How Do Children Learn Through Play-Based Learning?

Unlock the secrets of how children learn through play and learn how to foster developmental growth with this expert guide.

When you’re a kid, there’s nothing as fun as playing. Whether you’re playing alone, with your siblings, or with kids on the playground at school, play is a fundamental part of childhood.

But what if all that time playing was more than just fun?

As it turns out, it is. Along with being entertaining, learning through play can also support a child’s brain development. There’s a whole school of thought around play-based learning, which tells us that playing is as productive as it is exciting.

Three main areas improve when children play:

  • Cognitive development
  • Social and emotional development
  • Physical development

In this short guide, we’ll be exploring all three areas in depth.

What is Play-Based Learning?

But first, let’s talk about play-based learning. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, you may be wondering what this type of play is all about.

In a nutshell, play-based learning tells us that children learn countless valuable skills during playtime. Best of all, they do it automatically.

That means that play doesn’t need a “goal” for children to learn. It can, of course. Naturally, when a child works to solve a puzzle, they learn about pattern recognition and improve their fine motor skills.

However, even random, everyday play can encourage your child’s development of new skills. And those are the skills we’ll be exploring today.

Cognitive Development

To start, play gives children an opportunity to develop and practice their cognitive skills. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, playtime enhances brain structure and function.

Whether kids are playing make-believe or actual physical games, their ways of thinking expand. Even when kids are playing fun games with their siblings at home, they are continuously participating in playful learning practices. Here are three cognitive skills that develop.

Problem-Solving Skills

When you think about it, many games and activities revolve around solving problems. From board games to building model planes, playing means getting creative when issues arise.

Give your kids a challenge, and they’ll work to find the best possible solution. For example, if you suggest that your child build a tall tower out of blocks, they’ll probably work until they can figure it out. They may experience setbacks and watch the tower topple over, but eventually, they’ll learn through trial and error.

And kids learn to solve problems even when they don’t have a specific task. Children role-playing together act out different scenarios, many of which may involve solving a problem. In fact, many creative games for kids also fuel their imaginations, ensuring your little one is not just having fun but is also developing their cognitive skills in the process. 

Critical Thinking

Play also involves trying new things and taking risks. And inevitably, risk-taking leads to obstacles.

When your child encounters an obstacle during play, they’ll have to think about how to get around it. That’s where critical thinking comes in.

They may be able to use information from past experiences, or they may have to come up with a new way of thinking on the spot. Either way, critical thinking—coupled with problem-solving—is one of the most valuable skills to learn through playful learning.

Memory and Recall

Another beneficial part of play is its impact on memory and recall. Many games rely on memory skills, including:

  • Matching games – This game has kids lay out cards face down and then try to match them by memory by turning up two cards at a time.
  • Memory train – In this group game, one kid says, “I’m going to the beach, and I’m bringing a ball.” The next kid has to remember the first object and add a new one: “I’m going to the beach, and I’m bringing a ball and a bucket.” The game continues, with each child adding a new item and remembering the others.

However, even imagination-based games improve memory and recall. Let’s say your kids were playing restaurant last week. If they want to open the same restaurant this week, they’ll have to remember what was on the menu. Sure, they may make up new dishes to serve. But it’s the act of trying to remember that’s good for their cognitive health.

Social and Emotional Development

Beyond cognitive skills, play also has an impact on your child’s social skills and emotional development, according to a 20-year summary of play-based learning studies.

What’s more, meaningful play allows your kids to build stronger connections with others—including you. Let’s look at three social or emotional skills reinforced by social play.

Communication Skills

Play often happens in groups. Both collaborative games (like role-playing) and competitive games (like tag) provide opportunities for your children to communicate with others.

Even if your child is playing at home alone, they can improve their communication skills by talking to you.

More talkative kids may be happy to share everything about their game. They may want to tell you everything from the moment you enter the room.

However, quieter kids may need some prompting to talk about their activity. You know your kid best; if they need a push to be communicative, consider asking them open-ended questions about their play. For instance, you might ask:

  • Can you tell me about what you’re playing?
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • How did you decide to make that happen in your game?
  • What do you think your toys are feeling right now?

