What are children learning when they play?
Portia is spreading the blocks on the floor, some close to each other and touching, some not. She puts some smaller blocks on top and then finds a plastic cow in the bin to put next to one of the blocks.
Miles opens the closet of a pretend kitchen and closes it. He opens it and closes it again. He opens it, throws a pretend egg in, and closes the door again.
Ming rips apart some colored paper and lays them on the table next to each other - the red paper and then the yellow paper and then the red paper again. She rips some in small pieces and drops them on the floor, grinning as they slowly fall by her legs.
Ivan runs his fingers through some colored rice. He cups a small amount in his right hand and more in his left hand and transfers the rice on his left to his right and vice versa. Then he slowly drops it all of it into a bin.
What are these children doing?
Well, they are lifting blocks, closing doors, ripping paper and holding rice. If you saw a room full of your friends doing this, you’d probably think they were super weird and ask how much wine they’ve had. But believe it or not, these children are learning! This is the beauty of how they discover and understand. They simply need some intentional materials, time and opportunity, and off they go learning scientific principles of the heaviness of small and big blocks, the mathematical truths of patterns in colored paper, the sensation of the texture of fine rice in their hand.
Allowing them to play in an open-ended way, meaning there is no set goal or correct way to play with materials, allows them to create, form and manipulate. And that lets them explore, discover and express themselves. It comes out from a natural impulse to be free and inquisitive, to soak up as much knowledge as possible about their environment and how it works the way it does. Through their experience of it.
It’s also an essential means of self-expression. They have an idea or a feeling, they do something about it - and boom, there’s the result: the blocks balanced, the door closed and the colored papers were in a beautiful pattern. It might not look like much from the outside, but these children are hard at work learning. So next time your little weirdo is playing freely, imagine them drafting an aerospace design, sculpting art, writing a poem. They’ll be there before you know it.