Susannah Robbins, mother of three boys under the age of six, explores how learning through play is essential during this period of lockdown for young children.

[New City Magazine – May 2020, page 20-21]

Have you found yourself thrown into the role of full time parent, employee or employer and teacher? At this unprecedented time of worry and uncertainty, we have suddenly found that our work, and mental load has reached new levels of over-capacity! We are expected to continue in our current role, whilst caring for our children fulltime and keeping up with their education. Pretty daunting! However, no need to panic – at least, not about keeping up with the children’s curriculum. The necessity of lockdown has a knock-on effect on our stress levels, and the new expectations on us are impossible to achieve. We are finding it difficult not because we are failing or inadequate, but because it is difficult. Now, more than ever, our children should be playing, to express themselves, to articulate in the only way that they know how, in the unusual circumstances that they have found themselves. Also playing to learn. Playing is learning, and play is enough.

There are several steps you can take to help smooth out the process of learning in lockdown:

1) Get organised You don’t need to spend a fortune buying new toys, or create colour coded charts. However, it would be useful to spend a few moments in the evening doing some research: What were the children learning in school? What are their special interests? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Do you already have some useful resources? Rhyming or number books, board games, dice, tape measure, dusty unused science kit at the bottom of the cupboard, playing cards, foam bath letters and numbers are all really versatile and valuable learning tools.

2) A neuro-typical child is able to concentrate for between 1-5 mins for every year of their age. This means that my one year old is sometimes able to stay with an activity for 5 mins, my 4-year-old 20 mins and my 6-year-old 30mins. However it also means that the same activity may only yield 1, 4 or 6 minutes engagement. At this strange time it is absolutely vital that we do not set ourselves, or our children up to fail. By having this information you may be ready to see the successes rather than the interruptions, or to quote a beloved friend ‘to see the diamonds in the mud’. We don’t need to add parental guilt to our already overly full plates.

3) Advocate learning through play Children absorb so many environmental details when they play. For very young children (age 1-3) I always head to sensory play. Fill an old tub with some out of date lentils, or oats, or even a few cm of water and add plastic cups, ladles and bottles – there, you’ve created a Maths learning station. Pouring and scooping are pre-maths skills that allow a child to explore the concepts of capacity and volume. Remember those foam bath numbers that you had? Add those too and you can begin a conversation about or reinforce number recognition. You can do the same with any learning goals: letters, shapes or colours. For older children (4-6 years) try hiding tricky words or diagraphs, simple sums or times tables amongst the sensory base. If it’s a nice day you could make a nature treasure hunt in the garden for ingredients for a potion – ‘Can you find some green grass, a fluffy feather, a spiky stick?’ Using alliteration is an effective exercise for developing phonological awareness, hearing the opening sounds of the words are pre-reading skills! Play to their interests, if your little one, like mine, is obsessed with dinosaurs, then use their dino figures as counters, or label them with letters and hide them around the house: ‘Can you find the dinosaur that has the letter b on it?’ By adding some educational stimulus and materials to their play, they will absorb and learn, much more effectively than if they were sat at a table with a work book.

4) The importance of repetition This is all very well if you have nothing else to do! How on earth will you get any work done, if you have to sit with your kids and play all the time? When you have set up an activity (and this really should only take 2-3 minutes once you’re organised), model how to play – join in, talk to them about what they’re seeing and experiencing, and show them how to play. This will allow for your child to make a meaningful connection with you, and to feel safe and secure in this new activity which is super important at the moment. Once they are settled then you can retreat to a safe distance, fire up your laptop and crack on, whilst they play independently. Setting up one or two activities like this a day is quite sufficient – remember: playing is learning, playing is enough.

Young children learn best through repetition, they like to explore the same toys, or games again and again (and then again and again), each time strengthening the connections between synapses. This is also good news for busy parents as it means it’s better to not tidy away an activity. If it’s safe to do so, leave it out for a day, or even a week. Each time they return to it, they will reinforce what they have already learned and hone their new skills!

If you’re stuck for ideas of ways to learn to facilitate learning through play, then head to I have hundreds of really simple ideas ready and waiting for you. I am more than happy to answer any questions, email My professional experience is in behaviour and inclusion with teenagers, but most recently I’m a ‘play at home mum’ to my three boys 6, 4 & 1.

Photos(3): © courtesy of Susannah Robbins


[See the article in full PDF edition on pages 20-21]

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