How Self-Directed Play Helps Your Child Learn

Jan 11, 2024
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Parents and educators alike are used to hearing lots about standards, curriculum, and required testing. Education has become a very structured experience, even for the youngest learners. And that structure certainly serves a purpose—no one is denying that it is valuable to set goals for children’s learning and establish reasonable benchmarks to measure progress against. However, all of this structure can take precedence over one of the most important ways that young kids learn: through unstructured, self-directed play. Here’s five ways that play positively impacts every child’s learning.

1. Self-directed play cultivates creativity and curiosity

Free play time is a prime opportunity for children to explore the world around them. Unlike time spent in front of a screen or working on assigned lessons, kids are able to interact directly and organically with their surroundings when playing. When they’re not given instructions, kids can let their imaginations run with what things could be instead of puzzling over what they’ve been told things are. This is key to developing kids’ natural curiosity and creativity, along with a sense of confidence in their own ideas.

2. Self-directed play develops agency over learning

Curiosity is the foundation for building a true love of learning—so it only makes sense that play is also critical to helping young kids develop that interest in ownership over their own academic journeys. Play provides an opportunity for kids to satisfy their curiosity by diving into their own interests, seeing where they lead, and experiencing the joy that comes along with that process.

3. Self-directed play teaches persistence and problem solving

For kids, playtime is a low stress situation—which makes it a perfect opportunity to experiment and experience failure. Maybe they’re building a house with blocks, and are struggling to keep it standing, or are painting and working hard to make their creation look just like they’re envisioning. Activities like this encourage kids to try different approaches and see what does or doesn’t work without growing frustrated or judging themselves.

4. Self-directed play fosters strong social skills

Time spent playing provides kids with a unique opportunity to reflect on their experiences and work through challenges they’ve faced. Especially in the case of role-playing activities, like playing with dolls, acting out scenes, or games like “house” or “school”, kids are doing important work processing real-world interactions, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and building effective social skills. Additionally, play is often a social activity in itself, providing a valuable chance for kids to get used to interacting with their peers, work through disagreements, and collaborate.

5. Self-directed play is key to overall wellness

Kids were built to be active, and play is one of the most enjoyable ways that they can be. Play naturally involves a lot of fine motor skills (think about building with blocks, making sand castles, cutting paper for art projects, and countless other activities) and getting up and moving around. This kind of activity is essential to developing healthy bodies and habits in the long-term. Plus, it’s fun.

Looking for additional tips to understand the value of play? Learn more about the benefits of play-based learning.

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