When We Play, We Learn

Young child playing with sand and funnel.
When your child plays, they are developing life-long skills that will help them to:

  • create and maintain healthy relationships,
  • make decisions,
  • develop effective communication skills,
  • work independently and with others, and
  • develop healthy habits.

On this page, you will see how children birth to 6 years are learning these skills and so many more through six areas of development.

6 Areas of Child Development

Click the icons below to learn about that area of child development.

Small muscle skills, icon of hand.

Small Muscle Skills

Large muscle skills icon, person walking.

Large Muscle Skills

Math and Science icon, number and magnifying glass.

Math & Science Concepts

Literacy skills icon of book.

Literacy Skills

Social and emotional icon logo of 2 people talking.

Social-Emotional Development

Cognitive development icon of a purple brain.

Cognitive Development

Small Muscle Skills

Young child playing in the shallow end of an indoor pool with toys.

When we play, we develop coordination and dexterity.

Small muscles are the muscles in your child’s hands, fingers, and wrists. These muscles will one day have the strength and coordination to draw, write, pour a glass of water, play a musical instrument, tie shoelaces, zip up their coat, brush their teeth, open and close containers, and use scissors.

Young infant sorting color coded rings.
What starts as your baby grabbing a toy…
Baby infant hand painting.
becomes your toddler holding a paintbrush…
Infant learning how to zip up a zipper jacket.
then your preschooler zipping their coat.
Children are strengthening their small muscles skills when they:

  • pick up a button
  • use a spoon or their hands to eat
  • hold a cup of water
  • feed beads onto a pipe cleaner
  • turn a door knob
  • build with blocks
  • pick dandelions
older infant using a screwdriver to install toy screws into wood.

Large Muscle Skills

Infant learning to walk.

When we play, we strengthen our muscles and bones.

Large muscle skills are how we use and control our arm, leg, core and neck muscles. These muscles are used for standing, sitting up, walking, running, kicking, jumping, throwing, balancing and so much more! Large muscle skills will help your child have a more active lifestyle and build confidence in their abilities, leading to better physical and mental health.

Young baby smiling at the camera, first time sitting up.

What starts as your baby pulling themselves up…

Toddler popping bubble wrap bubbles.

becomes your toddler running and jumping…

Toddlers learning how to climb stairs.

and then your preschooler confidently climbing a step ladder.

Children are using their large muscles when they:

  • kick their legs and stretch their arms
  • lie on their tummy and hold up their head
  • stomp their feet
  • wave their arms side to side
  • jump on the couch
  • kick and throw a ball
  • and reach up high for the light switch

Your child’s large muscles also help develop and refine their small muscle skills! For instance, core muscles help children sit at a desk and comfortably write, while arm, shoulder and neck muscles help to better control their hands as they write letters and symbols.

Large muscle development at BridgeWay Family Centre.

Math & Science Concepts

infant crawling up slightly inverted ramp.

When we play, we learn math and science concepts.

Math and Science Concepts in the early years refers to: measurement, sorting, angles, one-to-one correspondence, velocity, direction, spatial awareness, and cause and effect.

Through play, your child is not only learning foundational skills to count or add and subtract, but they’re developing skills to:

  • accurately measure ingredients when cooking a meal
  • ask questions and look for the answers
  • grow and take care of plants
  • build financial literacy
Infant learning math and science concepts.

What starts as your baby hearing (and feeling) you count their fingers and toes…

Large muscle development, popping bubble wrap with feet.

becomes your toddler chanting and repeating "1, 2, 3!”

Children learning how to climb.

and then your preschooler counting their toys (or snail shells!)

Children are learning math and science concepts when they:

  • pop bubble wrap (force)
  • move in a crowded space (spatial awareness)
  • sort their blocks by size, shape or colour (sorting)
  • build a tall tower and knock it down (cause & effect)
  • sing songs with numbers, such as Five Little Ducks or Zoom Zoom Zoom (counting)
  • fill a container up with sand (measurement)
  • push a toy car down a ramp (velocity)
  • mix paint and watch the colours change (cause & effect)
Baby crawling at BridgeWay Family Centre.

Literacy Skills

Youth drawing portraits with markers.

When we play, we develop reading, writing, and language skills.

