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Clinical and Special Education Early Childhood

Play-based Learning: Looking at Early Learners as 'Little Scientists'

Rachael Storey
Written By Rachael Storey
On Nov 30, 2020
8 minute read

Check out Part 1 of our Play-based Learning series.


Encourage Play-Based Learning to Help Reach Developmental Milestones

I am lucky to have a resource I trust when it comes to discussing how to reach early childhood development milestones. My father, Dr. Russell Reeves, has been a clinical psychologist for over thirty years and has extensive experience with his own child diagnostic and therapy practice. He strongly believes play-based learning is critical for early childhood development and encourages all to see early learners as “little scientists.” He states,

“If we think of children as scientists and quality play as their laboratory, we can come to see that children learn by running experiments every day. Like all good scientists, children must run many experiments and different types in order to figure out results. Early learners need a good lab, or high-quality play, in order to get consistent results and learn about their world. Eventually, they will need to see if other ‘scientists’ are getting the same results, and that is where peer socialization comes in after the pandemic.


What constitutes quality play? In Dr. Reeves’s opinion, it includes children participating in dramatic, or pretend, play either on their own or with adults, especially parents. He stated that children have told him throughout the years how much they love wrestling with their parents or playing pretend. Activities like these get children’s imaginations working, incorporate relationship skills, and introduce children to social role flexibility. Pretend play helps children start to make connections between classes of objects and realize that different objects can be used for the same purpose, leading to cognitive gains. Periods of time of unstructured play without adults increases confidence, imagination, and creativity, ultimately helping children solve problems, look inward for satisfaction, reduce reliance on others for fun, and find self-contentment. Last, he concluded that play can reduce stress and even help children process trauma (e.g., "I gave Teddy the shot, too").  He said that even small children can deal with stressful situations through play, going over events again, to create emotional distance between themselves and trauma. In order to incorporate the five components of early childhood development from the BDI-3 at home, play-based learning is the answer.


If you are interested in learning more about the relationship between play and learning, The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has multiple informative articles to help. Here are articles about how play connects to learning , here is an article about five essentials for meaningful play, and here is an article to give parents tips about play.


How can we foster quality play at home in a way that does not add pressure to caregivers during this difficult time? Below are ideas for encouraging low stress, play-based learning at home, broken down by the previously mentioned developmental competencies.


"Give children opportunities to make choices, such as what they want to play with first, and give them time to play independently so they can run all those “experiments” on their own and take pride in their own results."


  • From working with many students who are nonverbal, my best advice is to narrate children’s play to link words with their actions. If my daughter is pretending to feed her baby doll, I say something like, “You are feeding your baby lunch. Wow, Baby looks hungry!”
  • Next, expand on what they do say to build off their vocabulary. If my daughter says “cat,” I say, “Yes, our cat is soft!”
  • Point things out on walks around the house or any other environment, such as “lamp.” If the child says it back you can say something like, “The lamp turns on and off.”
  • Try to make statements instead of asking questions when narrating play or pointing out items. A speech pathologist I once worked with told me that sometimes questions can intimidate children, especially if they do not know the answer or they have expressive language delays.
  • When you do ask questions, provide choices. This is like a visual “word bank.” For example, if I ask my daughter if she would like to play with a puzzle or blocks, I show her both options while saying the words.
  • Sing songs such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Old McDonald.” Linked is a list of songs to aid toddler language development, written by a speech pathologist.
  • Baby sign language can be helpful for young learners to communicate as well. My daughter definitely never has trouble signing “cookie.” This article has visuals for basic signs and tips to get started.
  • Here is a useful list of ways to incorporate language skills in everyday interactions and play with preschoolers.


