12 ways to incorporate learning into your kids’ play

There are so many benefits to playing. It keeps kids healthy. It teaches them about cooperation and imagination. It sparks joy and happiness. And it provides lots of opportunities to develop skills in math, literacy, science, and so much more.

Here are some ways you can introduce your kids to games that make learning both active and fun.

Math

Loose Parts Shapes

Provide your kids with examples of multiple shapes drawn on a Bristol board or printed from the internet. 

Give them a bin or box filled with loose parts such as sticks, rolling pins, pine cones, newspaper, cardboard, toys, ropes, buttons, feathers, recycled containers, paper towel rolls, buckets, dress-up clothes, etc.  

Kids will love using their creativity to copy the drawings of shapes you’ve provided to make circles, squares, and triangles with the loose parts. Older kids will be familiar with more complex shapes such as octagons and rhombuses. Once they’ve mastered the shapes in two dimensions, 3D will be just around the corner. Cubes, cylinders, and pyramids will be more challenging and way more fun to build!

Math skills used: geometry

Jump to the Lily Pad Dice Game 

Use hula hoops or sidewalk-chalk-drawn circles to create spaced-out lily pads for your little frogs. Have your children roll two regular dice and count the number of pips (dots). Have them add the numbers from both die together and then take that number of frog jumps towards a pad. Use a smaller number of lily pads for your tadpoles (you don’t want them getting bored!) and more for your bigger amphibians. 

Math skills used: counting and adding

Gaggles of Geese

Gather a group of kids and have them walk around in a play area. Mother Goose (a leader chosen for each round) will call out, “Gaggle of (a number).” 

If the leader calls for a gaggle of three, the geese must waddle together into groups of three. If there are one or two extra kids, they can either be “out,” or wait for the next call. When Mother Goose calls out a new number, the geese then move quickly to a new group.  

If Mother Goose calls out five, how many geese are added to each group? If they call out two, how many have to leave each group?

Add extra fun with the kids honking from gaggle to gaggle. 

Math skills used: addition and subtraction

Giant Steps

No matter how big or small your kid is, they all get to be giants in this game. 

Place two objects on the ground, such as sticks or rocks, and see how many GIANT steps it takes for them to move from one to the other. Have them make a note of how many steps they took and see if they can take fewer the next time. Have your kid estimate how many steps they will be taking each time. 

Switch it up and see how many teeny steps they can take. 

Math skills used: measurement and data

Literacy

Name Game

Using note cards or cut-out cardboard pieces, write your child’s name with one letter per card. Add another five or six cards to the pile, each with an action on it, such as five jumping jacks, six hops on one foot, or march in place for 20 seconds. Have your child pick one card at a time and see how many cards it takes before they get all the letters of their name. 

Literacy skills used: letter recognition and spelling

Rhyme Time

This can be played with any number of kids. Start with the kids standing in a circle with one kid holding a beanbag. The beanbag holder starts the game by yelling out a word (or saying it if you want a quieter game, but really, yelling makes everything more fun when you’re a kid!).

They then throw the bag to any other child in the circle who has to come up with a word that rhymes with that word. The game continues until someone can’t come up with a word that rhymes with the original word. That child then names a new word and the game starts again.  

Literacy skills use: sound recognition

Loose Parts Story/Movie Writers

Gather together a collection of loose parts. Tell your kids that they get to be the writers of an adventure or comedy movie. After a few minutes to gather their thoughts, the first child gets one to two minutes to start a story using one or several items from the collection. After the minute, the next child continues the story using as many other pieces as they would like. 

Continue for as long as your kids are feeling the story is still alive! (Be prepared for much silliness and laughter but also much creativity.) At dinner, have your kids tell their story to the rest of the family. Older kids might want to write out their movie script to show others or to send off to Hollywood.   

Literacy skills used: story creation, retelling a story, writing

Detective Clue-So

Prepare clues and organize them into a trail inside or outside. Each message should contain a small task your child needs to do that will then allow them to get a new clue. 

Tasks could include looking for a certain object, putting together an easy puzzle, or rotating a hula hoop five times in a row. 

If you think your child will go through the actions quickly, use several tasks. The last action should direct your child to a prize such as a scoop of ice cream or a new toy. 

Literacy skills used: reading and following directions

Science

Sunny Crayons

If your kids are like mine, chances are good that you have a ton of broken crayons around. My kids would find it very entertaining to sit and peel the wrappers off the crayons.  Between no wrappers and small pieces, our crayons were perfect for this activity.  

On a sunny, hot day, cover a plate with aluminum foil and place different shapes of cookie cutters on it. Drop a mix of different colours of broken crayons (make them even smaller if you want to hurry the process along) into the cookie cutters and leave the plate in the sun. 

Within an hour, your tiny crayon bits will have melted into brand-new, funky-coloured crayons. Cool the plate fully and pop the crayons out of the cutters.  

Science branch used: sources of energy and state of matter

Dominant Side Game

By the age of four, most kids have one hand that’s more dominant.  Kids instinctively use that hand to write, draw, and brush their teeth. Kids also begin to use one foot to kick a ball, or one hand to shoot with a golf club or hockey stick.

Not every child notices, though, that some people use one hand and some use the other. This is where the fun comes in! 

Have your child hop on one foot five times, then have them try on the other. Do they have the balance to keep bouncing on their non-dominant side?

Have them walk from one side of the room to the other holding a ball on a spoon with one hand, then to the other with the other hand. 

Can they brush their teeth with their non-dominant hand?

Science branch used: anatomy

Let’s Get Launching

Catapults aren’t just for storming castles anymore. Make your own homemade catapult and see how high, and how far, your kids can make different objects fly.

The catapult can be made simply by setting up a piece of wood (three to four feet long) on top of a log or brick (the fulcrum). Place a beanbag, small toy, etc., at one end of the wood and have your kid stomp or jump on the other. Have your kids move the fulcrum closer to one end or the other to see how that affects how far or high the object flies.

To add to the activity, have one child stomp while another tries to catch the object. Or have one child stomp and the other mark (with a rock or piece of tape) where the object lands.

Science branch used: forces and motion, qualitative and quantitative observations

Sensory Nature Scavenger Hunt

Gather the kids together and head out on a walk to learn and have fun with nature and their senses. Put together a checklist—make it shorter for your kindergartener and longer for your older kids.

Can they see a: red leaf, a squirrel, a super-tall tree, a rock with multiple colours?

Can they smell: a flower, pine needles, moss?

Can they hear: a bird, a buzzing insect, water?

Can they feel: the bumpiness of a pine cone, the smoothness of a feather, something slimy, the squishiness of mud?

Can they taste: the sweetness of a strawberry, the sourness of a green apple, the bitterness of broccoli?

Science branch used: five senses, observation

Learning and playing are inseparable. Focusing play around certain skills groups will have your kids learning, or improving, skills usually reserved for the classroom.


Further reading:

How to use loose parts for self-directed play at home

Make learning challenges fun with this game

12 active learning games to beat the “summer slide”

How integrating outdoor play into the school day benefits children

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