Tag Archives: Learning

Finding a Balance of Learning Methods

BalancedLearningChildren learn in a variety of ways.Parents and teachers can help them learn by varying our schedule and activities so they have a chance for some guided learning, some self-directed learning and some down time to process it all.

In this diagram by Kyle Snow, he divides four types of learning up by whether the teacher and child are active or passive. (His diagram shows the rectangles of types of learning – I have added the circles.) Whatever classes or daycare your child attends, it’s worth thinking about whether there are opportunities for all four types of learning.

Here’s how we use the four types of learning in my toddler classes with Bellevue College Parent Education.

Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is what we think of when we say “Teaching.” This is an adult telling information to a child, or doing an instructive demonstration of how to do something. Direct instruction from a parent or a teacher is a good way to convey core information and build “crystallized intelligence” – the database of information we carry around.

In our toddler classes, we offer little snippets of direct instruction throughout the day, doing simple things like showing a child how to pour rice in the sensory bin. But the main structured learning happens in circle time when we read stories, sing songs, and play with felt boards. We encourage all children to participate in the group activity together. (At the beginning of the year, we often have some wanderers, but by the end of the year most are engaged most of the time.)

Scaffolding / Guided Play and Free Play

The best way to build “fluid intelligence” – the kind that helps us adapt to new situations and learn new skills, is hands-on play and interaction with real world experiences.

We always have multiple stations set up around the rooms, and children have the ability to choose what to play with, how to play with it, and for how long. Sometimes the children play independently, exploring and discovering on their own. (Free play.) Sometimes, the parents or teachers are asking questions, giving suggestions, or modelling ways to extend the play and involve new concepts. (Guided play – read more about the teacher or parent’s role in play-based learning here.)


Children also need down time. Quiet time, with little to no input, so their brain can process all the new information, and cement the connections that help them remember what they have learned. Since our program is just two hours long, we don’t have a lot of down time built in – we hope that children are coming in well-rested, and that they have a chance to nap afterwards. (More on toddler sleep here.)

During class, we do have a book corner where parent and child can snuggle and read for a while. Children are also welcome to come sit with their parents during our parent ed sessions. Snack time also serves as down time for many kids.

Four Types of Learning at Home

Think about your family schedule for a moment. Do you have times when you’re teaching your child? Times when they are playing with you nearby, giving occasional suggestions or playing along? Times when they’re playing independently? Quiet time? A nice mix of these will help them learn and grow.

Some parents say “my child NEVER plays alone. He always wants me to play with him.” It’s wonderful when our children like us and want to spend time with us. But, it’s also good for them to learn to play on their own too. Can you choose some times each day where you say no to them and encourage them to play alone for a while. They may resist at first, but if given a moment to “get bored” and frustrated, most can find something to do. (You can plan ahead for these times by setting up “Invitations to Play” that you think will capture their attention.)

Play-Based Learning

What is play-based learning?

The teacher or parent sets the stage with engaging and fun activities. Then the child explores through play: observing, experiencing, wondering, exploring, and discovering. The teacher or parent is nearby to observe, ask questions, make suggestions, or play along with the child. But the child decides which activities to do, which toys to play with, what to do with them, and for how long.

[The video linked above, by Jessica Lubina, is a nice quick overview of the concept.]

What is play?

Play can be defined as anything that has these characteristics:

  • Child-Led. Freely chosen. The child is in control. He makes the plan.
  • Process, Not Product. Play is done for its own sake, not to accomplish a task. It involves lots of exploring of possibilities, experiments, trial and error, and repetition.
  • Creative. The child can adapt items, create something new or experience things in a new way.
  • Spontaneous. It’s flexible and open-ended, and it changes and evolves as play time goes on.
  • Fun. The player looks happy and engaged.

Does a child really learn by “just playing”?

We know the brain builds connections when it is exposed to novel experiences, and then allowed to repeat them again and again till it achieves mastery. This process builds two 2 forms of intelligence: memory – crystallized intelligence – the database of information that we access, and improvisation – fluid intelligence – what allows us to adapt that information to new situations. (Medina)

Direct instruction from a parent or teacher can be a great way of adding information to the database of crystallized intelligence. But, the best possible way for children to build fluid intelligence is by hands-on, engaged, self-guided improvisation… in other words, by playing.

