Play Is The Core of All Learning


There is a season of childhood play that is physical and imaginative. It is a season of touching, tasting, singing, jumping, play-doh, bubbles, puddles, mud pies, sand, bugs, forts, acting out stories, helping, squishing food, favorite stories read by heart, coloring and drawing, pretending, dress-up, puppets, sticks, face paint and finger paint, and bubble baths.

Many kids need a longer phase of this play than others before they are ready to begin academic learning.

Many need to pause academic learning, and return to this phase to (re)learn play in a safe environment and family.

Many never got it in the beginning of their life at all and bravely survived their earliest years, and need to be introduced to this season of play. 

Play is at the center of my daughter’s life right now, and that is currently my brave intention as her mom. And my insecurity about it is partially what spurred me on to finally create this blog.

I am learning that before any child, of any age, is ready for academic learning or schooling of any kind, there is a critical stage of growth that must come first for healthy development:

A deeply nurturing phase of unstructured play (physical, creative, imaginative & outdoor) with family and on their own. This is when a child experiences the world with their hands and all of their senses.

For children whose histories include foster care, adoption, trauma or other Adverse Childhood Experiences, these cozy family play times are even more meaningful as they are building new bonds of connection and attachment perhaps with new family.

I believe that my daughter’s need for play is so critical, that I have to be careful not to overschedule us and risk having a day without free play. Play as our core learning helps me not wander into the momentary panic of “But we should be doing [insert academic thing] more!” Nope. Playing is getting us ready for that! My daughter regularly returns to her school for recess and lunch, to maintain her friendships. At our last visit, the office staff asked “How is homeschooling going?” and I gave them a nutshell version of this. They all nodded firmly and agreed: “That is absolutely what she should be doing with you! Everything else will come in its own time. Sounds like you’re doing great.” (Talk about validation for this learning-to-be-brave mama).


I am being specific in naming this unstructured play to differentiate it from social play (playground, playdates), games that have rules or structure, or creative play where the parent leads and the child follows. All of these are important! But the ability to imagine and create all on ones own is truly brain-growing and heart-growing stuff.

Sweetpea has always had dolls… a LOT of dolls and stuffies. Their names change frequently, most are ignored, none were favorites. Until a few weeks ago. My creative daughter built and painted this cardboard box dollhouse in the driveway for her Barbies. My husband and I were shocked that the following two days, she voluntarily skipped her one episode of TV each day to play with it. We leaned into where her blossoming imaginative play was taking her. Two days later, we splurged and bought her a real life Barbie Dream House and enough Barbies to make a family. A doll life big enough to immerse herself in.

These Barbies have names and relationships with each other. The little sissies fight and squabble. The teenage daughter is sassy. She tucks them in bed every night as part of our bedtime routine, and leaves a nightlight on for them. The Barbies went to see “A Wrinkle in Time” with us and she covered their eyes at the intense parts. She and I sit side-by-side and act out little family life scenarios, sometimes for multiple hours a day.

This is seriously important play she’s doing!

Learning from the research of others helps me feel confident and know I’m making the right, brave choice for my kiddo. And while we are a secular family who are part of a Unitarian Universalist (UU) community, I find inspiration and wisdom from many faith traditions and educational ideologies. Below are some thoughts on this family play phase from the perspectives of the Thomas Jefferson Education model and the Waldorf model (both have roots in Christianity).  

Core Phase, a Cocoon (Thomas Jefferson Education Model)

I’ve read a little about the “TJEd” method of homeschooling/unschooling. There is a concept of theirs that reverberated around in my head for weeks. It was immediately validating for me, as a parent to a kid from hard places who is (re)learning the joys of imaginative free play.

One of many typical moments in our home: play-doh, cats, legos, food, sunshine, happy messes.

TJEd families call the beginning phase of learning the Core Phase.

“The lessons of the Core Phase are best learned through daily experiences in home life, uncomplicated by the secondary goals of academic achievement.”

TJED Homeschooling Insights: What is Core Phase? 

A young child who lives almost entirely in the present moment and learns through play. Family life at home with a predicable daily rhythm that includes lots of physical and sensory play, quiet activities like reading with parents, family meals and helping with chores.

“Core Phase is that magical time of nurture and growth, almost like a cocoon. … The lessons of Core Phase are taught through work and play as a family. They are:

  • right and wrong
  • good and bad
  • true and false
  • relationships
  • family values
  • family routines and responsibilities
  • learning accountability
  • the value and love of work

TJED Homeschooling Insights: What is Core Phase? 

