How to use play-based learning to help develop new skills

With the latest restrictions in place as part of the government’s response measures to the COVID-19 outbreak, we’re all spending a lot of time at home.

Is your child is stuck indoors when they would usually have a week filled with activities outside the house?

Not only are you probably just trying to keep them entertained (give yourself a pat on the back please, this is no easy task!), you might be wondering how you can help them learn too.

If your child has a disability, one of the best ways you can support them is by engaging with them in play. Play-based learning is proven to help children explore their world, build their confidence and improve their ability to communicate. Best of all? It’s a lot of fun, and you have everything you need at home.

What, exactly, is ‘play’? This research paper from the Early Childhood Education Journal defines it “as a state of being in which an individual experiences increased energy focusing on an activity; cheerfulness and joy which is accompanied by smiles and laughter.” Put simply, play makes us feel good.

Close up of child's hands playing with pom-poms in a plastic container. An adult's hands are also in the photo ready to support the playing.

What does your child enjoy?

To get started with play-based learning, you first need to work out what activities your child finds fun. The whole idea of ‘playtime’ is that it’s an enjoyable, stress-free time where children are free to do the things they love in a safe environment. There’s little point in pursuing play-based learning if the activity you’ve chosen doesn’t resonate with your child.

So, before you get started, spend some time playing with your child. Do some activities make them smile more than others? Do they naturally gravitate towards some toys or activities?

Your child might not have the inclination or ability to take part in typical playtime activities. See if you can find something that brings them joy – it could be as simple as blowing bubbles or chasing shadows. Try to spot what sparks their interest. Then, think about ways to incorporate learning into this playtime.

Turning play into learning

The way that you turn playtime into a learning opportunity depends on the nature of your child’s disability and what you’re hoping to teach them.

For example, if they have a communication delay, then talking to them as you play can help to build upon their understanding of language. You could start by simply naming the objects that you’re playing with. Then, you could slowly build on this by asking your child to name the objects, ask for them, describe them, and so on.

If your child needs some help in developing motor skills, then play-based learning is perfect. Stacking blocks, playing with Lego, tossing bean bags… it all helps to refine their motor skills and build up their muscles. It’s great fun, too.

You can use playtime to teach your child social skills, too. If, for example, they have autism then they might find it hard to share or take turns. They may also not be sensitive to other children’s feelings. Use playtime, in a safe and supportive environment, to model how to behave when playing with others.

You may need to adapt the environment to suit their mobility or communication needs. That same research paper provides some good tips on how you can create a positive learning environment during playtime:

  • Provide a limited number of well-chosen toys;
  • Minimise adult-child interactions; and
  • Create a small, manageable play area.

Children with a disability can find it harder to learn new things. By incorporating lessons into playtime, not only might it make it easier for them to pick up new skills, but it is a lot more fun, too.