What are They Learning? Seeing the concepts and skills children can learn through play Kathy L. Reschke, M.S.

Program Specialist, Family Life Extension
Human Development and Family Studies
Iowa State University

Copyright/Access Information

One of the skills that a child care professional develops is being a good observer of children. By watching and listening as children play, we can see what skills and abilities they are just beginning to learn. Once we know where they are in the learning of new ideas and skills, we can support children as they practice this new understanding.

The first step in helping children as they learn new things is to know what learning looks like in young children's play. The second step is to take the time to watch and take note of the children in your care with the questions in your mind, “What is it they might be learning right now?” and “What other activities will give them a chance to practice what they're learning?”

This article will give you a good starting place as you look for clues to children's thinking and learning. You'll find two parts: Part I is a chart that gives examples of concepts and skills that children can learn through play. Part II provides some ideas for you to use as you make your own observations of children playing.

PART I: What does Learning Look Like in Children's Play?

Although children learn new ideas and skills in nearly every kind of play and activity, for this exercise, we'll focus on children's pretend/dramatic play. Most child care settings offer a housekeeping area where children can pretend to play house and take on the roles that are so familiar to them. [If you haven't tried creating an area like this in your program, do! It's a terrific place for children to use their imaginations, practice their social skills, try out their understanding of concepts like counting and sorting – there's just no end to the learning and fun!]

This chart gives examples of what you might see a child doing in the “house” and what skill or concept might be developing through that activity. The chart is divided into three different age groups, 1's & 2's, 3's & 4's, and 5's & 6's. Within each age group, examples are given for six different areas of children's development: mathematical thinking, language development, emotional development, social development, small muscle development and large muscle development.


 1- and 2-year olds


 Skill or Concept

mathematical thinking
  • sorting socks
  • putting lids on containers 
  • matching by color or pattern
  • matching by size

language development
  • “talking” on the phone
  • cooking
  • understanding the purpose of language
  • building vocabulary

emotional development
  • taking care of baby
  • wearing dress-up clothes
  •  nurturing skills
  • awareness of self

social development
  • taking care of baby
  • talking on the phone
  • awareness of others
  • understanding of communication

small muscle development
  • dressing the baby
  • opening/closing containers
  • hand and finger coordination
  • hand strength

large muscle development
  • wearing dress-up shoes
  • stirring while cooking
  • muscle strength in legs
  • arm strength 

 3- and 4-year olds


 Skill or Concept

mathematical thinking
  • setting the table
  • sorting fruits and vegetables
  • 1-to-1 correspondence
  • categorizing

language development
  • sharing ideas for play
  • matching labels on shelves
  • putting thoughts into words, describing
  • understanding words as symbols

emotional development
  • taking on other roles
  • playing monster or bad guy
  • expressing emotions
  • dealing with fear

social development
  • playing “family”
  • offering new ideas for play
  • understanding relationships
  • compromising/

small muscle development
  • playing with dress-up clothes
  • pouring drinks into cups
  • hand & finger coordination
  • eye-hand coordination

large muscle development
  • sweeping
  • riding a trike to “work”
  • arm & upper body strength
  • all-over body strength; stamina

 5- and 6-year olds


 Skill or Concept

mathematical thinking
  • cooking
  • making a map of the pretend “neighborhood”
  • measurement
  • mapping skills (representational thinking)

language development
  • following a recipe
  • writing list of new props needed
  • recognizing familiar words
  • sounding out words

emotional development
  • playing super hero
  • contributing ideas for play
  • understanding feelings of power & control
  • self-esteem

social development
  • brainstorming new ideas for dramatic play
  • coordinating several different roles
  • respecting others' opinions
  • taking another's perspective

small muscle development
  • writing grocery lists
  • making jewelry
  • hand & finger coordination
  • eye-hand coordination

large muscle development
  • painting a cardboard garage
  • using balance beam bridge
  • arm & upper body strength & coordination
  • balance; muscle tone


Click here for a chart that you can download and use to make your own observations of children at play. You may want to start with watching the children while they are playing house. Based on what you see, you can determine what they might be learning. Then you can support the child's new skill or understanding by planning to offer other activities or materials that will use the same skill or emphasize the same concept. Later, you may want to use the chart to observe children while they are playing in other areas or with other materials, such as playing outdoors or using art materials.

To make the best use of your observations, follow three steps and answer three questions:

  • WATCH: What is the child doing?
  • THINK: What is the child practicing or trying to understand?
  • PLAN: What other ways could this child practice this skill or use this concept?

Example 1:

WATCH: 2 1/2 -yr.-old Nicholas is looking in the play refrigerator. He takes out the food items and boxes one at a time and talks to himself about the food. Sometimes he says the name of the food and sometimes he doesn't.

THINK: One thing Nicholas is doing is learning the names for different foods. He has learned the idea that everything has a name and now he is adding names of familiar things to his vocabulary.

PLAN: A snack activity would give Nicholas another opportunity to practice using food names. Making fruit kabobs with familiar fruits would give the caregiver an opportunity to talk to Nicholas about foods and their names while he is doing something that is fun and is a part of his routine (eating a snack).

Example 2:

WATCH: Carmen, who is five, is playing with the small beads and string in the dress-up part of the house. She has been stringing beads to make a necklace and is using only pink and white beads, alternating the colors as she puts them on.

THINK: Carmen seems to have a beginning understanding about repeating patterns. As she makes her necklace, she knows that alternating colors will result in a certain color pattern that she likes. The next step in her understanding would be to see and create patterns with other materials and to try more difficult patterns.

PLAN: Carmen has recently been talking about her mother's upcoming birthday and what she wants to give her as a gift. Setting out materials at the art table for Carmen to make wrapping paper would be one way of bringing out the concept of patterns again. Providing rubber stamps, stickers or small shape stencils along with markers and plain paper would encourage pattern-making. Laying out some samples of commercial wrapping paper with simple patterns would also reinforce the concept. And of course, talking with Carmen about patterns as she works will help to build her understanding.

National Network for Child Care – NNCC. Part of CYFERNET, the National Extension Service Children Youth and Family Educational Research Network. Permission is granted to reproduce these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author and Network receive acknowledgment and this notice is included:

Reprinted with permission from National Network for Child Care – NNCC.
Reschke, K. (1999).What are they learning?: Seeing the concepts and skills children can learn through play.

Any additions or changes to these materials must be preapproved by the author .

Available only on the Internet

Lesia Oesterreich
1086 LeBaron Hall
Iowa State University
Ames, IA 50011
PHONE:: (515) 294-0363
FAX:: (515) 294-5507
E-MAIL:: 1oesterr@iastate.edu


FORMAT AVAILABLE:: Only available on Internet
DOCUMENT REVIEW:: Level 2 – Iowa State University Extension
DOCUMENT SIZE:: 78K – 6 pages
ENTRY DATE:: June 1999



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