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Kids Learning at Recess

How Children Learn Through Play At School

Ask any kid what his favorite school subject is, and the answer you will often get is "Recess." You remember those days – getting to go out and play with your friends rather than sit at a desk and learn stuff. The dirty secret that kids don't know, and parents don't tell them, is that they are actually learning a lot from running around with their friends and playing those games.

Throwing a baseball is a lesson in physics. Joining a soccer team teaches all about teamwork and cooperation. Holding a tea party is like reading Ms. Manners, only with your teddy bears and imaginary friends. It's all learning – and playing!

Hands-on Play

"Natural, everyday elements can be springboards to wonderful play and learning experiences for children," says Barbara Polland, a professor of Child and Adolescent Development at the California State University, Northridge, and the author of No Directions on the Package: Questions and Answers for Parents with Children from Birth to Age 12 (Celestial Arts, 2000). "The elements – mud, sand, water – are generally available to parents at little cost. It is way too easy to let children become addicted to the frenetic pace of television and computer games. How sad is that and how dangerous to brain development and the process of creativity through hands-on experience?"

Polland recalls such a learning opportunity inspired by the presence of a spider in a play yard. After seeing a spider web, the children were prompted to read a little bit about spiders and webs. "The children were fascinated by the idea of trapping things in the web," she says. "We measured out yarn to make a huge web and then made up dances for moving through it and eventually getting trapped." The children drew pictures of things to get trapped in the giant yarn web and then taped them to it. One activity led to others as the children came up with new ideas.

"The activity incorporated so many curriculum aspects, including math, science, art, drama, dance, literature and more," Polland says. "It proved to be a lot more exciting for the children, and for me, than worksheets or a learning unit."

A Lifetime of Learning

Sakura Ozaki of Cold Spring, N.Y., is a former teacher and current stay-at-home mom to two young daughters. "I cannot honestly say that I consciously try to mix play and learning because learning is, after all, fun by nature," she says. "I believe that as parents, nurturing the love of learning at a young age is the best thing we can do to prepare our kids for a lifetime of learning."

Ozaki and her daughters often play with animal cards and puzzles. At first, it was just to look at the pictures. After a while, it became about naming the animals. "Later on, we would go through the same set of cards and ask questions about their habitats and nature," she says. When the girls were ready, the questions became more involved, introducing them to bigger words and concepts.

A puzzle of the United States worked the same way. Once her older daughter could put the puzzle together, she began to learn the capitals and directions (north, south, east and west rather than right and left). All of it was fun and educational, and none of it was homework.

"Our TV is never on, not so much because we prohibit it, but because our day is so full of activities that there is no time for it," Ozaki says. "I tend to sacrifice housework to do educational activities with the children, so our home is a mess, but it's worth it."

The Science of Play

One of the subjects that parents often find difficult to incorporate into general play is science. Many times, this is because parents are intimidated and uncomfortable with their own knowledge of science in the first place.

Jason Lindsey is working to change all of that. A meteorologist and science reporter for KFVS-TV, located in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Lindsey does more than simply provide weather reports. In fact, he has been instrumental in getting several mayors and even a congresswoman to declare October 3 as "Science Day" in their respective jurisdictions.

As a parent and scientist, he is committed to helping children and families learn more about science through fun activities rather than just lesson plans. "Kids are always eager to learn something new," Lindsey says. "That's why it is important for adults to take time and incorporate educational elements. It will encourage them to look for learning opportunities as they grow older. Bottom line – you'll find your children searching for ways to learn if you take the time to show them that they can learn not just in the classroom, but anywhere."

His family is full of hands-on learners, and he encourages his children to pursue their curiosity. "I've noticed that they learn so much more by taking a toy apart and putting it back together, or just by having them watch me and then trying it for themselves," Lindsey says.

Having visited hundreds of schools to perform science experiments for students of all ages, Lindsey knows a little bit about what kids respond to most. "With any subject, if you have fun, then you learn more," he says. "I've discovered that kids learn science best by having fun. Here's the trick: While they're having fun, sneak in a science term. Believe me, they'll learn the term and not even realize it. So many [teachers] fail to see this and in return, they create kids who don't like science."

Why is grass green? Why is the sky blue? Any trip to the playground can give rise to these questions. Your next trip to the produce aisle or farmer's market is a lesson in health, colors, tastes, shapes and, eventually, even the difference between fruits and vegetables. Everywhere you look, there's a chance to help your kids learn something new.

Forget recess; school is in – and it's all around you! Now get to class and learn something, even if you don't mean to.

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