Play to Learn

A local expert's favorite early learning method





“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

The speaker of this quote? No less an expert in all things kid-dom than Mr. Rogers, whose TV neighborhood was a bastion of the play to learn educational approach touted by local
educator and author Roberta Michnick Golinkoff.  

“Think about what you want your kids to be when they grow up,” Golinkoff urges. “You want them to be good communicators, to get along with others, to be social, to persevere, to create new things. All of these [attributes] start in the sandbox.”

What is play to learn?

Golinkoff, the H. Rodney Sharp Professor at the University of Delaware’s School of Education, has written nine books about early education with Temple University fellow and Infant Lab director Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn — And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less tackles the play to learn question head-on.

According to the pair, play-based learning (often called child-centric) has become overshadowed by academic “kill-and-drill” or teacher-directed methods because parents began to worry that their kids would not be competitive in school, college and eventually the job market if they weren’t as accomplished as their peers.


“This pressure to boost children’s brain power is harmful because it threatens to erode aspects of childhood that are crucial to social, emotional and cognitive development,” Golinkoff and Pasek explain in Einstein. The book, researched and written in our own backyard, advocates four principles that Golinkoff says help parents get kids off the overachievement track and cultivate a love of learning through imaginative play.

  1. “The best learning is learning within reach.” Parents should stretch children’s natural capabilities and experience by introducing basic concepts that challenges them to take the next step.
  2. “Emphasize process over product.” If learning is enjoyable, children will want to learn; if learning is solely focused on getting the right answers on a test, kids may temporarily memorize the information, but their natural curiosity and desire to learn will be lost.     
  3. Think EQ, not just IQ.” IQ is only one way to evaluate the potential for success; EQ (emotional intelligence), the ability to connect with others emotionally and socially, also contributes to long-term acquisition of important skills like negotiation.      
  4. “Learning in context is real learning.” Useful information within a real-life context sticks more than disembodied facts that have no bearing on kids’ lives.


Put play to learn principles into practice

  1. Prioritize play as part of your child’s day and schedule other activities around it. 
  2. Go places that encourage exploration and discovery. Some of Golinkoff’s local faves? The Delaware Children’s Museum, the Please Touch Museum and Smith Playground in Fairmount Park.
  3. Look into preschools and independent schools that promote play to learn, like Friends and Montessori.
  4. Provide a stimulating environment with toys and objects that can be used creatively. Think . . . arts-and-craft materials, old Halloween costumes, paper plates and plastic containers
  5. Keep learning within reach. Introduce basic concepts that challenge kids organically. Instead of using rote memorization or flash cards, for instance, ask a preschooler to get you two spoons from the drawer or find two towels in a laundry basket.
  6. Join in the fun but don’t take over. Says Golinkoff, “Children have to figure out who they are and what they like” on their own terms. 

 Becki Melchione is a local mom and freelance writer.

Categories: Early Education, Education & Child Care, Education Features, Elementary Age, Play, Toddlers