Learning to Play: When Fun and Learning Go Hand in Hand

“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.”

  • Kay Redfield Jamison


As the evening light lengthens, my children grow restless. They can feel summer approaching, that long stretch of unfettered relaxation and recreation that beckons with promises of lazy days.

It was late spring, and we were all lounging around after dinner, discussing plans for the best summer. Like ever.

“I can’t wait to sleep in,” groaned my son, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. Teenagers. They’d sleep through the apocalypse if you let them.

My youngest piped up. “I want to go swimming. Every day, Daddy. Pleeeeease?”

She’d been obsessed with getting back into the water ever since she’d cajoled me into buying that new swimsuit the previous week. Last night, she’d slept in the damn thing. Her plans to morph into a mermaid were definitely underway.

Naomi snorted. “I’m sure Dad has other plans.” She rolled her eyes.

“What?!” I spread my arms out in mock humility. “What do you mean? It’s your summer vacation.”

“Yeah, Naomi’s right,” my son joined in. “You always have a project in mind. What’s it gonna be this year?”

It was hard to play innocent because their skepticism was well founded. Like most parents, I feel vaguely guilty about letting my kids spend an entire two months slacking off. That’s an awfully long time to let young brains sit around inactive, gathering up slang, bad habits, and impressive amounts of junk food. A few summers ago, however, I’d begun to find a few projects to sneak learning into the playful joviality of our summers. Nothing too time consuming, most of it masquerading as the best time they’d ever had. It took them a few years to catch on.

Maya’s eyes widened in recognition. “Is that why we did that alphabet garden last year?”

I smiled back sheepishly. Last summer, just as Maya was learning to read, I had announced we’d begin a garden. But not just any garden. An alphabet garden. I’m pretty sure my youngest daughter envisioned letters sprouting up from the soil like a vegetable fairy tale. Everyone pitched in to help. My son and I worked together to build the raised beds, introducing him to basic tools and honing his skills of measurement and engineering. The girls helped pick out the seeds and planted them in neat rows, weeding and watering until up sprouted asparagus, beets, and carrots. It kept them all active and excited about the outdoors, with the added benefit of encouraging Maya to continue practicing her letter sounds.

“Umm… Well, it was fun, wasn’t it?”

She nodded.

“So you learned a few things along the way, right? Nothing very harmful in that!”

“It’s like that time we did the lemonade stand,” Naomi reminded me.

“You loved that!” I responded defensively.

And she had. A few years back, my middle daughter had shown signs of becoming a budding entrepreneur, so I encouraged her to set up a lemonade stand. We worked together to fashion it out of spare wood in the garage. Then we sat down and made up a business plan. With a little assistance, she was able to determine how much her operating costs would be, including supplies for making the lemonade, and how much she would need to charge to achieve a certain profit margin. Naomi even paid her cute little sister to stand on the street and wave a homemade sign at passing vehicles to entice thirsty customers to stop. Naomi made a tidy sum. Much more importantly, she exercised her mind and her entrepreneurial spirit.

Naomi nudged me with her shoulder. “I’m just teasing you, Dad. It was fun. We could do that again.”

“Actually,” I admitted, “I have something else in mind for this summer.”

“Do I have to follow the garbage truck around?” Maya asked.  Her voice was tinged with equal parts of awe and trepidation.

Ivan laughed, and we shared a knowing glance. When he was about five, he’d had an intense interest in the garbage collector. He’d sit at the window, patiently waiting for the huge, noisy contraption to come rolling up to the house. After observing his obsession, I encouraged him to go out and talk to the sanitation workers. I helped him draft a series of questions, and we documented the interaction with a few photos. Afterward, Ivan got invited to tour the waste facility and see where the trash ended up. I made him a little scrapbook to document the experience. It was probably still lying in a cupboard somewhere.

“Nope. No rubbish. I’ll give you a riddle. We’ll see if you can guess it.”

I had their attention now. I hesitated for a moment, digging around in my brain for something that might pass muster. Then I hit upon an idea.

“What has no beginning, no middle, and no end, but touches every continent?”

“An airplane?” Maya guessed, looking puzzled.

I shook my head.

Naomi furrowed her brow, then exclaimed, “I know! A ship. We’re going on a cruise.”

“That’s much closer,” I confirmed. My son was already grinning, and I knew he’d stumbled onto the answer.

“Go pack your swimsuit, Maya. We’re going to the beach,” Ivan said triumphantly. “The answer is ‘An ocean.’”

“The beach!” my youngest daughter squealed, and ran into her room to unearth her suitcase from the closet. I didn’t bother to protest that it was weeks away. It was likely she’d pack that bag fifteen more times in the coming days before she was satisfied.

“So what are we going to do there, Dad?” Naomi asked excitedly, no doubt fishing (pun intended) for details on the fun to be had in that playground of sand and sun.

“Oh, nothing much. Just learning about tides and waves and going on scavenger hunts for shells. And erosion. We’ll have to do some research into erosion before we go.”

There might have been some good-natured grousing about my intentions to pack those days at the seaside with learning adventures, but in the end, I knew my kids would agree. It was the best summer. Like ever.

Want to pack some learning into your play? Try a few of the following suggestions:

Make an Awesome Alphabet Garden

Gardening is a fab way to teach kids the science of how things grow. To make it even more exciting, instead of just planting a bed, make a themed garden. It doesn’t have to be by ABCs. You can also plant by color. Plant your garden in a place where they will be motivated to look after it. Caring for living, growing green things is a good lesson in responsibility.