What play-based learning is not:

  • Specialized toys. Despite what marketers tell you, learning does not require scientifically designed educational toys and apps or flash cards. Simple, open-ended toys will do.
  • Uninvolved babysitters. Some schools have co-opted the phrase “play-based learning” as a justification for sitting back and letting kids do whatever they want to do with no forethought by the teachers, and no input along the way. We’re talking about a more engaged process.

Benefits – Kids who learn by playing gain:

  • Physical competence. Free play allows a child to practice emerging skills till they are mastered.
  • Self-direction. The child gets to make decisions, make plans, and see them through.
  • Creativity. Experiments show that children who are taught “the right way” to use a toy will use it in limited ways. Kids who are allowed to freely explore develop many more creative uses.
  • Problem-solving. When a child creates her own plan for play, she doesn’t foresee challenges that will come up that an adult might see. This offers lots of chances for problem-solving.
  • Language skills. Play requires asking and answering questions, giving commands and acting on them, and explaining your goals to the person you are playing with.
  • Conflict resolution skills. There’s lots of negotiation that goes on in cooperative play.
  • Emotional intelligence. Dramatic play helps children understand emotions, learn how to express emotions, and distinguish between real emotions and “pretend” emotions.
  • Symbolic play. If a child can use a stick to simulate an ice cream cone, it helps her later understand that numbers on a page represent how many objects they have, and that letters represent sounds, and musical notes on a page indicate where to place her fingers.
  • Better memory. Kids are motivated to remember things they need to know for a play scenario.
  • Reduced stress. Play is fun. Children play when they feel safe. We are all more capable of learning new things when we are having fun and feeling safe.

Teacher’s Role / Parent’s Role

The adult plans an environment and schedule which promotes learning. Children learn best when they feel safe, so familiar routines, consistent rules, and respectful caregivers are essential components. The adults offer meaningful experiences that are stimulating, invite exploration and engage kids. The teacher often has outcomes in mind: knowledge, skills, abilities and understandings children will acquire. But they have not determined an exact path the child must take to get that knowledge.

As Teacher Tom says: “One thing I don’t do is decide what the children will learn… That’s not the job of a teacher… that’s the job of the children. My job is to create an environment, then play with them in it, helping them, but only when they really need it.” Some roles an adult may play are:

  • Stage manager: Sets the stage. Creates an “invitation to play” that combines familiar objects and activities (for repetition/mastery) with novel objects to explore and discover.
  • Observer. Observe quietly. Be there so if they look up with an “a-ha” moment, or an “I did it”, you’re there to reflect that success back to them. A good rule of thumb is to observe for at least 3 minutes before talking. Then make suggestions or ask questions to extend their thinking, or encourage reflection. But don’t change their play, or tell them what their results need to be.
  • Recorder: Ask them to describe what they are doing. (Remember, ask about the process, not the product they’ll end up with.) Write it down to share with a parent or friend later.
  • Facilitator: Help get them the tools they need to accomplish their play plan. Help clear away the “clutter” that gets in the way of their play. Ask more, answer less.
  • Mediator: For children age 3 and up, it’s best to sit back and let kids work out their own conflicts and learn from doing so. But sometimes, especially with younger children, an adult helps resolved conflicts by offering new materials or suggesting alternatives, and modelling flexible thinking needed for peer interactions.
  • Interpreter: help children understand what is meant by another’s words and actions.
  • Participant in play: You follow their lead, respect their individual style of play. Don’t try to make the game your own. Simply be one of the kids who is playing! (As the “big kid” in the group, you can role model respect, creativity, flexibility.)
  • Tools of the Mind style. Kids develop a plan for their pretend play. Teacher offers instruction in pretend play – suggestions specific to the scenario. Kids play. When play comes to an end, the teacher discusses it with them and asks about what they did.
  • Reggio Emilia – inquiry-based or project-based learning style. When your child demonstrates interest in a topic, you collect resources related to it: books, videos, tools, resources for dramatic play related to it. The child chooses a project and must plan their actions, gather information, and develop new ideas. The teacher / parent observes, participates, guides the play when needed, asks questions, and encourages deeper thinking.

