional games or organised activities can involve play and learning. Have you ever found your daughter (or son!) clomping around in high heels after raiding Mum’s wardrobe? This is a great example of imaginative pretend play where your child might have been developing their understanding of the world and the different familiar roles around them by dressing up in your clothes and playing pretend.
When babies are learning to talk they engage in what could be thought of as a kind of game. In the game, baby experiments with saying the new sounds that they have learned and watches to see how Mummy or Daddy reacts. They enjoy the challenge of figuring out which sounds delight Mum and Dad most (because they recognise them as nearly-words) and they enjoy their achievement when they successfully make their parents smile and laugh. This is how they learn to use the word-like sounds more often!
These are both examples of child-initiated play, which means that they are play activities that kids did all by themselves, without any adult involvement. Kids can also learn when they take part in adult-led play activities. This means that we can take advantage of kids innate need to play by providing opportunities for kids to play that are also educational!
Making learning fun at home
How can we motivate kids to do home learning through adult-led and child-initiated play-based activities? We don’t need a comprehensive body of research to tell us that we are more likely to want to spend our time doing things that are fun. Nobody wants to do the washing up or take out the rubbish because these tasks are dull and boring, but we all look forward to the weekend when there’s time to do some of the things we enjoy most. By making learning fun for our kids, they will not only learn more and learn better but they will develop a love of learning which will keep them motivated to keep on learning for their whole lives.
So, parents will need to make learning activities as fun and interesting as possible if they want kids to be intrinsically motivated to do them. (I've got 99 easy ideas here for making learning fun!)
When it comes to the practicalities of how you can get some fun learning going in your home there are two approaches:
Plan an activity or a game which is fun and also has a learning objective. You might begin to draw using an iPad and encourage your Early years/kindergarten/reception/preschool-aged child to join you in a game of guess what I drew. You might draw them or something familiar to make it interesting or draw really silly things to make it fun. The learning objective for this activity could be anything from developing fine motor skills to giving meaning to marks made or making simple representations of people or objects.
Take advantage of existing child-led play as a learning opportunity. Let’s say your child has independently picked up the iPad and started to draw but you notice they are just scribbling and seem to be struggling to change the pen colour. You might ask if you can have a go and model how to change the pen colour so they can see you do it. You might casually ask what they are drawing - even scribbles can have meaning - or you might challenge them to draw something in particular.
So to recap on what we’ve said so far about learning through play - parents can set up play-based learning activities or use child-initiated play to support learning in a more sustainable and enjoyable way at home.
21st Century Kids
What are 21st-century skills?
21st-century skills are the most important skills for kids today to develop at school in order to be most effective in future employment but also to be as successful and fulfilled in their adult lives as they can be. 21st-century skills are different from the traditional academic skills that kids have been taught in the past when education focused mostly on passing on knowledge, content and information to students. Instead, 21st-century skills are intended to prepare kids with skills which are adaptable so that they are more able to keep up with the world as it changes.
Why are 21st-century skills important?
Kids with 21st-century skills will be better and more independent learners whilst in school and higher education but also after they finish their schooling. The biggest companies in the world look for these skills in employees because these are most beneficial for the workforces of today (and tomorrow) to be productive and effective.
Our kids need to be prepared to live and work successfully in a digitally connected world. It’s becoming less and less important for us to carry all this knowledge around in our heads because we now have access to unlimited information through the devices that we carry around in our pockets. The focus of education is shifting away from teaching kids facts and information on different topics and towards training, kids to be self-directed learners who will have the tools and skills they need to find out about things and understand them themselves.
What are the 21st-century skills that every student needs?
There are different variations of which specific skills are deemed necessary in a 21st-century education. Different organisations and companies have come up with different lists, some long, some short but the four 21st century skills most widely recognised are:
Collaboration and teamwork
The most prized 21st-century skills of today are also often said to be Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking and Collaboration, also known as 'The Four Cs'.
Some published lists are much longer, stating twelve or more skills for the 21st-century student and some other skills which are often but not always included in lists of 21st-century skills published are:
You’ll notice that the four most preferred, or primary 21st-century skills aren’t specifically online or offline skills. They are all things that can be applied in both contexts but I think that what makes them so critical to have is that they are almost like keys that can be used to unlock further skills. For example, you may need to show creativity as well as problem-solving to gain some digital literacy in an ICT project. Likewise, a child might need to first develop some teamwork skills before getting better at leading a team.
How can 21st-century skills be taught?
How can we help kids develop 21st-century skills? Parents and teachers need to provide a pathway for children towards 21st-century readiness by giving them plenty of opportunities to collaborate, create, problem solve and think critically, and to do these things more and more independently, in a digital context as well as real life.
Children can develop 21st-century skills best through play, play-based activities, games, gamified experiences and other opportunities where kids can practise using them in a play context. These opportunities could be offline: in the playground, the kitchen, the bath - anywhere that play can happen, or they could be online - in video games, child-friendly applications or even long-distance video calls with friends and family!
Kids need to learn in both offline and online contexts but digital play should be recognised as an essential part of kids 21st-century education.
How do 21st-century students learn?