Literacy skills are what we use when we read a book, write a message, talk about our day, tell stories, and communicate. When children play, literacy is everywhere! Singing songs, dancing, reading stories, and scribbling are just a handful of the many ways literacy appears when children play.

What starts as your baby listening to your voice and watching your facial expressions…

learning how to type on the computer.

becomes your toddler using gestures, words or sounds to communicate…

Portrait drawn by a youth at BridgeWay Family Centre.

and then your preschooler telling stories through art, words, props and/or actions.

Literacy skills might look like:

  • flipping through the pages of a book (even if the book is upside down or they are skipping pages)
  • scribbling
  • mimicking gestures and facial expressions
  • telling a story (that could include using toys/props, pretending to read a book, or recalling a memory)
  • babbling (talking without saying words)
  • pointing to objects (and eventually labelling those objects in some way – for instance, while pointing at a toy cow your child may say “moo”)
  • singing and dancing
  • narrating what they are doing
  • re-enacting an experience
  • putting on a show or performance
Group reading session at BridgeWay Family Centre.

Social-Emotional Development

Drawing session with young infants.

When we play, we develop empathy and self-awareness.

Social-emotional development means children are learning to:

  • identify, manage, and express their emotions (this could look like crying, shouting with excitement, and moving to a quiet space to decompress)
  • take cues from their body and mind (such as learning that when their eyes are heavy it means they’re tired and when their tummy growls it means they need to eat)
  • relate to the experiences of others (this could look like bandaging a “boo-boo” on their doll or pointing to a crying baby and saying “they’re sad!”)
  • connect with their peers, family, and community (such as sitting next to a peer to play or smiling when they see someone else smile)

These skills help children build empathy for others, self-awareness, and self-regulation, leading to a lifetime of healthy relationships with themselves and others.

Smiling baby laying on back.

What starts as your baby crying for a bottle when they’re hungry…

Learning how to read over virtual session.

becomes your toddler pretending to feed a doll because "the baby is hungry”…

Arts and crafts completed by younger youth.

and then your preschooler recognizing they feel hungry, and eating a snack or meal to take care of their body.

Social-Emotional development might look like:

  • pointing at a picture of someone crying and saying "sad,”
  • seeing a friend smiling and smiling back,
  • finding a quiet spot to play when there are lots of people around,
  • reaching for food because they start to feel hungry,
  • mimicking what they have seen other adults do (like cooking a meal),
  • gently holding a doll, pretending it’s a real baby,
  • climbing a little higher every time they play on a jungle gym (expanding their comfort zone while maintaining boundaries),
  • reenacting an event such as going to the doctor (they may pretend to be the doctor which builds empathy while expressing their own thoughts and needs),
  • and looking to, or asking their parent/caregiver for help when needed (and building the security in knowing that their parent/caregiver is there to support them).
Group reading session, learning about birds.

Cognitive Development

Drawing session with young infants.

When we play, we develop memory and learn to problem solve.

Cognitive development is brain development. During the early years, your child’s brain is continuously growing and building new connections. Every experience that engages your child’s senses (touch, taste, sound, sight and smell) stimulates a part of their brain and creates a new connection or strengthens an existing one. The more often a part of their brain is stimulated, the more your child will absorb specific concepts and skills. As your child continues to grow and make these strong connections, they will be able to problem solve, reason, make predictions, and recall memories faster and easier.

Smiling baby laying on back.

What starts as your baby holding, throwing or mouthing a toy…

Learning how to read over virtual session.

becomes your toddler repeatedly lining up or stacking toys and objects…

Arts and crafts completed by younger youth.

and then your preschooler comfortably manipulating toys and objects in new and creative ways.

Cognitive development might look like:

  • holding, mouthing, throwing or banging a toy to learn its shape, size, purpose and function
  • building a tall tower that falls down and trying to build it in a new way so that it doesn’t fall again (problem solving)
  • dumping a basket of toys onto the floor, putting them back in the basket, and dumping them again (recall/memory)
  • grabbing their stuffed bear after seeing a bear in a storybook (connection)
  • pushing and turning puzzle pieces until they fit (problem solving)
  • pretending to blow out birthday candles long after their own birthday  has passed (recall/memory)
  • repeatedly playing with toys in the same way such as lining them up (this builds confidence in their own skills and tests the functions and limits of their toys)
Group reading session, learning about birds.