Play to Learn: New Resources in Philadelphia and Beyond to Support Young Children’s Free Play and Guided Play

By Laura Sosinsky

Parents and early educators alike can see that when young children play, they learn. 

Opportunities to learn spring naturally from different types of play. Through pretend play, children understand what people are like and how they think – including understanding themselves – which helps them learn social adjustment and social competence. Messy play and nature-based play support development of sensory awareness – and are exciting to children.  Complex play, like dramatic play and partner play, gives children the chance to practice and master skills like attention, memory, and planning (which are part of executive functioning). Block play supports learning math, physics, and engineering.  Plus, building with blocks together with other children supports sharing and teamwork. Games are fun, plus through games, children learn appropriate ways to cooperate and compete.[1]

Outdoor play gives many opportunities to support early learning and development. Physical play in outdoor spaces supports health and combats obesity, of course, plus when children have places to explore, children gain a sense of discovery.  Outdoor play also inspires some of the most complex, interactive types of play that support the development of social skills and promotes positive peer interactions.

Children have fewer and fewer opportunities to play, however.  Big body play, in particular, is threatened by concerns about safety and pressure to get children ready for school.  Children in poorer communities may have the fewest chances to play outside and run around, as they have less access to high-quality and safe outdoor play spaces and educators are under extra pressure to close the readiness gap.

Allowing your child to play is a must! A healthy balance between children playing on their own and having structured play with parents is important for early learning and development.

A new infographic from the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development maps out suggestions for free play and guided play. Together, these are known as “playful learning.”  Children playing on their own are engaged, intrinsically motivated, and having fun.  Lightly structured play gently guided by educators or parents preserves a child’s direction of her own learning and adds adult support for the child to make progress toward a learning goal. A healthy balance between free play and structured play is important for young children’s early learning and development.

Pennsylvania and Philadelphia guidance and resources provide early educators with information and opportunities to support early learning through play.  Pennsylvania’s Early Learning Standards (ELS), which are research-based according to age and development and form the foundation for curriculum, assessment, instruction and intervention for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers within early care and education programs, start with “Approaches to Learning through Play” as the first standard.

Professional Development Opportunities about PLAY

Play is an important part of teacher preparation, professional development, and continuing education in early childhood education in Pennsylvania.  The PA Keys PD Registry offers many resources, including several upcoming events this fall: 

Children’s Village

·         Goal Oriented Free Play – 10/3/17 from 1-3 PM

Better Kid Care from Penn State Extension

·         Play Supports Executive Functioning – 9/16/17 from 1-3 PM; 11/17/17 from 1-3 PM

·         Outdoor Play and Exploration – 1/4/18 from 6-9 PM

Better Kid Care also offers online resources such as a tip page on Connecting Play and Learning and lessons such as including Project-Based Learning and Adventurous Play.  

Places to Play around Philadelphia:

·       Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse has been providing and promoting opportunities for unstructured free play for children in a 16,000 square foot Playhouse and on 6 ½ acres of open fields, wooded terrain, and sloped hills since 1899. 

·         Three innovative playgrounds, winners of the nationwide Play Everywhere Challenge, are coming to West Philadelphia:  The Playable Sidewalk (Lancaster Avenue), Urban Thinkscape (Belmont), which is due to open this month, and The Play Parklet (University City).

Resources around the web:

·         The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has a selection of articles on the latest research on play, play based learning, why play is an important part of children's learning and development, the role of play in the classroom, and ideas to share with families.

·         Too Small To Fail, which is leading a public awareness and action campaign to promote the importance of early brain and language development and to empower parents with tools to talk, read, and sing with their young children from birth, has many resources, infographics, and a blog and twitter feed with tips and ideas. 

So, play, laugh, and learn!


[1] Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: How spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. Da Capo Press.


Laura Sosinsky is a developmental psychologist engaged in work to share data, interventions and strategies, and recommendations and action steps from the field to support successful early childhood programs in Philadelphia and the state as a consultant with the Early Childhood Action Collective at PHMC.  With experience in research and evaluation of early childhood practice and policy from positions in academia, research, and government, she is currently also a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College and a member of the Board of Directors of the Child Care Council of Westchester. Laura received her B.A. in Psychology from Cornell University and her M.S. and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Yale University.