Helping children to learn through play

Published on: 27 July 2022

One More Try author Naomi Jones was inspired by the ways her own young children played - and how play helped them learn about the world in all sorts of ways. She shares some thoughts on how simple games and imagination can help children develop.

Illustration: Fiona LumbersIllustration: Fiona Lumbers

Different ways of playing

Having children helped me become a better writer. It wasn’t just reading to them lots that helped, although it definitely didn’t hurt. It was watching how they play, how they learn, what fascinates them or makes them furious. My boys, now aged 5 and 7 years old, are still a constant source of inspiration for me.

My latest picture book, One More Try, is a story about Circle who wants to build a tower like the squares and the hexagons do. But Circle finds it really hard to build a tower, will he keep trying and find a way?

My boys loved building towers. However, they also had very different approaches when their towers inevitably fell down. My eldest would quickly get frustrated if it didn’t work exactly how he wanted, whilst my youngest would sit and calmly try to build the tower another way, over and over, until he’d built one he was happy with.

I wrote One More Try for both my boys, I wanted to celebrate perseverance and resilience, but I also wanted to normalise failure.

Whether it’s writing books, or building towers, we all learn more when things go wrong than when they go right on the first attempt.

Learning from children's experiences

I was also inspired by our son, who found it hard to fit in with the other children when he first started nursery. My first book, The Perfect Fit, tells the story of a Triangle who feels like she doesn’t fit in with the other shapes, so goes searching for somewhere she truly belongs. I wanted to celebrate difference in a way that also encouraged trying new things. When I wrote this book, our boys were just learning their shapes and primary colours and this definitely influenced the books too. 

There are so many imaginative, colourful, fun ways that parents, teachers, librarians and the wider Learning Through Play Community can help to further their own children’s learning, and I hope my books have a part to play in that inspiration - from baking shape cookies to build towers with, to making models and animations. As well as being used to teach early Maths concepts, I really love that our books are also being used to talk about wider issues like emotions, fitting in and growth mindset.

I still read to my boys every night and I often find that stories provide an opportunity to talk about all sorts of things that might not have come up otherwise. For example, I can ask them how they think a character is feeling or we could learn some new facts about outer space and have a conversation about if aliens exist.

Illustration: Fiona LumbersIllustration: Fiona Lumbers

How to encourage learning through play

Children learn through play, they don’t need grown ups to show them how to do this, but what we can do is create an environment that has lots of opportunities for learning within it. I have some suggestions for ways you can do this below:

  • Create lots of learning opportunities for your child. They don’t need lots of toys for this. When they were little my boys would spend ages playing with a box of ribbons I had and they currently love making models out of the cardboard boxes in our recycling pile! There are learning opportunities for children everywhere, when you make them breakfast, in the garden, at the library, in a shop.
  • Always be led by your child and their interests.
  • Ask questions when you share a story with them. Before you begin reading to them you could ask them to guess what the story is about from the cover. Once you’ve finished you can always ask what a character could have done differently.
  • Let children make mistakes - don’t show them the answers, they’ll learn so much more if they figure it out themselves and will also develop resilience and a greater sense of self-worth too.

Opportunities to learn through play are literally everywhere when you start to look for them. My next book How to Catch a Rainbow is about a little girl who wants to find a rainbow of her very own. When this proves tricky, she embarks on a scavenger hunt in nature to try and find all the colours in the rainbow. I hope readers of How to Catch a Rainbow will be inspired to embark on a scavenger hunt of their own and ‘catch’ their very own rainbow too.

Naomi and James Jones and the cover of One More TryNaomi and James Jones and the cover of One More Try

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One More Try and The Perfect Fit, by Naomi Jones illustrated by James Jones are available now.  

How to Catch a Rainbow by Naomi Jones, illustrated by Ana Gomez will publish in August 2022.


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