Learning, Playing and Expectations

photo-31 Children see no difference between playing and learning, as long as the learning is fun! ’Fun‘ does not mean things have to be flashy, shiny, loud, expensive or exotic (although they certainly can be). I swear, give a kid a cup and some water and they might play with it for half an hour. This learning while playing thing is not an easy concept for most adults to comprehend because we are so used to making meaning out of an activity. We are used to setting up purpose made activities to encourage a particular outcome. And, often, we feel like every activity must have a purpose, otherwise it’s a waste of time. Adults can get very VERY bent out of shape if our child does not respond well to the task ‘we‘ want them to do.

But, we really need to change the way we think about learning through play! From the day a child is born, he or she is learning without us ‘teaching‘ them a thing. Babies learn to roll, crawl, sit, walk and make sense of their world, all while they giggle and play. A parent can’t ‘make‘ a baby do any of these things. So, naturally, as a child grows older, he or she will continue to learn through his or her own accord.

Often as a child gets older, we get more intrusive with the learning process. We start making assumptions that a child should be doing XYZ when they’re doing a certain activity because they need to be ‘learning‘ SOMETHING. Almost every toy or gadget you can buy has a labelled ‘learning outcome’ written on the box. Even places like Pinterest and craft book ideas can be limiting for children because we, as adults, feel like there has to be an end product that looks and feels exactly as in the picture. These collaborative resources  are great for ideas and parents should absolutely use them, but it can be quite difficult for parents to accept when our child doesn’t feel like creating exactly what we have in mind as the end result!

For example, Margo (4 years old) asks to paint all the time. One of her favorite activities is to mix all the colors together and make brown. At first, it was sort of annoying to me because I couldn’t understand why she would want to just mix all the colors and make ugly brown. Then, she doesn’t even paint a ‘real‘ picture, she just smears the ugly brown paint all over the paper. It’s really hard to put a curb on my conditioned adult mind and tell it to shut up when I see her just playing. I mean, really, WHO CARES if she mixes all the colors and makes brown?! I have to remind myself, 1) that she’s just four and she’s just painting and 2)Pablo Picasso went through two periods of his life where he only painted in blue and pink… So, really, I had to learn to say inside, “Mind, shut up and let my child paint!

Often, adults miss the simple fact that children are learning SOMETHING all the time! It may not be what WE think they’re learning and it may be far from the learning outcome that are expecting. But, rest assure, if a child is left to explore and be creative, they will certainly be learning.

Margo likes to say the wrong words in a book, (especially if I quiz her on a word or something). She sometimes purposely messes up when she’s writing letters. I used to get so confused when she started doing this purposely ‘messing up‘ because I thought she needed to be ‘on track‘ and that somehow being silly would mean that she would never understand how to read and write. AS IF! So, I started purposely being silly with her and playing her game… and do you know what? It relieved so much pressure for her to ‘preform‘ by being silly with her. Just the other day, she sat down and wrote a birthday card, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY APRIL“, just asking me to help her spell.

It’s easy to feel like a child isn’t ‘playing‘ right or they’re not ‘getting something‘ out of an activity, or that they’re doing it ‘wrong‘. And, often we get frustrated if a child looses interest in an activity that we spend ages planning out for them. (It’s also not the case that we have to let our kids ruin things just for the sake of learning, either) But we all need to take a deep breath. Years later, they will still remember their feelings and emotions of that moment, but they probably won’t remember the outcome of their activity (be it painting, drawing, a game, craft, reading, writing, etc). If we look at a child’s learning process as holistic and allow plenty of free playtime, it’s guaranteed the child will be learning in more ways than we even know!


Kate is a mother to two girls, Margo and Goldie, born in 2010 and 2012. She started a natural parenting and sort of crunchy DIY blog just before my second daughter was born. Her and her husband moved from the USA to Australia in 2008. Originally, she came to Australia to do a master of education, but then they ended up staying. Although she's currently a stay at home mum, she was working in the public schools as a high school science teacher.

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