Learning Through Play

I was a teacher for 4 years. I went to Texas Tech University to specialize in elementary education. I’ve taken over 12 child development classes and spent countless hours observing and teaching school aged children learning so much about the way their brains work and what their basic needs are. If there is one thing that my classes, experience, and research have taught me, it’s that children need to PLAY.  More specifically, children need opportunities to engage rule based games as well as unstructured and free play.

The Research

Harvard study on abused or neglected children showed that the children’ negative experiences “hindered the development of executive development skills, which children need in order to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, and control impulses”. Harvard began a program that introduced rule-based games and mindfulness exercises to 4 and 5 year olds during their school day. In just 10 weeks of playing 15 minutes a day, the researchers saw “significant improvements in mental flexibility and a higher level of sustained attention”. By creating a low stress environment they allowed the students to play and develop their executive development skills. They even added an interesting “Home Visit” component to support parents, as well.

The Power of Play is an amazing resource that states “real learning happens better in person-to-person exchanges rather than machine-to-person exchanges.” It says play is an “activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery,”.  The article explains the different types of play and how they are crucial for children at every age to participate in. The article describes non-structured play, or free play, as “brain-building”.

Classroom Play 

In my classroom, I began noticing my students had very little time in class to explore and play freely. Our day was structured for “bell to bell instruction”, leaving no time for unstructured activities. I wanted to do an experiment, giving the kids 30-45 minutes of unstructured play to see if it helped behavior and focus.

I implemented “Morning Tubs” to give the students that opportunity. Morning Tubs was the first 30-45 minutes of our day. I chose the morning time because I found that my students were the most chatty during the first few hours of the day. I thought free play in the morning would give them a healthy outlet for the conversational energy. I wanted them to have a safe space to have that face-to-face interaction and build their social skills!

My Morning Tubs went like this: I filled 8 tubs with various games, blocks, toys, etc.  The only rule to morning tubs was 4 people per tub, but the students could switch tubs as long as there was a free spot. I gave no instruction on how to play with any of the materials because I wanted the students to get creative and explore different ways to play with the materials. I was shocked with what some of the students created!

After a few weeks of morning tubs, here’s what I noticed.

  1. My students were more focused throughout the day. Having a healthy outlet for morning energy allowed them to stay calm and focused for our morning lessons and centers.
  2. They were having better conversations. By giving the students an opportunity to speak freely with one another, they developed better conversation skills when speaking with their peers. They learned how to let others have a turn to talk, share ideas, ask and answer questions in complete sentences; all without me having to guide them.
  3. They acquired better problem solving skills. When students had conflict in morning tubs, they knew I wouldn’t help settle the dispute. Morning tubs was a time that THEY were in charge and they had to learn to compromise, ask for forgiveness, give forgiveness, take turns, and be a good partner. After all, no one wants to play with mean kids.
  4. It provided them with shared experiences to draw from. This was an unexpected outcome. I’d always wanted my students to write about their own life experiences during our writing block. Little did I know, most of them felt like they didn’t have any stories from their lives to tell. Morning Tubs turned out to be an amazing shared experience all my students could write about. They loved writing and telling me about what they did or built in Morning Tubs. It gave them a sense of confidence to be able to draw stories from playtime.
  5. Their creativity grew. It was a joy to see the creativity in my students grow. No longer was “I don’t know”, and option when it came to creating something. All of a sudden, each kid had new ideas or something to contribute.

Unstructured play was the greatest thing I could have ever done for my students, and I would encourage all teachers to give it a try in their classrooms. It may look totally different for you and your students and THAT’S OK! I know it’s hard for teachers to let go of the reins sometimes, but so much can come out of just 30 minutes a day. TRY IT!

My Home

I’ve got two babies at home; one is 15 months, the other is 2 months. While my 2 month old is “playing” with her hands, I’ve started to implement some structured and unstructured play for my 15 month old. She doesn’t understand that games come with rules, but she does understand how to play Peek-a-boo by observing the process and applying it to her own ability to play. She understands “chase” means that you run from mommy and when she “gets” you, it’s your turn to chase her! Those are great examples of “structured play” for little ones.

Luckily, little ones are WAY into unstructured play and it comes very easy to them. All you have to do is stick them in from of a pile of toys or in the middle of the living room and they can almost always find a way to entertain themselves without you having to create the fun for them! The DVD collection is very popular in our house.


When she was about 12 months old, I began using “guided” play to work on Winnie J’s fine motor and problem solving skills.

Guided play is a mix between structured play and free play. Usually it means you give them the materials you want them to play with and then model a few ways to play with them. The kiddos can either roll with your example or come up with their own ways to use the materials. BOTH ARE OK!

Most of the activities I found on Pinterest! Here is my board for sensory and fine motor activities if you need some inspiration. These activities were super simple and we used things we already had laying around the house (aka FREE).  Here are a few of my favorites so far.

Corks and Bowls- This came about when Winnie J would throw a fit while we were cooking dinner or doing dishes. Out of desperation, I pulled out some plastic bowls, wooden spoons, and some wine corks! I dumped them into the bowls and let her do what she wanted with them. I modeled stirring them and switching them into different containers. The first few times she did just that. As she continued to play, the bowls became drums, she threw them from one bowl to the other, she tried to stack them, she rolled them, and they were a great teething toy!

Whisk and PomPoms- This activity is super simple. I just got neon pom poms from Hobby Lobby and put them inside of a whisk. I then showed Winnie how you can put the pom poms in and out of the whisk! This was to work her fine motor skills. I also offered cups and bowls for her to put the pom poms in and out of.  She loved this activity.


Cups and Straws- I came up with this one when I saw how much Winnie loved taking out and putting in the straw from my cup. I got an old drink tumbler I didn’t use anymore and cut up some colorful plastic straws at different lengths. I didn’t have to show Winnie how to put them in the opening because she already knew. You can reignite the fun by switching up cups or containers to put them in.

Does it Fit?- This one is probably the most unstructured activity I’ve tried with Winnie. Again, very simple. I gathered different items/toys from around the house and different sized cups/containers. I simply laid them on the floor in front of Winnie and tried to put the different items in the different containers. I would ask, “Does it fit?” and model “Yes” or “No”. I then let Winnie take over and see what she did with it. She now does this with any item or container she sees! This activity is really great for teaching exploring and yes/no!

To sum up, play is NECESSARY in childhood development (don’t forget that adults need play too). Play is crucial to all areas of early development and helps to cultivate a child’s future. Each type of play is important and encouraged everyday!

I also have a friend who has an INCREDIBLE blog with great resources for toddler play and meals! Check out the Madre Mia Blog, here!





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