  • The good news in this domain is that young children get most of their social cues from their family, so being mostly at home during the pandemic might not be the worst thing for social skills development for our youngest learners. As children get older, it is increasingly important for them to have social interactions with their peers.
  • Pretend play is an effective way for children to practice all kinds of social skills, try new social roles, explore social relationships, and work through trauma. Children do not need fancy props to participate in pretend play; for example, give them some items from the kitchen and they can play chef or restaurant. I keep one cabinet in my kitchen lock-free for my daughter to play in. Every so often I add different things, such as a pot and soup spoon or muffin pan with liners so that she stays interested.
  • Playing games with family members also helps children learn how to self-regulate emotions and interact with others.


  • A visual schedule for your children, with clear play times included, can help students understand what is coming next in their day and anticipate actions, leading to increased independence. Here’s a sample schedule for a 3-5 year old.
  • Have children help care for and play with their real or pretend pet, encouraging responsibility.
  • Make everyday tasks playful. Let them help get dressed or undressed and with hygiene tasks. This may take longer, but that is okay! Sing songs and focus on connection during these sometimes “boring” daily tasks, letting them take on more responsibility. This idea comes from the book Elevating Childcare, by Janet Lansbury, and has been helpful in my home. If this idea interests you, for more ideas her website is linked here.
  • Give children opportunities to make choices, such as what they want to play with first, and give them time to play independently so they can run all those “experiments” on their own and take pride in their own results.


  • This website, made by a physical education teacher with certification in special education physical education, has many ideas for all kinds of motor activities and play for young children with videos and visuals.
  • A part of Special Olympics, Young Athletes has numerous physical play activities for early learners to do at home with their families, and information is provided in English, Spanish, and Arabic.
  • There are so many fun sensory activities online, but it can be overwhelming! The best ones I have found are from Busy Toddler. I love how she focuses on quick and easy play activities, that she has an education background, and how she has many posts broken down by age group.
  • If you are able, nature walks, playing outside, and playgrounds offer a change of scenery and a place for toddlers to work on gross motor skills.
  • A gross motor activity can be as simple as listening to music and having a dance party with family or playing games like tag and catch.
  • Drawing and art projects help fine motor skills.
  • Blocks and toys like Legos or Duplos are also excellent motor activities for families.


  • At this young age children learn so much from incorporating early literacy and math skills in to everyday play as opposed to things like workbooks. Reading and math should be fun so that children are excited about learning.
  • Do simple art projects based on books. The easiest example I can think of: read Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson and then draw with purple crayons.
  • Have a snack based on a book. My daughter loves to read Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey with her teddy bear and then eat blueberries. It really makes the book come to life!
  • Play a game based on a book. We love playing “peekaboo” after reading Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora.

Note: while we are choosing books, it is important to include representations of all children. Two blogs I follow are The Conscious Kid and Here Wee Read. Both show diverse books to read and come from a social justice mindset that is inclusive of all children. Here’s another list of books with diverse characters from the School Library Journal.


  • A quick activity to combine play and literacy that my daughter loves: I gather toys and books we already have related to one theme, such as “farm.” I then put these toys and books in a basket for her to discover. Something about the basket makes the toys and books seem new, and we will read the books with the toys as props.    
  • Use stuffed animals or puppets to help read different books or act out stories.
  • Have children pretend to read to stuffed animals to practice print concepts, such as holding books right side up and turning pages.
  • Play in the kitchen and involve reading recipes.
  • Math can also be easy to incorporate in play, by reading books about shapes and counting and then finding shapes and counting items around the house.
  • Simple shape sorter toys and puzzles are always fun.
  • Use cookie cutters in different shapes with play dough and talk about it.
  • Older children can involve measurement in many activities, like measuring how tall different toys are, or finding leaves on a nature walk and measuring them or putting them in order from smallest to biggest.


Hopefully this provides easy ideas for incorporating developmental milestone concepts in everyday play. Some will need to focus on basic needs for children right now; activity ideas may be secondary and that is understandable. First and foremost, children need to be safe, fed, and loved. I am going to try to include a few of these ideas at a time in my daughter’s play-based learning for the remainder of the pandemic, and hopefully you can join in with your own children or the children you work with. Let’s see what all our little scientists can discover!


Do you have ideas for developmental milestone-informed, play-based learning? Let us know in the comments.



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