21st-century students are more independent than ever. They are self-directed in all aspects of their learning. They decide what they want to learn, how they can best learn it and what they can do to develop their skills. They choose their pathways for learning based on their interests but also based on their strengths and weaknesses which they are able to recognise in themselves. 21st-century students are reflective as they are able to think critically about their own development and performance and then come up with the next steps. They are able to plan projects collaboratively, as well as alone, and implement them successfully. They can integrate technology in their learning when appropriate and are resourceful in finding the necessary help or information they need to solve problems. All of these learning behaviours contribute to kids further development in school as well as outside school and after finishing school and can be applied in adult life and in employment.
21st-century students have a positive or a ‘growth’ mindset which opens them up to opportunities for learning and empowers them to tackle challenges and be further motivated by achievement. The cycle of belief in themself and their own abilities, action and achievement is sustained and contributes to their sense of well-being and fulfilment as well as their learning academic success.
You might be thinking that this sounds nothing like any normal kids you know but if you observe your children, you're more than likely to see them at least showing the beginnings of some of these traits already. Try watching carefully next time your kids are planning a new game or using the internet to find out more about their new interests.
What is Digital play?
It’s easy to forget that there are other types of digital play for kids out there than the wildly popular video games that so many children love. Kids digital play can include any kind of play interaction they have with technology or online. This could mean playing with an offline but interactive electronic toy or using an old non-functioning phone to pretend-talk on or it could involve playing in an infinite online virtual world like Minecraft.
The importance of games in learning
We have also talked about why play is such a great way for kids to learn and how important play-based learning in encouraging children to learn at school and at home. Now we also know a bit more specifically which skills we want kids to have by the time they grow up for them to be prepared for life and work in tomorrow’s world. Kids need to be able to be creative, flexible problem solvers who can think critically and work collaboratively in a team. So how do games encourage them to be like this?
Executive function, which is a key factor for kids academic achievement and a predictor for their success in adult life, is best promoted through play-based activities. When a child plays, they focus on working through the challenges that are involved in the game which helps to develop executive function.
Playing with your children digitally is also a really important chance to show kids how they can play responsibly, what kinds of attitudes are appropriate in the digital context and most importantly as a way to spend quality time having fun with your kids.
The benefits of digital game-based learning
Now we have decided that play is the best approach for encouraging kids to learn and we know what kind of skills we want them to develop. We have discovered what fantastic opportunities for developing 21st-century skills games provide for kids - but why do they need to be digital?
Well, they don’t - at least not all of them. Remember that we are trying to prepare our kids for an adulthood in which digital lives are almost as important if not more important than ‘real’ lives, but where both will definitely play a massive part. The skills needed for success online and offline can differ and so, to be best prepared for this future, kids need a mix of digital as well as offline learning experiences so that they can develop a broad skill set which serves them in both contexts later in life.
The positive effects of video games
We can't talk about the world of digital play without a quick look at how video games can benefit kids if played responsibly. Playing video games can help with reading, developing visual-spatial skills and making social connections. Attention and focus can be sharpened with exciting adventures and interesting storylines in games and can even open kids up to discovering new interests or help them to relax and calm down when stressed. Author Jordan Shapiro explains that really, a virtual world can benefit kids in many of the same ways that playing in a real playground or the outdoors might because what matters is what kids do in their play and not where their play happens.
But what about how video games can help develop those all important 21st-century skills? Creativity can be cultivated through playing video games especially in sandbox or creative modes where kids are not so restrained by rules. On the other hand, the rules and limitations of games can encourage kids to problem solve and think critically about how they play to be able to stay alive or level up. Multiplayer games provide an opportunity for kids to practise their collaboration skills and role-playing with others as part of a video game can encourage creative collaboration.
Why do parents worry about technology?
Many parents worry about their kids' extensive screen time, which is only natural given that it’s not what we are used to. However, as long as screen time does not take away from kids important healthy habits including physical exercise and sleep, providing digital as well as non-digital opportunities for play can be beneficial for kids learning and is critical for preparing kids for success.
Many parents are also concerned with violence in video games. I spoke about this in my post about whether five-year-olds should play popular video games like Minecraft, Fortnite and Call of Duty and it’s important to note that there is no research or evidence to show that violence in video games causes real-life violent behaviour.
But how will kids ever develop any social skills when they play online all the time? It’s easy to feel that digital play is very individual and that extended time playing online could be isolating and therefore bad (or at the very least unhelpful), for children's social development. Actually, the complete opposite can be true. Kids today are coming home from school, powering up the console or the laptop and are instantly connected with global networks of millions of other players. Communication skills are developed and kids can build the kind of social skills that they will need as a 21st-century adult as they play in these vast digital playgrounds.
How kids can learn through play with technology at home summary
It's natural for kids to learn through play and this can happen anywhere, anytime. Parents can use play-based learning to help kids learn more at home and to focus on specific learning objectives. Games are a perfect way for kids to enjoy themselves and learn at the same time but digital is an inevitable part of kids futures and so online and offline opportunities to play are critical for them to be prepared for their future. Kids' 21st-century skills are in fact highly likely to be developed through play with technology and in video gaming and parents can play with their kids to demonstrate healthy and responsible digital habits. Play is the way to go and kids will need a mixture of both digital and non-digital play alongside their healthy habits to be best prepared for happiness and success in the future.
Resources for parents on kids' learning through play with technology:
Related blog posts:
The New Childhood by Jordan Shapiro
This book is a fascinating look into education, play and the world of digital play for kids. Particularly interesting is Shapiro’s discussion of popular perceptions about online gaming for kids.
You can browse the resources that helped me to put together this article and learn more about how kids learn through digital play here.
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