A key element of play-based learning is Scaffolding. Development advances and learning occurs when children are challenged to do something just one step beyond their current mastery, and then allowed to practice newly acquired skills. Adults and older children help them make the step by giving a hint, modelling the skill, or adapting materials or activities, and then allowing them to continue to play.


Read: Brain Rules for Babies, by John Medina.

Collections of resources on Play & Learning: www.naeyc.org/play and www.zerotothree.org/child-development/play/

Watch: The Power of Play documentary: https://vimeo.com/20964066

If you ever find yourself wondering about our class: “Why aren’t they teaching my child anything?? All they do is play!” watch this video to remember everything kids learn when they are playing: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNlW7YIX7pk

Additional Sources Used:

The Playing Learning Child: Towards a pedagogy of early childhood. Samuelsson & Carlsson. 2008  Scandinavian Journal of Education.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00313830802497265

The Role of Play in Today’s Kindergarten, Lori Jamison. http://lorijamison.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/The-Role-of-Play-in-Todays-Kindergarten.pdf

References to Play in NAEYC Position Statements: http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/ecprofessional/Play%20references%20in%20NAEYC%20position%20statements_10%2009%20update.pdf

Play in the Preschool Classroom: Its Socio-emotional Significance and the Teacher’s Role in Play, Godwin S. Ashiabi1,2 Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 35, No. 2, October 2007. http://leadershiplinc.illinoisstate.edu/play-based-learning/documents/play_in_the_preschool_classroom.pdf

Go Play – Promoting Your Child’s Learning Through Play www.zerotothree.org

Teaching a Play-Based Curriculum by Teacher Tom. http://teachertomsblog.blogspot.com/2012/04/teaching-play-based-curriculum.html

What is child-led play? On nature-play.co.uk

An Invitation to Play

inviteChildren learn through:

  • being introduced to new ideas and activities (novelty)
  • having the chance to experiment, explore, test & re-test (repetition to achieve mastery)

In play-based learning, a parent or teacher’s role can be to set the stage with new materials, or with familiar materials combined in new ways. Then it’s the child’s role to play: experiment, explore, test and re-test.

“Invitations to play” is one way of approaching these tasks.

Read more about invitations to play

Today, I set up an invitation to play for my 3 year old.(I knew I had a busy day with lots of work to do, so wanted something ready to go that would keep him busy for a while.)

Yesterday, we did “science experiments” with a new set of tools: pipettes and water mixed with liquid watercolors. We would give him two containers of colored water, with pipettes, and a glass vase to mix the colors in.

,Today I set out two colors of water, pipettes, and a glass bowl to mix them in, instead of the vase. I had his container of water beads nearby. When he came into the room, he immediately settled into playing with the pipettes and water, which occupied him for quite a while. When his interest started to wane, I pulled over the water beads and tongs. I didn’t even need to say anything. He immediately started adding water beads. After he’d added them all and taken them all back out, he said “I’ll never do that again.” Apparently he prefers his water beads as a separate activity.

When he ran out of yellow water in his container, I said “Well, you put lots of yellow water in the bowl. Let’s just take some yellow back out of the bowl.” When the pipette pulled up green water from the bowl, I said “Hey! Where’s my yellow water!” That then led to a long play time of trying to pull up blue water or yellow water, and him learning that once things are mixed, they often can’t be unmixed.

This activity gave him chances to further explore materials he’s learned about recently, and combine them in new ways, thus deepening his knowledge of all the materials, and gaining a new insight about color mixing. And, it gave me a chance to get some work done…. Wins all around.


Mixed Age Play

A 16 year old buried under a puppy pile of 7 year old, 3 year old, and 2 year old buddies...

A patient and tolerant 16 year old buried under a puppy pile of 12 year old, 7 year old, 3 year old, and 2 year old buddies…

I’m working now on a longer post about the benefits of multi-age classrooms. (To be posted September 2) but I wanted to share some observations from my recent personal experiences with multi-age play.

Modern American kids tend to spend much of their time in age segregated activities: schools, sports teams, and extra-curriculars where all the kids were born within a one year age span. During the school year, much of what my child does is with his own age cohort.

