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How Playing Counts as Learning for Early Year Students

Play is more than just an opportunity to have fun. It can serve as an important learning activity that also enables children to develop important skills that will continue to be of benefit to them throughout their lives. 

Research shows that our formative years, particularly from birth to eight years of age, are the most crucial to human development. This is the time at which we build the foundation of our cognitive and motor skills, social competence, and emotional, physical, and mental health. Even before a child enters into formal education, play helps to stimulate and develop skills that lay the groundwork for success in school and beyond. 

How play nurtures learning

Language and literacy

Play offers ample opportunities for children to engage with each other and with adults. Through conversation, their vocabulary can expand significantly. Whether it is in trying to pick out a toy or drawing others into a game, play activities help to encourage language and communication skills. Even on their own, children will often play with toys while trying to act or voice out multiple sides of a conversation. 

Beyond developing language skills, they become more versed in negotiating, storytelling and role-playing. At this stage, parents can further help by engaging their children in conversation, helping them learn the correct pronunciations of words, learn new words, count, and ask questions. 


Creativity needs to be nurtured to be developed further. Children are naturally inclined to be curious and imaginative. These abilities can be grown through play activities. They can learn how to negotiate and problem-solve by coming up with and acting out different scenarios, whether imagined or based on reality.

From building forts using cardboard boxes to using a stick or spoon as a sword, there is a myriad of ways children can flex their creative muscles and learn how to become adaptable. 

Social and emotional skills

Play can be a helpful bridge for making social connections and learning how to build friendships. Activities such as sharing toys, teamwork when role-playing and working on puzzles are a few examples of how playful interaction can promote the development of social competence. 

Children can learn how to make connections, sustain friendships, stand up for themselves, and negotiate while at play with others. These interactions can also help to nurture team building and leadership skills. Learning how to be resilient, cope with difficulties and resolve conflicts will also allow them to better navigate personal and professional relationships as they mature. 

During play, children will encounter a range of emotions, from joy to disappointment, anger to sympathy. The more often they experience such different emotions, the better they become at processing said emotions and developing their own sense of self-awareness and self-esteem. 

Physical, Cognitive and motor skills

Many of the basic toys that are first introduced to children help in the development of cognitive skills. From stacking building blocks to choosing the right geometric shape to put through a hole, they learn to reason and understand abstract concepts. Learning dance moves can also help in understanding patterns and sequences that will form the foundation of their learning maths and other technical subjects. 

The more complex the movements they learn, the better their spatial ability and dexterity. Physical activity also helps to make them more energetic and flexible. They also become more aware of what their bodies are capable of and how they can build up their stamina. 

The more physically engaged children become when playing, the better their motor skills become. Jumping, running, dodging, throwing, skipping, and climbing all help to promote their balance and hand-eye coordination. Even for those that may be hampered when it comes to physical play, fun activities like painting and drawing can be useful in developing fine motor skills. 

Curiosity and a Thirst for learning

When children are allowed to explore their curiosity, they learn to become confident and able to take risks. The freedom, albeit monitored, to try new things is fostered through play that lets them feel independent and want to discover more. 

The early years are a great time to nurture learning as there is more room to allow kids to learn at their own pace and without feeling pressured. They come to relish these opportunities and develop a positive attitude towards learning that will be of help when eventually joining a school. 

Types of play to incorporate in the classroom

While parents certainly have a big role to play in nurturing play during a child’s formative years, especially before joining schools, teachers also need to have a plan on how to create more opportunities for the same in the classroom. 

1. Outdoor play

Physical play that is afforded by spending time outdoors is important. Many International schools in Hong Kong have reduced the amount of time students can spend playing outdoors, however, teachers should still try to introduce more opportunities for outside fun where kids get to run, climb, jump and explore. This will promote greater physical health and better motor skills. 

2. Object fun

This is an opportunity for more hands-on learning when kids get to refine their fine motor skills and become stimulated to explore and experiment. Whether it is putting together a puzzle or using building blocks, they get to learn more about manipulating objects and develop social and problem-solving skills as they work together with classmates to accomplish goals. This kind of play can also promote cognitive skills, especially in relation to math and reasoning. 

3. Role-playing

Acting can help nurture creativity and problem-solving in children. It can also promote their emotional, social and cognitive development. It is important to allow for unstructured time when children can engage in free play and allow their imagination to run wild. 

4. Symbolic play

This involves activities that help nurture language, literacy, and numeracy skills. Drawing, painting, story-telling, singing, and rhyming are examples of symbolic play that help to boost their knowledge and understanding of languages and learn new words and phrases. They become accustomed to the use of familiar words in different contexts to help gain a better understanding of them.