Empathy and Emotional Regulation

As researchers have found, play also helps children process their emotions. How? The answer is quite fascinating.

When kids are turning over an emotion in their mind, that feeling often comes out in their play behavior. In other words, what’s happening inside is reflected outside. Play that brings up emotions, such as role-playing, gives kids a safe space to be emotive.

And because the same can happen for all kids in a group activity, play also allows children to practice empathy. When your child’s playmates are sad, upset, or anxious, your child can learn to understand these emotions.

Of course, processing emotions isn’t always easy. A kit like our Kinspiration Kit: Expressive Play with Unicorn and Dragon can help. With pretend play and dress-up scenarios, this play kit encourages children to express and regulate their emotions.

Conflict Resolution

With so much communication and emotion during play, conflict is bound to happen. And while you may view conflict in a negative light, some amount of conflict is actually healthy.

After all, conflict is a natural part of life. People don’t always get along. When kids learn about conflict resolution through play—rather than through watching adults argue—they benefit.

Additionally, play is a low-risk environment in which to have conflicts. Conflict in a game setting usually amounts to something like “Jeremy skipped my turn.” Kids can practice resolving conflicts with few real-world consequences—before facing greater challenges in their lives.

Physical Development

As you might expect, the benefits of play go beyond the brain. Play also teaches kids physical skills, allowing them to flex their muscles.

From running and jumping to swimming and biking, playing helps children develop several physical skills. Here are three of them.

Gross Motor Skills

For one, play helps with the development of gross motor skills. Gross motor skills involve the larger muscle groups in the body—the arms, legs, and core muscles.

In young children, gross motor skills are usually the first capabilities to develop, as they come with sitting up and crawling.

Research has found that play such as running, jumping, and throwing a ball can improve the muscles’ ability to move. Indeed, all kinds of activities and movements can contribute to gross motor skill development, including:

  • Riding a bike
  • Doing cartwheels
  • Walking
  • Playing on a swing
  • Completing obstacle courses

In short, any amount of movement is beneficial to children. And play is all about movement. Even games that aren’t intensive—such as make-believe—can support the development of gross motor skills.

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are a separate category that involves more precise movements. They typically develop after gross motor skills since they require more control and accuracy.

As you might have guessed, physical play also helps with the development of these skills. Examples of activities that use fine motor skills include:

  • Handling a pen or pencil
  • Building a model airplane
  • Playing video games
  • Sculpting with clay
  • Doing a puzzle

Sensory Exploration

Finally, when children play, they get to engage with their senses.

The most obvious examples of sensory play involve the sense of touch. You may have already seen sensory bins or modeling clay; after all, these are common at daycares and summer camps. These experiences allow young children to get a feel—literally—for the world around them.

However, sensory exploration applies to all five of the senses. Kids naturally use all of their senses as they play out in the world. They smell the fresh-cut grass at the park. They hear the sounds of birds chirping from the trees. And, like it or not, they taste the dirt in the mud pies they’re making!

All of these sensory experiences help your child understand the world in a physical sense.

Children Learn Through Play-Based Learning and Role-Playing

Between the physical, psychological, and cognitive benefits, it’s clear that playtime is about more than just fun. From problem-solving to the development of motor skills, play has endless benefits for kids of all ages.

Ultimately, the more opportunities you can provide for play, the better. Whether that means giving your kids stuffed animals or taking them out to the park as often as possible, we believe that all play has a value that goes far beyond what you can see.

So, whenever you start a game with your kids or see them playing dress-up, you can smile to yourself, because you know they’re not just playing. They’re learning, too.


Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Defining Play-based Learning.

Healthline. The Importance of Play: How Kids Learn by Having Fun.

American Association of Pediatrics. The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.

National Institutes of Health. Developing Children’s Creativity and Social-Emotional Competencies through Play: Summary of Twenty Years of Findings of the Evidence-Based Interventions “Game Program”.

National Institutes of Health. An Overview of Play Therapy.

UNICEF. Why play strengthens your children’s mental health.

National Institutes of Health. Improving Motor Skills in Early Childhood through Goal-Oriented Play Activity.

Parents. How Kids Benefit From Sensory Play.

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