Plentiful playtime is essential to a child's development, with benefits ranging from improved mental and physical health to enhanced emotional well-being. And while playing simply for the sake of fun has myriad merits, it's also the ideal opportunity for parents to sneak in a bit of learning—especially in the long summer months.
Three Girls Laughing In Elementary School Classroom
Credit: Sydney Bourne/Getty Images

Playtime can be divided into three categories: learning through play (typically parent- or teacher-directed), connected play (games or cooperative activities), and pure play, which is entirely child-led, says former elementary school teacher and homeschooling mom Melissa Droegemueller of Rolling Prairie Readers.

"All three types of play are important to a child's development, but I believe that children learn the most from their independent, pure play sessions," Droegemueller says. "Any time we can match up a skill or concept with something that our children are already interested in, it's a terrific way to mix learning and play in a fun way."

Ready to boost your kid's playtime? Here are six brilliant ways to disguise learning as fun.

1. Invest in their interests

As your child grows, observe which activities they choose most frequently, and give them the tools and toys they need to explore those interests. "A parent can surround their avid reader with lots of interesting, educational books," Droegemueller suggests. "Tactile and kinesthetic learners can be given flexible seating and hands-on or whole-body learning experiences. Auditory learners can experiment with their own voice recorders, and visual learners can be given lots of colorful pens and paper to organize what they are learning."

2. Move to the music

Studies have shown that music can have powerful developmental effects on children, and a few well-chosen tunes can have educational benefits as well. "Most children learn through song, so creating an educational playlist for background music during playtime is one way to add in some learning fun," Droegemueller says. "Our children easily picked up skip counting, states, capitals, the order of the presidents, and how to spell their 13-letter last name with this simple strategy!"

3. Make the most of movie night

Even watching a favorite movie or TV show can be educational if you use Droegemueller's simple trick: turning on the captions. "It's a fantastic way for kids to see the words they are hearing and recognize the sight words they see most often," she says.

4. Invite kids into the kitchen

Educator and mom of two Meg Flanagan says that cooking is a fun way to teach math and reading skills. "Use a kid-friendly cookbook for newer readers or find a favorite classic guide together," she recommends. "Read the recipe, talk about the size/volume difference between measurements, and work on fractions by doubling or reducing the recipe. Plus, sneak chemistry in by switching ingredients or making a few batches with different swaps (like cookies using different fats—butter, margarine, coconut oil, etc.) to see which is best."

5. Dust off your board games

Playing classic games like Monopoly, Clue, and Shoots & Ladders can help you bond as a family while working on skills like logic, reasoning, counting, cooperation, and math. Guess Who? also helps early talkers develop their question-asking ability.

6. Encourage pretend play

Children engaged in imaginative play, like playing house or store or superheroes, are working on social dynamics and problem solving, Flanagan says. "These 'soft' skills are crucial for growth, development, and positive social engagement as they mature. You can support imaginative play with costumes, toys, and staged play sets (like a kitchen). Kids will also always find their own ways to imagine and create!"