What is a playful learning activity?

A playful learning activity occurs when children learn through play. It’s something children enjoy doing and are able to explore and be creative on their own. There are often very few directions or guidelines because it’s an open-ended activity.

The activity in this picture is a playful learning activity because:

  1. The children were given a bowl full of different stuff (letters, numbers, shapes, counting bears) and containers. Then, I invited them over to play. It was open-ended, without instructions or a “right” way to do the activity.
  2. They decided what to do. Sweet Pea sifted through, excitedly told me what she found, and started sorting by color. Buddy Boy enjoyed picking up the items and manipulating them. He turned them and studied them. Then, he walked around the kitchen for a minute, came back, saw that his sister was putting them in containers, so he joined in. I grabbed him his own (clear) containers because he was just transferring items (he’s only 1) and Sweet Pea was sorting by color, so she found it frustrating that he was “messing up.” This was a great opportunity to talk about how their plans were different, but they could still be kind to one another and work side-be-side.
  3. The activity was language dense. Letting Sweet Pea be the guide, we talked about the different things she was finding and using. For Buddy Boy, I talked about the items after he had a chance to look at them to help build his receptive (listening) vocabulary.
  4. The kids were allowed to be creative and do what they wanted to (within reason, of course. No throwing or carelessly spreading it all over the place). To make clean-up easier, when we have activities like this out, we have a rule that the “activity” needs to stay at (or near) the table. Now, if they wanted to move this to the couch so that they could ___, that would be fine too because my point is that the stuff stays together.
  5. It’s hands-on and they were active participants and the driving force behind the activity. Not me. I sat back and answered questions and talked as Sweet Pea led the way, or as it seemed like Buddy Boy was done looking, thinking, and processing so that I could help expand his vocabulary.

This activity had…

  • math (counting, sorting, and shapes)
  • a little bit of reading (letter recognition, including what sound the letter makes)
  • science and engineering (experimenting with what stacks well and what doesn’t, testing which item makes a louder sound when clanged against the metal bowl)
  • social skills (sharing materials and space, how to politely tell someone that you have a different plan/idea and not to mess you up, working together to clean up, waiting your turn).
  • lots of vocabulary and discussion (and, of course, answering and trying to guide her to answer her own “why” questions)

Yes, that’s a lot, but, truly, all I did was choose three different types of items (magnetic letters and numbers, shapes, and counting bears), pour them in a bowl, and set out a few containers. Then, I asked the kids if they wanted to play with the stuff I set out on their table. It took me about 5 minutes to set up because the counting bears weren’t right where I thought they’d be. Super simple and the kids (yes, both of them!) played for over a half hour! 


Give it a try! Set out a few different types of items and let your little one(s) play. Aim for 15 or so minutes and see what they discover!


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