Go to a garden center or look through some magazines to get some ideas and decide together what plants to get. Get your child to make a tag for each plant or paint the name of the plant on a rock. Kids are naturally impatient; they’ll be scanning the soil daily, looking for evidence of shoots, so try to choose hardy, fast growers.

A word of caution. If your child is going to be planting certain plants he hasn’t been exposed to before, or collecting insects that you and he don’t recognize, there’s always the chance that he’ll turn out to be allergic to one or more of them. Especially if you’re away from home in the woods (or in another country) when undertaking those activities, it’s a good idea to keep an epinephrine pen with you, just in case. (For most of my young childhood, my parents and I never knew that I was allergic to black flies until the day came that one bit me.)

Bonus points: Keep a journal! Your kids can draw how plants grow, log measurements, and even record how the plant changes over time.

Pucker Up and Create a Lemonade Stand

Want to teach your kids math and science skills? Encourage your little entrepreneur to run a lemonade stand. They will be making the lemonade, which involves mixing and measuring. They’ll also exercise social skills as they deal with customers in the neighborhood. Your child can make a sign to advertise the day and date of the lemonade sale and get younger siblings involved helping to catch the attention of potential customers.

Get your kids to think of reasons that people would want to buy the lemonade and how the kids can use their advertising to target potential customers. Is the lemonade ice-cold? Homemade? What price should the kids charge to cover the cost of ingredients? Where should the stand be to maximize passing traffic? Encourage them to think about how to decorate the stand to be eye catching and encourage people to stop. Practice counting out money and make sure your little business owner is well supplied with change.

Need a simple recipe for homemade lemonade that even a young kid can manage? We’ve got you covered.

  • 4 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 8 tablespoons of white grape juice
  • 6 cups of water

Place the ingredients in a large plastic pitcher, stir, and chill. Congratulate yourself on parental awesomeness – right up until you realize you forgot to buy cups.

Bonus points: Once the big event is over, talk about what they’re going to do with their money. Here’s another opportunity to teach your kids about the value of money and how to budget wisely. Encourage them to save at least a portion of their earnings or donate it.

Travel the “World”

Everywhere you go is an opportunity to learn. At the beach, in the shops, or even just driving around, you’ll encounter opportunities to encourage development.

Where does mail go? How do donuts get their holes? How do we get milk? Where does bread come from? Go into a shop, a post office, or a farm, and let them “interview” the staff. Your kids might need your assistance with formulating good questions and perhaps some adult intervention to get a behind-the-scenes look at how things work. Before you go, talk to your child about what they want to know and do some research.

Bonus points: You can even take loads of photos and make a scrapbook of their experiences when they get home. They can create an interesting story about what they’ve learned.

Curtain Call! Turn a Book into a Play

Two very important parts of learning are literacy and creative or imaginative play, and this activity includes both. Very young children may need the book read to them, but they are capable and enthusiastic actors, and they can certainly lend a hand with scenery and costumes.

Let your children choose one of their favorite books, reread it, and then work together to write down what they want their play to be about, based on the book. Older kids familiar with plays can do this on their own with minimal guidance. Have them think about which characters to include and what the beginning, middle and end of the play should be. The play doesn’t have to follow the exact structure of the book. Let them think creatively about how they want their production to turn out. Once the plot is complete, they can choose friends or siblings to take part and play different roles.

Help them practice their lines and let them design their “sets” in a room in the house or outside. You may need to help by supplying paint, old clothing, plenty of cardboard, and various pieces of furniture to turn this play into a fairy tale come true.

It doesn’t even need to be a straightforward play. Give your aspiring magicians or singers the stage and watch them shine!

Bonus points: Encourage your kids to make tickets and hand them out to people who would like to come and enjoy the show. On opening day, raise the curtain and watch your young actors at work.

“Double, Double Toil and Trouble”: Brew Some Science Experiments

Does it froth or bubble? Explode or ooze? Science has enormous potential to provide hands-on learning and fun. Try some simple science experiments like the following:

  • Go out at night and capture some bugs in a clear jar. Make sure you poke holes in the top. Watch the insects carefully. Have a conversation about how they move and what they’re doing. Make sure you let them go after a day or two, however, or you’ll also have to explain the circle of life. And death.
  • Make wind chimes with aluminum cans, plastic bottles, or old CDs. You can even use old spoons. Anything that will make a noise will do. Hang them up and compare the sounds that the different objects make.
  • Place an ice tray in the sun and another one in the shade. Compare how long it takes the ice in each one to melt.
  • Add some different colors of food coloring to crushed ice. Watch how the colors mix to create new colors.

Bonus points: To make experiments an even richer learning experience, get your child to read books, draw pictures, or even write a story about what you’re going to be investigating.

Channel Your Inner Beach Bum: Seaside Collections

Regardless of the weather, there is nothing better than heading for the beach for a seaside learning adventure, filled with fun! Before you go, use the internet or your local library to learn about species that live in your area, waves, boats, and other water-related topics. Read them together to prepare for your trip, or take some reference books along with you.

Encourage your child to look for interesting rocks or shells or other treasures along the shore. This can take a whole afternoon as they scavenge for interesting things. When you get home, classify each treasure by its shape, size, or even colors. Keep adding to the collection by hunting for things in your backyard or other places you visit.

Bonus points: Depending on the age of your child, you can also talk about how waves are formed, what causes tides, and even erosion in a child-friendly way. Look for fish or other sea creatures and talk about everything that you’ve found. If you don’t know what something is, take a picture and try to find out at your local library or online.

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