Fostering a Culture of Learning and Play: Inspiration from Conversations on Early Learning

The third installment of HMH’s Conversations on Early Learning series, hosted in partnership with Boston Children’s Museum on September 25, explored the vital connections between play and learning. Attendees heard from an interdisciplinary panel of early learning experts and practitioners who have dedicated years of study to the benefits of play – cognitively, psychologically, socially and more. And we had a blast putting this research into practice with young guests at our Mini Ultimate Block Party – we danced, we built, we drummed, we painted and we posed for snapshots with our friend Curious George.

We know that play is a critical component of healthy development in children. Yet, we still see gaps in access to quality, safe play spaces and learning experiences; we still have not closed the persistent 30 million word gap; and we still need to find new ways to reinforce the importance of playful early learning experiences. So how can we harness this “power of play”? How do we make sure that all children are encouraged to use imagination and explore their curiosities, and that all adults understand how simple it is to play a role in their child’s learning and development?

Creating a culture of learning and play is at our fingertips. And we can all lend a hand. Here are four ways to foster learning through play, illustrated through inspiring (and practical) examples from the latest Conversations on Early Learning session:

Make everyday moments count.

Young children are constantly observing, interpreting and interacting with the world. Imagine if those activities we take for granted – or even find to be a chore – were brand new again. What could you learn?

Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, research psychologists and experts in  playful learning (“plearning” in their terminology), have identified the power of engaged conversation – no matter where it occurs, noting it is not just the quantity of words kids hear that makes a difference in language acquisition, it is the quality of the conversation as well.

Mini Ultimate Block Party







In a recent study, Golinkoff and Hirsh revealed how easily the supermarket can become an opportunity for learning. By posting simple signs asking fun questions about the items for sale throughout grocery stores, they found they could increase interaction between parents and children by inviting organic, meaningful conversation. So the next time you are running errands with your children strike up a conversation in the produce aisle and see where their questions and thoughts take you.

Embrace the science of learning.

Rich research in the science of learning tells us that children begin learning before birth and that opportunities for learning are everywhere – there are no boundaries. Learning doesn’t start when kids formally enter school. With the right perspective and a little extra background on how little ones learn, every caregiver can and should be a child’s first teacher.

The inaugural Ultimate Block Party – the inspiration for our “Mini” event – was designed to do just this. The learning stations were rooted in the science of how children learn, touching on language and literacy, math, creative expression and technology, and demonstrated how play supports invaluable skills like the ability to collaborate, communicate and think creatively.

Put simply, play sets our youngest citizens up for success and a lifelong love of learning. Research tells us that kids learn best through active, engaged play and exploration, so encourage your child to make discoveries and be inventive; you’ll be leveraging the science of learning with each play session.

Explore community resources.

Children’s museums provide a wonderful example of the ways in which the community can help nurture children and their families. As Laura Huerta Mingus, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums explained, these institutions are far more than buildings. They are spaces where children can learn through play and exploration in environments and experiences made just for them. They are also community partners, policy advocates, resource centers and safe havens.  

By creating a true bridge between community experience and academic research, museums are uniquely positioned to bring experiences and opportunities to families that may otherwise not have access to such pedagogically-sound experiences. For example, the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore is teaming up with Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute to bring high-impact language and literacy programs directly to high-need communities within the city to tackle the achievement gap.

Remove your grown-up lens and just have fun.

In an experiment led by Anna Housley Juster, Senior Director, Child Development and Community Engagement at Boston Children’s Museum, Conversations on Early Learning attendees were asked to dive in and play with loose items and objects – scarves, beach balls and musical instruments. And we realized that grown-ups bring some baggage to the table when it comes to play – we worry about what others think, we wonder if we are doing it right, and we get frustrated if we don’t immediately succeed.

But if we step back and observe free play through a child’s lens, we see a completely different approach. We see joy and imaginative collaboration. We see that it doesn’t matter if a tambourine is a hat or a musical instrument, both are fun. We see the power of curiosity in action. By letting children lead the way yet encouraging exploration and conversation, we can guide rather than direct play, and create an ideal learning environment.  This can happen at home, in the car or in the classroom – just put your adult lens aside for a minute and embrace the power of play.

Hear more about the importance of learning through play directly from our interdisciplinary panel of experts in the short film below. Our next Conversations event will take place on November 17 in Orlando, prior to the NAEYC’s annual conference. Stay tuned for details.

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