Learning Through Summer Play

Give Choice, Wonder and Delight
July 1, 2019

As a child, you may recall playing games of hide and seek, tag and jumping rope. Perhaps, you may remember arguing over stickball or creating imaginary worlds, building forts and putting on plays.  From long summer days to a few hours after school, kid-organized play probably filled much of your free time.

When we think of play, we realize that it comes in many forms and that it cannot be narrowly described as one specific activity. In social play, children play with one another or with adults. In  independent play, children play by themselves and in guided play, children play within a context that adults have setup. Ben Mardell, a researcher, educator, and expert on play and development, says that “any activity can be play or not play. The secret sauce is playfulness”.

Children gain many benefits from play due to its multi-faceted nature.  These benefits are just as valid for a preschooler as they are for middle-schoolers.   In “Towards the Pedagogy of Play”, a working paper from Project Zero at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Ben Mardell and others explain some of the advantages of learning through play:

  • Intellectual Development: Play builds executive functions, content knowledge, and creative thinking. For example, when children build with blocks or draw, they are counting, classifying as well as creating and examining patterns.
  • Social Development: Playing with others entails noticing social cues, listening as well as recognizing and understanding another’s perspective. All of these capabilities are key aspects to developing empathy. Children are also required to share ideas and express their feelings in order to negotiate and compromise.
  • Emotional Development: In social and guided play, children learn self-regulation as they follow norms and pay attention while they experience feelings such as anticipation and frustration.
  • Physical Development: Children use their bodies to play and these opportunities foster the development of physical wellbeing that is important for future success in other domains. While developing strength, muscle control, coordination, and reflexes, children push limits and try new things and these experiences can encourage them to take risks in other areas.

As parents exert ever-growing control over children’s activities, opportunities to engage in self-directed play have steadily declined.   In an article in the American Journal of Play, Peter Gray, PhD., Professor of Psychology at Boston College, describes the decline of this kind of unstructured play and how it is adversely affecting the emotional development of children.  He sees “free play” as critical life experience, allowing children to develop into competent and confident adults. More importantly, he links the decline of free play to a rise in anxiety and depression as well as problems of attention and self-control.

So, in the overly-scheduled world in which we live, how can we rediscover our sense of play and “playfulness”?  Project Zero researchers Ben Mardell and Lynneth Solis provide suggestions on how parents can embed opportunities for “playfulness” within their daily lives. They offer the following suggestions:

  • Plan for play and create a space for it. If your children are spending too much time in front of a screen, suggest “let’s walk to the playground this afternoon”.
  • Find fun in the materials you have. Rather than buying new toys, for example, use leftover Amazon boxes to build a fort or whatever you want. This ability to choose how materials can be used can build creativity.
  • Be open to risk. A part of allowing children to play is acknowledging that they could get a scrape and that’s okay. If you let children know that you allow them to take small risks, they are more likely to enjoy exploring.
  • Model Play. If children see adults engaged in a hobby or enjoying being outside, they are much more likely to do the same.
  • Play Together. Build sandcastles together, dress up together or tell stories.
  • Wait out the cries of “I’m Bored”. Children often pass through a period of initial discomfort in order to recover the space and presence to be self-directed and curious.

During the summer months, CORA offers weekly play-based groups for children 3-5 years of age.   Each week, within a themed context such as “Gardening” or “Going Camping”, a multi-disciplinary team of Early Intervention providers work collaboratively to create fun opportunities for preschoolers aimed at supporting their growth and development. In these weekly play sessions, we attempt to embed the three key indicators of playful learning.   These include opportunities for choice in which children share ideas and negotiate challenges, wonder in which children create, pretend and imagine, and delight as demonstrated by children smiling, laughing, and feeilng at ease.







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About the Author: 

Donna Bullard, OTR/L is a certified occupational therapist who has worked within the early intervention system for 19 years.  For the past 7 years, Donna has provided direct service delivery to preschool children. Prior to coming to CORA, she supported three to five-year-olds in both centers and community-based settings with Kencrest Services. In addition, she has acted as a Fieldwork Supervisor to Level 1 occupational therapy students from Temple University and as an Adjunct Clinical Instructor with the University of the Sciences Occupational Therapy Department.

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