Why Play Matters When Teaching Kids a Language!
I love to see my kids playing!
It’s so fun to see how creative they are and hear their ideas as they learn new concepts about the world around them.
In the past though, the play thing was a bit of a mystery to me as a parent.
I used to struggle with the idea of sitting down with my kids when they were little and working out what play looks like. I felt really in over my head about what play should be.
I suspect there are a lot of mums and dads out there who are in the same boat!
Play is actually a really important part of teaching kids a new language. I want to share with you simple tips on how to help your child get the most from play time, whether it’s to support language learning, boost their creativity or learn social skills.
I sat down with my friend Amy from Playful Little Learners - she’s a champion of kids learning through play who has SO much wisdom in this area!
Amy taught English in China without understanding a single word of Mandarin, she engaged her class through play and effectively taught her class of three to five year olds English.
I’m excited to share with you some of Amy’s experience and advice. This mama is truly a mega resource when it comes to all things play!
Why play is the universal language of kids
Kids learn so much from play. It teaches social skills like sharing with others and taking turns as well as creativity and cognitive skills.
There’s no right or wrong way to play and it’s important to encourage unstructured play rather than giving kids a script to follow.
Spontaneous play lets them use their imagination to come up with their own games and ways to interact with each other.
“ As parents. we just want to do the best thing for our kids. We think that that means, you know, taking them to all the classes and doing all the things, but really just providing the opportunity with open-ended materials and resources that enables them to explore their environment in that safe and loving way.” says Amy.
It’s also a wonderful way to transcend the barriers of language, as Amy quickly discovered as a teacher at a school in China.
“Having all these kids from all these different nationalities that couldn’t speak English and I had to teach them. They were younger, three to five year olds, and it made me realise how important play is,” she recalls.
“Creating a learning environment that was open-ended and enabled the children to play - through that they picked up so many things. It blew my mind how quickly the capacity to learn language blossomed through this opportunity to learn through play.”
“Play was a universal language that they all understood.”
How play can help kids learn a new language
Playtime is the perfect opportunity to introduce new vocabulary and phrases to your child - and learning happens more quickly when it’s fun!
We include 30 minute play based lesson plans in our Cultured Kid language learning programs specifically because kids LOVE play and they’re more inclined to want to ‘learn’ if their lessons are focused around activities that brings them joy! It makes sense really. If you enjoy something, you’re going to want to do it more often!
When my own kids were little and we were introducing our ‘Colors’ vocabulary through the board game of Twister - my kids would ask me all the time if they could “play in French”.
THAT’S always the goal when you’re introducing anything to kids!
Play for language learning should be simple - using toys to teach new words like colours, objects, and animals, for example.
“We had 5 or 6 different stations set up - some were puzzles, and some were stations where kids could build and construct with blocks,” explains Amy.
“Once they saw those familiar things, it was like “I know how to build with the blocks, I know how to do this or I know how to paint!”
“That empowerment that arose from doing those things and we started talking about colour or building and that was how the language started to emerge.”
How to create a home that's conducive to play - even with limited space!
As a parent of young kids, one of the biggest challenges can be coming up with ideas and creating a space that lets them play to the best of their abilities.
The good news is, you don’t need a dedicated playroom to create a special learning environment for your child. It’s about tapping into what your child enjoys and creating a space based on those interests.
“When we had a smaller house, we had just a little cube shelf and on each of the shelves we had four different options of things that we knew the kids would like,” says Amy.
“Our boys went through train phase, so we’d have one shelf with a train and wooden train tracks, and another shelf with a small box of Duplo”
“Just things that are tapped into their interest. For us, that worked really well.”
So a play space works just as well as a playroom! A few shelves, a cosy corner, a play table and chairs.
Oh, and creating a space in a room where you spend a lot of time will also help.
“The reality of kids is, especially young children, want to be where you are. My recommendation would be if you don’t have a large space to have a pocket near where you spend lots of your time. So if you’re in the kitchen or the living area, have a couple of shelves out there,” suggests Amy.
How to encourage your kids to play independently
I know a lot of parents feel it’s their responsibility to play with their kids all the time.
But how many times can we build the same lego house before it gets a little bit old?
Sometimes we just want to say..
"Hey, go and play while Mum has a cup of tea, sits still and takes a breath for a minute."
...but then the guilt creeps in, we feel like we’re not doing enough.
Can you relate?!
Encouraging independent play is important and to get to the stage where your kids are happy to play without you, means playing more with them at first.
Show them what's possible and then letting their imagination run wild.
“It’s going to sound counter-intuitive, but playing with them and helping them develop
a game where you’re overseeing it will help them become independent,” recommends Amy.
“Help them familiarise themselves with the toys that they have and the possibilities that the toys have. It opens the doors for them to have independent playtime.”
3 top toy recommendations for creative and independent play
As parents, we love a fail-safe toy, don’t we? You know, those toys kids go back to time and time again.
Open-ended toys, meaning there’s not just one way to play with them, are excellent resources to support teaching a new language and will really draw out your child’s creativity.
Amy has a few top toy recommendations I’d love you know about that will help maximise your child’s learning during play and introducing new words.
“My favourite toy is Duplo!” she says.
“It’s the only thing that all of the children would play with together because they were able to take it to wherever they personally were at.”
Amy’s kids also love little animal figurines - and so do mine! They’re brilliant for independent play and particularly for learning animal names in the new language. The Schleich ones are especially amazing.
Grimm’s blocks are gorgeous. These natural toys are well renowned educational toys used extensively in kindergartens and by speech and occupational therapists.
It’s clear that unstructured, free play has many benefits for your child - including learning a new language.
I mentioned earlier that play based lessons are a major part of our Cultured Kid lessons that parents receive every single week. Stuck for ideas on how to engage your kids through play? I'd love to invite you to join us as each week, we inspire a love of languages through some of the most fun and exciting games that kids love to play.
We’ve received fantastic feedback from mamas on how helpful the play lessons are for teaching their kids a new language - even if they don’t speak it themselves!