Learning Through Play

David Elkind
Dr. David Elkind
Early Childhood Expert and Educational
Advisor for MarcoPolo Learning

Play and work are the two basic modes of adaptation. Work is what we have to do for personal and social survival (such as learning the language or the rules of the larger society). Play is what we choose to do for our emotional and mental health (we choose the books we want to read or the music we want to listen to). Adaptation is most effective when work and play go hand-in-hand, as they do naturally in young children.

In early childhood, play develops in three stages.

0-2 Years: Sensory-Motor Play

Soon after birth, infants begin to explore the world through their senses. Objects they grasp become objects to be sucked, bashed, and dropped. This is how they discover taste, sound and gravity!

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Babbling is another form of self-initiated behavior. Children create the sounds basic to all languages and select those that are unique to the language of their caregivers.

2-5 Years: Symbolic Play

As children acquire language, a new form of play makes its appearance. At this stage, children begin to understand symbolism. For example, a child might hold up two potato chips and say, ‘Look Mommy, a butterfly!’

Play at this age also involves children making up their own words such as ‘stocks’ for a father’s socks and a mother’s stockings. It is also the age when children mimic grown-ups by playing ‘school’, ‘store’ or ‘restaurant’.

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During this stage, children begin to dream, another example of symbolic play.

5+ Years: Games With Rules

Once children reach the age of reason, usually at the age of five or six, they can begin to play games with rules. These require the child to engage in the simplest form of logical thinking, the syllogism. An example of a syllogism is:

All dogs have four legs.
The labrador is a dog.
Therefore, the labrador has four legs.

Now, consider a board game such as Monopoly.

I move my token as many spaces as the die says.
The die says three.
Therefore, I move my token three spaces.

Once children are able to understand rules, play takes on a new form. School-age children now create their own games such as hide and seek, running or strength contests. Through games with rules, particularly those of their own invention, children learn to take turns, to respect each other’s space, and to make moral judgments about those who break the rules.

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In MarcoPolo World School, work and play are combined as children choose from 100s of fun learning activities.

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