Physical Stage (Waldorf Model)

IMG_20171119_160611Many of the people who know our family in real life have mentioned Waldorf to us. We live in the mountains, our family is oriented towards nature, we appreciate the slow and gentle. So while it is not a model we follow, there is a lot of overlap and similarity. Just like the Thomas Jefferson Ed model, this excerpt below sounds similar: safe, connection, nature, play, helping at home, crafts, imagination, singing, and a lack of explicit instruction or “teaching”.

The first stage on the path to ‘ethical individualism’ is that of the physical … ritual, a safe environment and a deep connection with nature.

The child learns through non-self-conscious imitation in a nurturing environment to help them with this … [T]hey are encouraged to help out with physical activities such as chopping vegetables to make their own soup, painting or polishing wood, and simple crafts like finger knitting and sewing.

Rather than being directly ‘taught’, the imagination and thought processes are allowed to develop through song, story and puppet shows … and daily work and play outside to keep them grounded and steeped in reality.

Three Stages of Development in Waldorf Education

How does your family nurture play?

I can only write from my own experiences. I am curious to know how families with older kids or teens nurture this kind of free, physical, natural play in older kids who may have missed this stage in their early years. For those who also have young children, what are some of your family’s favorite play moments?


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Susannah says:

    We are an adoptive family (3 foster care adoptions). Our oldest is AS15. Then we have AS3, AD2, and DS1. The younger 3 are organically in the core phase and it’s easy and fun and beautiful. Our AS15 struggles greatly with down time. He defaults to screens – Minecraft, watching YouTube, listening to Spotify. We have pretty strict limits on what he can access (no social media, etc) but allow him about 4 hours of screen time per day. When he’s not on the computer, he seems unsure of how to occupy himself. He’ll sleep or rough house with the littles but doesn’t engage in anything that seems meaningful to me. How can we encourage him in leisure skills beyond screens?


    1. Katie A. says:

      Hi Susannah, thanks for reading this post and sharing your situation. I feel you on this… screens can be one of the easiest ways to “check out” when times are tough. And being a 15-year-old on the BEST of days is tough! I’m sure it’s tricky to figure out what is “normal teenage sullen/antisocial hormone” stuff vs. what is attachment/trauma/adoption stuff. I haven’t parented a teenager myself, but I have a few thoughts in case they help. If you feel like he’s not sure exactly what to do when there is downtime, your hunch is probably right. He probably doesn’t know. And I don’t know your family dynamics (nor do you need to over-share publicly), but rough housing with the littles does sound like he’s seeking playful connection with them in a way that he knows how. My 8yo girl is a big rough-houser! She loves it… it’s heavy sensory play, it’s safe fun physical contact, it gets pent-up stress out of her body (much like jumping on a trampoline, which she also loves). So… as long as it’s safe, I’d say that’s a good thing! I’m not sure how long your kiddos have all been together, but he may need some subtle modeling in other ways to play with the littles. If he missed a lot of this important early play phase, he just may not know other ways that toddlers actually play and what that looks like. Maybe there is a way to “bring him in on it”? If he likes minecraft he might like building… forts, a project to build a playhouse for the littles, something like that?

      Separate from play with your younger kiddos, I’d just stay open and curious about what you notice that makes him happy. Does he need some extra one-on-one time with a parent: shooting hoops, play a video game together, go get ice cream or a slushie, Can a parent get into minecraft with him? Send him youtube videos he might like? Again, I’m not sure how long he’s been with you or how close your relationship had been until teenage hormones struck (!!)… but if it hasn’t been that long or that emotionally close, it can be a really vulnerable place to share yourself with adults you’re not sure if you can trust. Maybe texting him kind words, check ins, sending him something funny from youtube, a song he might like… texting might be a little less “face to face vulnerable”?

      It’s tough. Every age has it’s totally complicated stuff… I’m sending you a big hug! Keep tuning into your guy, see what makes him smile and do more of that, maybe extra treats or privileges or cool/fun jobs to make him feel important, keep trying and putting love out there even if he doesn’t seem to take the bait… it goes in! I’d suggest the Facebook group “Homeschooling with Connection” (homeschool-specific) and “Parenting with Connection” (all topics related to parenting kids from hard places, and very well moderated & kind)… posting to get more advice from parents of teenagers may be of help! If you hit a point where your mama-bear-red-flag-warnings go up, I’d definitely seek out a trauma-informed therapist. ❤ Sending you love, mama!


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