Play is learning for children, it is how they get to know their world. Children use play to solve complex problems like grasping a ball escaping from their hands or displaying joy after an accomplishment and frustration when required to try again and again. Children make noises and the environment responds gleefully, this simple back and forth from loved ones, serves as the foundation for early literacy, self-regulation, hand-eye coordination providing the groundwork for communication, forming friendships, and a deeper understanding that as they grow, their knowledge of the world through playful experiences also grows.

Play helps children find meaning in a world that is getting more and more unpredictable. From COVID to war and disasters, children are often left to wonder why their surrounding has failed to protect them. Through play, children can find places for experiences they may have a hard time fully comprehending. When children play, their imagination safely explores areas that may be difficult to talk about.  Children engage in what Lev Vygotsky referred to as inner speech where they self-talk, assessing what has occurred, what they are engaged in, and possible solutions. 

This allows children to release pensive thoughts, and map out strategies on how to use play for both fun and problem-solving skills. Developmentally speaking, play goes through different stages; starting with unoccupied/solitary play during infancy where we see babies putting their hands in and out of their mouth, fully engaged in coordination, sensation, and movement. During toddlerhood, children quickly move into the onlooker stage of play where they realize other people like them play as well. And they find it increasingly entertaining to see peers playing, from a safe distance. As children enter the preschool years, they transition from the parallel stage of play to associative, where it is more interactive with others. As children become more independent and can articulate their needs, play with peers becomes more common and successfully charged. Free and busy play allows the mind and body to use the environment in a way that responds to children’s ideas and wants. Too much direction from adults compromises play, encouragement, adding to play sequences, and promoting child-directed activities helps children reach higher levels of cognitive, social-emotional, and linguistic abilities as experience is the driver of development.

Play is the most complete curriculum when implemented as the primary focus for teaching and learning. The education paradigm in early learning programs should move away from outcome-based to process-oriented whereby it allows children to simply play and play more. Children are not made to sit and learn, movement is how they acquire knowledge. Children learn best using their five senses, in a responsive setting, where teachers/caregivers are more invested in their interests, desires, and abilities. When the environment is developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant, children exponentially advance their understanding of the foundations necessary to acquire advanced concepts in math, science, social studies, and much more. 

Play is learning and learning should be play-filled in early childhood education programs now more than ever.