HomeCommunication & Collaboration‘Play Is For Children’: Myths About Learning Through Play

‘Play Is For Children’: Myths About Learning Through Play




When we think of play, we think of fun, creative, symbolic and social experiences. Yet play is not just an exclusive form of enjoyment for young children. Play is a powerful mechanism for supporting the development of a wide range of skills in learners of all ages – including adults! Ahead of my upcoming session at the English Language Teaching Online Conference, here are some common misconceptions I encounter about learning through play.

1. Learning through play is for children

For most of us, the word ‘play’ makes us think of the early years of life. Play is time with friends, play is time to be free, and play is time to have FUN. Little children have a lot of ‘free time’, so it makes sense that they would spend much of that playing. In reality, play belongs to all of us – whatever our age. What play looks like, though, changes as we grow and our interests mature.

At its core, play is a joyful and meaningful experience. Because we all enjoy different activities it is natural that what feels playful will be unique to all of us. For example, young children often enjoy role-playing families or pretending to transform into mystical creatures like dragons or mermaids. Young children can often find endless fun in repeating the same game again and again: think of ‘peek-a-boo’ where an adult hides their face and reveals it to a delighted infant. As we get older, what interests and excites us changes, and so, naturally, our play looks different. Older children would find ‘peek-a-boo’ boring and repetitive but might find enjoyment and meaning in making music, playing team sports or even playing video games.

Even as adults, play occupies a space in our lives: feelings of creative, meaningful fun can come from dancing at a party, decorating a cake, or playing a board game. Just because we don’t describe our adult lives as ‘playful’ it doesn’t mean that we don’t play, too.

2. You can’t play on your own

It is true that play can be, and often is, social. We see children play together in groups or in pairs, with friends, classmates or siblings. In fact, a lot of children’s games require two or more people (e.g., ball games, hide and seek). However, this doesn’t mean that play always needs multiple people.

Solo play (playing on your own) has many different forms. It could be painting a picture, playing the piano, building a LEGO model, or playing with dolls. Although solo play doesn’t involve socialising, solo play activities are still enjoyable, meaningful, creative and iterative (you can keep changing them or adding to them). In this sense, play doesn’t have to be loud – it could be quiet and focused but equally fun.

3. Learning through play is embarrassing for adults

Engaging in children’s play can feel awkward for adults. Sometimes children want us to act out particular characters in their imagined world, or join them in carefree singing or dancing. While this isn’t how adults normally engage with their peers, joining in children’s play is something to enjoy and embrace – not to feel ashamed of.

Adult-child play helps to build and maintain a powerful bond between the two. When a child sees an adult as a playmate, they feel safe to share their ideas and ask questions. In turn, the adult can understand more about how the child thinks and feels, and offer advice and answers in an environment which feels fun and friendly, not serious or intimidating.

Playing with a child can also be fun for adults, as it reconnects them with their inner child. When so much of adult life requires us to be serious and responsible, making time for childlike, playful experiences can be a respite from reality.

4. Play is not educational

Because we often associate play with freedom, chaos and creativity, it can be hard to appreciate that it is also a powerful opportunity for learning.

When children play, they are actively engaged. This primes their mind for solving problems and retaining new information. We therefore see children figure out concepts through play, even if learning was not the goal of their play session.

Imaginative play is similarly a great chance for children to ‘try out’ ideas and language which they may have encountered in their environment or learned at school. For example, through imaginative play a child can become an astronaut who visits the solar system, offering an opportunity to use space vocabulary which they wouldn’t typically get to revise in day-to-day life.

Social play further allows children to learn from each other: older siblings or friends can help younger children understand new ideas or acquire new vocabulary. At the same time, playing with others helps children to practice and develop their social skills, like conflict resolution and sharing.

Want to harness Learning through Play to deliver engaging, meaningful learning experiences in the classroom and beyond? Join my upcoming ELTOC session:

Register for ELTOC!

Hannah Simmons is an Education Specialist with 10 years’ experience designing, implementing and evaluating education interventions in the Global South. Hannah’s work and research are driven by finding sustainable, effective, context-driven solutions to enhance equity and quality in education. Her areas of specialty include play-based learning, socio-emotional development and EdTech. Hannah predominantly works with research institutions, governments, INGOs and donor agencies. At present, Hannah is Country Co-Lead for the EdTech Hub in Tanzania.


  1. This article perfectly dismantles the myth that play is just for children! It would be great to see some specific examples of playful activities that can be used to engage learners of different ages and learning styles.

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