But this summer, my three-year-old has had lots of opportunities for mixed age play:

  • Lots of spontaneous play on public playgrounds with whatever strangers happen to be there… he tends to play most with kids age 2 – 6.
  • Monthly social for a club we’re involved in. We gather in a gym, and there tend to be about 5 kids…. last month they were 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 years old. My son has played with each of them a few times before.
  • Play time on the playground at church. There’s usually about a dozen kids, ranging in age from 3 – 12. We’ve known them for six months.
  • “Dinner in the park with friends” – we gather with two other families once a week in the park. Our 7 kids are 20, 17, 16, 12, 7, 3, and 2 years old. And they’ve all known each other since birth.

As I watched him play in each of these settings, here’s what I observed (and also what is described by authors and researchers in this area.)

What do I love about mixed age play?

Benefits for younger kids:

  • They get exposed to new ways of thinking. My son doesn’t yet do a lot of imaginary play on his own, but when playing with older kids, suddenly, he’s talking about how they’re pirates on a pirate ship. Or he’s serving up “ice cream cones” made of bark.
  • They learn new ways of moving. My son has learned how to use all the playground equipment – even the challenging stuff – by watching the older kids do it. He learned how to do somersaults recently.
  • They learn new skills. My second child (like many younger siblings) learned to read, write, tie her shoes, dress herself, and more by watching her big sibling do it. I’ve heard countless stories of kids potty training after attending a camp or class where older kids routinely use the potty.

Benefits for older kids:

  • They learn to be flexible. At the social we attend, I watched the kids play an improvised ball game with invented rules. The older kids had teams, and were always trying to move the ball toward their team’s goal. But they understood that the younger ones couldn’t remember or follow the rules reliably. So, the littlest kids could kick the ball any direction they wanted to, and the older ones just worked with the chaos of that.
  • They learn to explain and enforce rules. But the older kids also did set limits sometimes on what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. They had to figure out how to explain it so the little kids could understand.
  • They learn empathy, to be gentle and watch out for little ones. At church, I watched kids on the swings figure out that if big kids are walking near them, it’s OK because they know to be careful, but if little kids start to wander near, they call out a warning and they slow down their swings.

Benefits for parents:

  • Can give parents a break: If there are responsible (or semi-responsible) older kids around, the parents of the little ones may be able to sit back a little. For example, when we’re with our friends in the park, often the teens and tween supervise the 3 little ones while the parents relax and talk.

What can be challenging about mixed age play?

  • Kids get exposed to new ways of thinking: Sometimes things they might not have otherwise thought of…. In the movie Boyhood, there’s a scene where the 6-year-old and the older neighbor boy are flipping through a lingerie catalog ogling the models in their lacy bras. The 6-year-old probably would not have pursued “girly magazines” as young without that influence.
  • They learn new ways of moving: I still remember when my oldest was 6 or so, a girl who was probably 12 years old was shimmying up the pole of the swing-set till she was 15 feet in the air. My daughter watched her very intently, then pulled off her socks and shoes and scaled the pole. Something that would have never occurred to her to do on her own. And that was much higher in the air than I wanted her to be!
  • They learn new skills. I learned how to work pocket knives, matches, and other cool tools from my older brothers. Probably much younger than my parents might have wished I learned those skills.
  • Big kids aren’t always nice. We’ve had two incidents with my little guy this summer. One was at a playground where there was a group of 4 girls who were probably 9 or 10 years old. When we arrived, they played happily with my son and were having a great time. Then they decided they were bored of the “baby” and wanted him to go away. He had a hard time understanding what had changed. Another was at a different playground where there was a large group of older boys (age 7 or 8 maybe). My son was following them around, and laughing and engaged with them, but when we moved close we discovered that what was happening was they were asking him to say things like “I’m really stupid” and then laughing at him when he did. He didn’t get that it was mean – he thought it was a fun game. But clearly it was bullying and not appropriate behavior for those kids. (Their camp counselor was not providing sufficient supervision to even notice, much less intervene in the situation.)
  • Parents of older kids don’t always pay attention. When my child is the youngest one, he may be getting into situations that are more dangerous than he might typically be in (see above under “learn new ways of moving”). So, I have to supervise more closely than I normally would. But the parents of the older kids may be used to not having to do much supervision at all of their child, and may not realize that a) their child might need guidance on what is and is not appropriate play when younger kids are involved, and b) the parent who is supervising the youngest one then kind of gets stuck supervising all the kids by herself and managing all the needed interventions.
  • Unfair Expectations: In mixed age settings, it can be easy for adults to expect the younger children to have the same capabilities as the older children. When my younger daughter was 8, she was placed in a class where most of the kids were 10 years old. Academically, it was a good fit. She was one of the most advanced in the class. Socially, she did fine. She had a big sister, so she was used to playing with older kids. But emotionally it was hard. If something upset her, she had a hard time calming herself down. Parents who volunteered in the class sometimes had a hard time managing it, because they were used to their older children. Even the teacher failed to manage it well – reporting to us that our child was just much less emotionally mature than the other kids in the class. It was as if she’d forgotten that all those other kids had 25% more life experience than our daughter.

