10 ways to get children to learn without even realising it!
Updated: Apr 15
Guest blog by learning-through-play expert, Susie Robbins.
Have you found yourself suddenly thrown into the role of home-schooler? At this strange time of worry and uncertainty, the very last thing we need are battles over completing school work. After all, education should be a positive experience, right? So, here is the question: how can we cover various learning areas in a way that children do not realise that they are learning? Ultimately, my advice comes down to these two simple principles: playing is learning, and play is enough. We all know that children learn best when they are focused and engaged, and when are they more engaged than in play?!
Here are my top 10 ways to support learning through play:
1. Meet your child’s basic needs first
Do not start activities when they are hungry, tired, cold or upset. This can be so easily overlooked, but is the absolute baseline for success; think how difficult it is for you to focus when you have worked through your lunch break, or barely slept the night before. Basic needs are priority, fulfil these and you will have much greater success.
2. De-clutter your space
Clutter feeds distraction, and when your end game is for your children to be fully absorbed, you need to clear the decks to allow this to happen. Now, I’m not talking a complete Mari Kondo clear out, I simply mean have a quick pick up so that the only toys you need (resources, if you like) are within reach.
3. Make your play set up inviting
Would you want to play with it? Have you built your set up with your child in mind? More on this to follow, but it’s a bit like cooking for a picky eater: make sure that there is something familiar and enticing on their plate – the same goes for play.
4. Model play
Spend two or three minutes making a meaningful connection and showing them how to play with what you’ve set up. Don’t expect them to know intuitively what you are expecting them to do. This doesn’t mean that you will need to sit down with your children for the entire time – it’s to get them going.
5. Make play part of your routine (without it becoming routine!)
Build this time into your daily routine. Children will look forward to this time of fun if it’s at a predictable time of the day. In our house, the children have breakfast and watch a little TV, and whilst the TV is on I quickly set up an activity for them. Often they see me doing this and curiosity wins – they want to play and the TV goes off.
6. Environmental signage
Children absorb information like sponges, provided that their brains are focused and calm (see point 1). By
incorporating letters/numbers/sight words/shapes/colours etc into your play your child is being exposed to them subtly. Exposure is a fantastic tool for reinforcement. A very simple example of this: fill a washing up
bowl with a few inches of water, add some bubbles if you like, or to be extra snazzy a drop or two of food colouring, pop some foam bath numbers into the water along with an empty yoghurt pot, and a ladle. Your child is now engaged in a multi-layered numeracy activity. Yes really! Scooping and pouring are pre-maths skills, teaching about volume and capacity, and by incorporating the numbers you can model to little one: “Oh what’s this? It's a number 3! Can you count to 3? Let’s do it together: 1,2,3! Now, can you pour three spoonfuls of water into the yoghurt pot? Is it too much or do you need more to fill it?" Ask questions, model curiosity and have fun!
7. Get moving
Young children are sensory creatures and often learn best by moving their bodies and manipulating objects. In fact, did you know that just the act of movement stimulates neural activity and growth? This is precisely why play is such a fantastic vehicle for teaching. The phonics splat game (left) is a great example of this (it can easily be adapted to number work or anything really!). The movement will get their hearts going, and release dopamine (the feel-good learning hormone!), they will be buzzing, laughing and... learning!
8. Keep it short
Do not expect to set up an activity to keep your children entertained for hours at a time. A neuro-typical child has the capacity to focus on an activity for 1-5mins per year of their age, therefore a 3-year-old can be expected to play independently for between 3-15mins, longer if supported. By keeping games snappy you don’t risk fun-fatigue creeping in, that said very young children do thrive on repetition. So, use your judgement in the moment, but prepare for only 5minute bursts, any extra is a bonus. You can always add a timer if your child enjoys an element of competition, or needs a visual guide to maintain focus.
9. Follow their interests
If your child is interested in dinosaurs, for example, use this to your advantage. Spend a moment writing
numbers (or the desired learning outcome) onto bits of paper, stick them to the dinosaurs and then hide them about the house. Ask your child: “Can you find me the dinosaur that is wearing a number 7”? Once all the dinosaurs are found, can they order them? If you child is interested in vehicles then “How many stones can the lorry carry in the back? What letter is this road (hand drawn on paper) shaped like? Can the racing car zoom around this letter? Is the letter in your name? Can you find this letter if I write your name down?” They are much more likely to be engaged in new activities if it involves their favourite thing.
10. Don’t force it!
This is perhaps the most important of all, if you insist that they take part in an activity you have instantly removed all the fun from it and you have damaged the all important opportunity to connect. If they’re not initially interested, don’t feel disheartened! Leave the game set up and available to the child to explore at their leisure. I promise you, they will show an interest eventually!
Resolve To Play was founded by Susie Robbins – a former teacher and now a Play-At-Home Mum to my three boys aged 6, 4 & 1.
For hundreds more simple learn-through-play ideas head to Instagram and find me @resolvetoplay visit my website www.resolvetoplay.com and check out the book I contributed to Boredom Busters. You can email me too- firstname.lastname@example.org.