We launched our Learning for Tomorrow initiative because we believe learning is the best way to get children ready for what lies ahead. It’s also because we’re fascinated by children’s amazing minds! They’re so curious, so inquisitive, with a seemingly never-ending appetite for information (not to mention a constant string of ‘Whys?’).
As parents, how can we make the most of this capacity to learn? We looked to leading child psychologists to find out the best ways to stimulate, stretch and inspire little brains in the crucial early years. And guess what? It turns out learning is child’s play!
Different schools of thought
Peter Gray is a psychologist from the U.S. He has devoted his life to studying child development. He believes that learning isn’t something we, well, learn.
Instead, Professor Gray says we’re all genetically programmed to have an extraordinary capacity for absorbing experiences, information and skills. And that the best lessons aren’t learned in the classroom, but through living life. For young kids, this means having the freedom to simply play.
Time to play
“Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults” he explains.1 When children have the freedom to play unhindered by overly cautious parents, they’re discovering how the world works, making decisions and learning from mistakes.
Learning by doing (with help from mum and dad)
Many educationalists share this view of learning through play. One theory, developed back in 1920s Russia, believes children learn best from hands-on experiences. But unlike Professor Gray, who urges parents to be more hands-off and let children discover the world independently, this school of thought encourages parents to intervene.2
Here’s an example. You’ve just given your child their first jigsaw puzzle. Will you sit back and let them try and work it out for themselves? Or will you gently show what happens when you hunt for straight edges, perhaps pointing out a corner piece? The psychologists call this technique “scaffolding”. Although we like to give it another name: a helping hand from mum or dad.
Every opportunity to learn
The wonderful thing about inquisitive kids is that every opportunity is a learning experience, says another leading expert. Dr David Whitebread is also a champion of play and claims different activities directly link to children’s development. He believes it’s important to get a good mix of them all.
What shall we play today?
Dr Whitebread identified five different ways children play. Physical play, such as jumping, climbing or dancing keeps kids active and develops motor skills.3 Playing with objects teaches children how different materials behave. Why, for example, does a ball bounce down the stairs while teddy tumbles?
Then there’s what Dr Whitebread calls symbolic play; that through painting, rhymes or making music children learn how symbols can express feelings and ideas. And pretence play, where kids draw on and re-enact social behaviours in their ‘let’s pretend’ games. Finally, Dr Whitebread talks how games with rules, like board games or sports games, are key for establishing boundaries.4
Letting kids be kids
The theories about learning are endless. But if there’s one lesson to take away, it seems to be that children thrive by simply being children. And being free to explore, make mistakes, and discover the world in their own unique way. So, enough with the reading – there’s some serious playing to be done!
Our Learning for Tomorrow initiative, in partnership with UNICEF, is helping 10 million children in Brazil, Viet Nam and India get access to a quality education this year alone. You can find out more here.
- P. Gray, Free to Learn, p.4 (2013)
- L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes (1978)
- Dr D. Whitebread, The importance of play, European Commission on World Play Day (2013)