Play to Learn……Learn to Play

Play to Learn …… Learn to Play

‘School is a place to learn!’ This is a statement which points out the obvious, however, the big question is how do we ensure we are able to maximise learner development? In saying “WE”, I mean everyone; the school, teachers as well as whanau. In modern Teaching and Learning there has been a focus on Reading, Writing, and Mathematics, which is a staple component of educational requirements, and development for our children. However, does being successful in these areas, make for  well-rounded, happy, emotionally, educationally and socially successful learners? I don’t believe so. Is there a way  we [parents and school] can  improve the ways of  implementing strategies which can develop student agency (self belief) which can impact vastly on the development of our precious children.


We currently have Miss Steward and Mrs Cotter from Ako Timatanga attending the ‘Incredible Years Programme for Teachers’, and Veronica and myself are undertaking ‘Incredible Years for  Parents’. This programme looks at the foundations of developing environment, attitude and strategies which foster positivity, personal and academic growth for our akonga/learners.  Please take the time to read the Ako Timatanga blog which encapsulates this.


“Play benefits children by providing opportunities for them to learn who they are, what they can do, and how to relate to the world around them.” (Carolyn Webster-Stratton, PH.D, 2006.) This again, may be an obvious point, however, it is the way play is structured which can either benefit, or hinder the development of a child. At home, the important component within the notion of play, is that you, as a parent  take the time to play with your child. 

I would prefer that you take the time to play with your child for 10 – 15 minutes daily, than to battle with them, trying to get the homework completed.

Studies have illustrated that children who have their parent/s engage in meaningful play, are more creative and have fewer behavioural problems.

Playing effectively with your child is not about being present whilst they play, nor is it about taking control of, or out doing the child. It is about becoming actively engaged in what they are doing, allowing them to lead, make mistakes and being creative at the pace which your child will set. This is a time where the children will be the leader and set the rules. How often are children the BOSS, or LEADER and able to set and  create RULES?  Often, we as parents attempt to have our children master a task which they have no interest in, or that is above them; for our own pride and ego.  Below is a guideline of how you can assist your child in more effective play. An important aspect to note, is that this type of play does not include modern technology, and can be achieved in TEN minutes per day. It is most successful, if it is one on one.




Follow your child’s lead.

Allow them to set the rules, decide on the game and be creative. There is not right or wrong.  Don’t attempt to set a structure or teach them the correct way to do something. Let their imagination run wild. Dad, if your daughter wants to dress up, be positive, attentive and participate, Mum, if your son wants to play cars or pass a ball, do….participate.

Allow your child to set the Pace.

Don’t rush your child, allow them to explore, be creative and discover new things. Repetitive play may bore adults, however, this is how children learn.  If you become frustrated, or give up, they will feel as though they have failed. Give them time to think, explore, discover and communicate.

Be Sensitive to the Cues of Your Child.

Be careful not to introduce something that is beyond your child. Children will present cues to show disinterest in a game or activity. Allow them to lead what is happening and how to play. At times, games may be transformed into something new and different, This is your child’s creativity being shared.

Avoid Power Struggles.

We often develop situations which are competitive in nature, or have a long set of rules. We can inadvertently create ‘competition’ during play. An example could be when making a puzzle or building Lego.  Whilst our child is working at their pace, we power on and complete the puzzle, or make a big Lego building. This will unintentionally create a competitive component to the play, and make the child feel inadequate.  The importance of play is to build the self-belief of the child. Games with specific rules could be avoided, unless your child develops the rules.

Praise and Encourage Ideas and Creativity

Don’t correct your child during play. We regularly make comments such as, that dress should not be that colour, that doesn’t go there etc. The attention becomes focused on what they are doing incorrectly. We should not judge or contradict our children during play. To us, it is not important if it makes sense, or that we understand what is happening. It is about building creativity and allowing success for our children. Think of ways that you are able to develop the confidence e.g. that is great, I love that the cat is pink. Carolyn Webster-Stratton PH.D, suggests that during play, we “praise our child/ren every 2 – 3 minutes”.

Encourage Emotional Understanding Through Fantasy of Pretend Play.

Imaginative play assists the child to use their imagination, as well as developing emotions and feelings. Allow the child to make huts, turn couches into castles, dress up etc.  Remember to follow their lead, don’t take over, and give praise.

Show Appreciation

Focus on them, praise them for what they are doing. “Praise their efforts with genuine enthusiasm”.

Use Descriptive Commenting

Don’t ask to many questions. Respond to your child with offers of reinforcement and feedback. Pretend you are a commentator, and share what they are doing. This helps to enhance their vocabulary through modelling. If you ask a question, follow this with noncritical feedback.  e.g. Parent – What is this object? (Response – It is a plane).  Parent – Well, you really draw good planes, and not only that, it is pink,”

Use Academic Coaching 

When using descriptive commentary, try to describe attributes they are playing with e.g.  size, colour, shape, position etc. this assists in developing language.

Encourage Positive Peer Play

This is a situation where children can work together to develop rules and games together.  This will assist in teaching them how to take turns, helping each other, having manners and create better friendships.

Encourage Independent Problem Solving

Don’t be too quick to jump in and solve a problem. This does not allow resilience, persistence or problem solving skills to be developed. Allowing the children to solve the problem allows them to be rewarded with success and develop independence,

To Wrap Up

Positive, beneficial play is about engagement with the child. It gives them your undivided attention, and they have total control over the direction of play. The most important component is about relinquishing predisposed beliefs on what should occur / or is best, and allowing the child the autonomy to act naturally, inquire and develop understanding of their world through play. It is about putting them on a pedestal and promoting them, their actions and imagination.

At School

You may visit the school and see the children, at times engaging in ‘uncontrolled’ play. This is the term used for play which allows them to explore, create and communicate what they are doing. It is important to develop cognitive capacity, social skills, risk taking, communication and creativity.

“It is important to remember that children learn through play. Play is a time when children can try out new ideas, take risks, try on different roles, and share feelings and thoughts. It provides a safe context for children to learn.

The latest research points to the importance of transitioning children into school through environments that connect with their prior knowledge and experiences from the Early Childhood level.

In Ako Timatanga, we provide a careful balance between flexible and structured learning activities.”  – Ako Timatanga, 2017


PLEASE NOTE: Information and references within this text are derived from The Incredible Years Programme – Carolyn Webster-Stratton, PH.D, 2006

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