I think it’s important to be aware of these possible pitfalls, but don’t let it deter you from multi-age play.

I grew up as the youngest of four kids, with piles of kids of all ages in the neighborhood, at church, in 4-H, Girl Scouts, etc. I want my kids to have that experience of all the benefits  that mixed age play can give. And for that, I’m willing to take the challenges – think of them as learning experiences…

Toddlers love repetition


All young children love repeating the same thing over and over. It gives them a great sense of mastery over their world when they know what to expect and they know what is expected of them. This is true of ALL children. But especially of my little boy.

With his big sisters, I was all about variety in their activities, and diverse experiences, and exposing them to as many things as possible. Sure, we had some books we read again and again, and some favorite places we visited often, but I definitely actively sought out new adventures for them, both for their sake, and – frankly – because I was young and impatient and easily bored of the ‘same old thing.’

But my boy demands routine. He insists on the familiar. He revels in repetition.

He dives deep into things with a devoted passion. When he had just turned two, he fell in love with Cat in the Hat, and we spent 3 months reading it over and over.We all had it memorized, and we were all grateful that there are so many of us in his daily life that can read to him. (Between me, my husband, the grandparents, and the sisters, he has 6 dedicated readers to go to. So each of us only had to read the book about 100 times, rather than the 600 repetitions I would have had to read without my village of support.)

After that, it was about 6 months of trains. The Thomas the Tank Engine videos, train books, toy trains and tracks, the trips on real steam engines, the sitting by tracks and watching trains pass by. Now, it’s not that trains were the ONLY thing we played with. On a regular basis, I “made him” do other things, and there were plenty of trips to the playground and the library and concerts and books about other topics… But definitely trains dominated. Again, it helped that his abuelo (grandpa) loves trains and was quite happy to play along.

Then it was 5 or so months of the alphabet. Listening to YouTube ABC songs in the car everywhere we drove, playing all the ABC apps that exist for the Kindle Fire, putting together letter puzzles, singing the ABCs, playing the “I’m thinking of an animal that starts with the letter R” game.

Now we’re five months into the planets. The books, the videos, the planetarium visits…  I’ve got the three year old who is sliding down the slide shouting “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars…” and telling the other kids “the sun is the center of our solar system. The planets orbit around it. It takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun” and so on. And everywhere we go he finds sets of nine objects to line up to be the planets. Whether it’s balls, rocks, sea shells, sugar packets at a restaurant… the smallest items are Mercury and Pluto, the biggest is Jupiter, etc.

Sometimes this repetition / focus drives his sister crazy. She’s 17 and thinks the world is more interesting with variety.

It doesn’t really drive me crazy though.

Most of the time.

Partially because I’m older and more patient. Partially because of all the other adults (and adult-like older siblings) who help support his passions – if it was only me doing all this with him, I’d have worn out by now. Partially because I can see how much he learns by doing it. We know from neuroscience that children learn / build connections in their brain through repetition, especially in a setting where they feel happy and safe. My boy learned to read before he was 3. He can memorize books, songs, and videos… the other day he was quoting a Bill Nye the Science guy video word for word… He’s also on track for learning all the things he should be learning at 3 – how to hold a marker (and draw planets), how to sort things by categories (rocky planets, gas giants, dwarf planets), how to make things of clay (yep, planets), how to carry a tune (yes, singing songs about planets) – and lots more skills we expect at this age. We’ve also talked about things I didn’t expect to cover at this age – like states of matter.

And really, the biggest reason I’m willing to repeat things over and over is simply that it makes him happy. The joy and satisfaction he finds in a deep mastery of a topic is pretty hard to resist.