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Playing to Learn or Learning to Play

Guest Blog by Sarah Billingham of Confident Kids

Shouldn’t they be learning?
Am I the only one who feels a little like we are living in an alternate universe? Life feels a little like my normal life, same family, same home and yet somehow everything is entirely different.
To be honest I have taken a little time to adjust and settle into a new routine. I needed about 10 days to find a groove that worked for both my family and I.
As a result, this blog was written a full 2 weeks after I had planned to write it. Like so many of you my husband and I are currently juggling the demands of our jobs (working remotely) whilst caring for our children full time.

Our girls are 6 and 1. It is only natural that we look to what others are doing to get ideas for what we should be doing too. The trouble with this is that we can start to compare ourselves unfavourably to others. This is particularly true when it comes to how much formal homeschooling we should be doing. Some of my mum friends are doing some amazing home learning activities with their children and understandably others have had to rely heavily on the fall back ‘electronic babysitter’ whilst they are juggling conference calls.
If one more person suggests that I do PE with Joe I am going to scream!! I’m sure it’s fabulous but it just isn’t quite what I am looking for right now. Not only is there a huge variety in what different families are doing but there is also a large discrepancy between what is being expected by schools too.
One teacher might be sending out a long list of specific tasks, another you might not have heard from at all!

Learning Comes From Experiences
Perhaps you are overwhelmed with not knowing how to teach your child or you are worried they will fall behind? I am going to let you on an important fundamental truth. Play is learning. In fact, it is one of the most effective ways children learn.
According to Bruner (a famous psychologist/ educator for those who are not education nerds) all learning begins in the ‘Enactive’ phase where children learn through real life and hands on experiences.
Even as they move into adolescence, they are better able to understand abstract concepts and learn at a higher level when this is based on their own experiences.
Think about the tasks that need to be done to keep your household running. How can your children be involved in these tasks and learn from them? Being involved in preparing a meal or understanding how the washing machine works might be some of the most useful learning they could be doing.
I could have done with learning this before I went to uni! If there is a topic they are exploring in their school work, they will learn a great deal more if this is brought to life by role play, telling stories and building models.

Permission to Play
Give yourself and your children permission to worry less about what learning is captured in written form and get stuck into play. Sometimes this play can be totally directed by the kids and their interests.
They will explore and learn through trial and error. Sometimes their plans won’t work out and a quick chat through about why it didn’t work could be the thing that makes all the difference. At other times you might be making play suggestions. A small amount of focused time together planning what could be played and what resources are needed provides lots of opportunity to learn. It is unlikely that you will be able to engage in play all day with you kids, it just isn’t realistic.
But when you give your child focused bursts of time, they incorporate what they have learnt from you into future play. Even as little as 5 – 10 minutes of modelling how to play, extending their ideas or helping them to problem solve will make a difference and moves their play and learning forwards.

Connecting Through Play
I have seen several blogs and social media comments about what children will remember about this crisis in years to come. How we engaged with them at this time is the thing that will most likely stick in their memories. I certainly don’t want this time to be remembered by my daughter as a constant battle to practise her spellings!
Spending time playing together is one of the things our children long for the most. It is the time where positive relationships, trust and understanding are built.
Again, be kind to yourself and realistic about how much is possible. Aim for a few minutes a day. Quality is the aim here. 10 minutes of quality play, away from your phone and other distractions is a great place to start. This time will reap longer term rewards for both their development and how your children see your involvement in their lives.

Be Playful in Your Approach
Some things just have to be done. That’s life. Things need tidying up, teeth need to be brushed and chores need to be done. Where possible keep these non-negotiable tasks as playful as you can. My now 6-year-old went through a phase about a year ago where she just didn’t want to get dressed. So we turned it into a morning game where we would have a race to get dressed. Sometimes I would pretend to lose a sock, or get stuck in my jumper. Yes, it took me 5 minutes longer to get dressed than normal, but it totally avoided a much longer standoff and we both started the day in a better mood.

Sometimes the spellings just have to be done. Make them with magnetic letters, write them on the ground in chalk, in the sand with sticks. Play hide and seek with the words written on post it notes. Being creative about how something is done makes all the difference and can reduce a child’s resistance to what they need to do. If they can have some choice about how they do it, even better. Above all this is a time we just need to get through, together, with as much of our sanity in place as we can manage. It’s ok if some days are more successful than others. At the end of the day if your children are still safe and loved then you are doing a great job. Everything on top of that is a bonus.

More About Sarah
Sarah is a Specialist Teacher and co-founder of Confident Kids.


Sarah qualified as a primary teacher in 2004, from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
She initially worked in mainstream primary education and went on to lead a speech and language centre attached to a mainstream school.  She worked as Assistant Headteacher at a specialist school for children with speech and language disorders for five years. In 2016 she became manager of an independent, multi professional assessment service for primary aged pupils with developmental delays.