Child's Play: Learning at Work
by: Heather Haupt

Child’s Play: Learning at Work

by Heather Haupt

In our fast-paced, hurried culture, few equate play with learning.  Learning, according to the current trends, is something that is structured, formal and, above all, best handled by “professionals.” And there is not a moment to lose; the pressure is on from the earliest ages.  This pressure is transferred to parents.  It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we need to replicate “real school” in the home and sit our young children down with endless worksheets, flashcards, and attempt to teach abstract concepts too early.   

Placing these kinds of expectations on small children often results in burnout not only for the child, but also the parent.  It is painful and frustrating.  Parents often blame themselves, saying they just can’t homeschool because of their horrible experiences enforcing “desk work.” 

What we are forgetting is that children’s brains work completely different than ours.  Adult brains are wired to work on a problem and efficiently solve it.  We are methodical and product oriented.  Young children are not.  They are more process oriented.  Their brains are wired and primed to make copious amounts of connections.  It can be a messy process as they soak in life-experiences and make vital connections.    

In those magical and crucial early years, a child’s main mechanism for doing this is through play.  In the first 6 or 7 years of a child’s life there is a wide-eyed wonder about the world around them.  Exposure to this world by loving, interactive parents and having the time and opportunity to manipulate their discoveries through dramatic play and exploration sets a wonderful foundation for a life-long pursuit of learning.  

Children who spend more time in dramatic play are more advanced, not only in general intellectual development, but also in their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. (Freyberg, 1973; Pepler & Ross, 1981)  Moving the body and activating the imagination are key in helping a child categorize where to store information in the brain and to cement it in!

I remember my boys spontaneously dramatizing the life of Davy Crockett.  They cradled, “Ol’ Betsy” and stood strong at the Alamo. Even a year later, my now four-year-old son will call us out when we exaggerate for laughs and tell us we’re telling a tall-tale as Crockett once did.  Yes, we read interesting books and talked about Davy Crockett, but the glue that held it all together was bringing Crockett into their imaginative play. Racing around our backyard, impersonating, and replicating details from his life reinforced those facts in their minds.

Encouraging our children to apply what they’ve learned through play can have powerful, long-reaching effects.  We can foster these connections in two ways:

PARTICIPATE:  Bring play into what you are learning. This makes learning enjoyable, builds family connections, and helps to make whatever you are learning “real.”  It also helps you model to your child creative ways to utilize their imaginations.  Learning about the Mayflower will be more vivid and permanent if you hang sheets in your home to represent the size of a family’s living quarters and sleep there for the night.  

ENCOURAGE PRIVATE PLAY:  Children need downtime (without the distraction of TV or computers) for non-adult directed play to synthesize what they are learning and to make meaningful connections.   You are the guardian of your child’s time.  Preserve time in your schedules where the kids can spontaneously play and explore.  

Homeschooling provides us the unique opportunity to introduce so many things to our children.  It also allows us the freedom to provide downtime for them to process what they’ve learned in a way that has lasting results.  What looks like mere child’s play is learning at work.    

Heather Haupt delights in the adventure of learning alongside her husband and three boys!  Drawing on her unique perspectives in biology and as a homeschool graduate who is now in the trenches educating her three boys, she encourages parents to pursue a loving, holistic, and developmentally appropriate approach to education.  She currently blogs at:


This article originally appeared in the Arizona Home Education Journal, April 2011.

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