Learn Through Play: A Conversation with Educator, Sara Al Saadi

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“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”  – RICHARD LINDGARD


After many years of working with adults, Sara decided to obtain a career with children. Her passion for child wellbeing and education can be traced back to when she had her first baby in 2014, where she spent significant time working on reading and researching topics in child psychology and behavior.


As an educator, she specializes in learning through play for the early years. Her goal is to obtain a PhD. in Education specializing in childhood wellbeing. Currently, her main research is on the topic of Growth Mindset, Emotional Intelligence, and GRIT. Following her passion, she founded her company; Storybook, in May of 2019.


Storybook: Learn through play, offers a series of programs, sessions/activities, and products that are devoted to creativity, emotional intelligence, reading, physical, and social development of children. “We focus on a child’s needs according to what their natural talents are. We cherish and respect each aspect of a child.”, Sara explained.


The positive effects of play on the development of basic skills, whether integrated into daily activities or as part of a teacher-guided educational program, include the following:



  • Enhancements in collaboration
  • Reconciliation
  • Conflict resolution
  • Problem-solving
  • Establishing empathy among individuals
  • Imagination
  • Self-control
  • The manifestation of higher-order thinking skills
  • Monitoring own and other’s ideas
  • Understanding other’s ideas
  • Less aggression
  • Independent thinking
  • Self-expression
  • Decision-making
  • Creativity and Perseverance
  • Understanding and expressing feelings.


Research shows that learning through play is an important part of a child’s development. According to Sara, children can start enjoying educational toys as young as 1 month old.  Though Ensuring your child has enough playtime is a great benefit to families to allow their children to release some extra energy, a child begins to find out who they are through play, even during infancy. Early in development, a child’s mind is expanding just by looking at their environment and taking in their surroundings.


Sara reflected upon the age at which children should start to play and said: “I would say it’s about the stage and not age. Play is increasingly recognized as vital for learning and development. It is the language of childhood and children do it naturally. Unfortunately, adults often forget how we played as children, and associate play only with leisure activity and not with the development of the fundamental skills we need in adult life. Children start playing from age 0.”


According to Essame (2020), The Developmental Play Pyramid illustrates the elements of the approach. Level 1 concerns the early foundations of play as linked to our understanding of our bodies, the sensory body stage. Children need to be able to make sense of the world through their senses: they see the world around them and gain a sense of space, distance, and objects; they are rocked and held to gain a sense of their body in space; and they learn balance and coordination, which helps build focus, attention, and study skills later on.


Studies suggest that 5-15% of children have some kind of sensory challenge, which can impact higher development; therefore, building a solid foundation in the body is crucial. “In clinical practice as an occupational therapist, I see how sensory challenges impact learning and social and emotional well-being. Strengthening sensory systems can support children to feel better about who they are and how they navigate their world.”, Sara elaborated.


Level 1 is also the foundation of body schema, the ability to perceive yourself in your mind’s eye and to read other people’s physicality. As physicality is deeply linked with social and emotional well-being, working through the body is essential for all children. Level 1 of the pyramid also includes Attachment Safety Play, which concerns the relationships a child has in early infancy—how they are loved, held, communicated with, and kept safe.


“The book Why Love Matters articulates how much difference early nurture makes, which ties in with the WHO Nurturing Care framework outlining the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.” At birth, an infant’s brain is like a sponge with little hard wiring. Love, attention, and nurturing provides the wiring and the foundation of social and emotional skills. Neglected and abused infants, by contrast, often have issues with social and emotional skills.


Developmental Play considers the quality of a child’s relationships. This has implications for parenting, the role of teachers, and how adults, in general, relate to children—neuroscience shows how positive regard, attuning to the child’s needs and nurturing them, wires the brain for well-being and learning. Basically, happy brains work better, and this is a foundational principle for child development.


“While the roots of this development are in infancy, we have found that by revisiting these early stages with children who have experienced trauma, neglect, or have differently wired brains, such as in the case of autism spectrum disorder, we see significant changes in behaviour, learning, and, most important, self-esteem and happiness.”


From these foundations, children go on to Level 2 of the Developmental Play Pyramid, which is creative explorative play. Starting from a place of security, body awareness, and coordination, they start to explore the world around them. They kick a mobile, shake a rattle, and crawl across the floor to reach a toy. They experience cause and effect, and a sense of control over the world around them; the world is a place of surprises and joy.


This is often a place where children make a mess, throwing toys on the floor and playing with their food. While adults try to stop this behaviour—particularly with children who are older or differently-abled—it is a key developmental stage for building creative skills, flexibility, a sense of control, and risk-taking and entrepreneurial skills. It is the essence of free play and the foundation of joy in the world around them.


Sara further discussed that from here, children will – when they are ready – move on to the stage of meaning-making play (Level 3). They pattern, sequence, compare, and order, and begin to remember and sort their play. “It is here that the foundations of language are set down as the child starts to understand symbols and uses toys in multiple ways that help them build hypotheses about the world.”


Drawing and symbolic representation begin here. Often, they play the same game over and over, or repeatedly watch the same movie, since sequence, pattern, and meaning make sense to them. Children who are unable to play at this level may struggle later with creative thought and even language development and self-control.


If this is the case, they benefit from being taken down the pyramid to Level 2 to do more creative exploration, messy cause-and-effect play, hide-and-seek and concrete-object play. Or even back to Level 1 to build their body awareness through big body play, swinging, rolling, balancing, or security play where they feel seen, safe, and affirmed. Building foundation skills and strengthening them is the essence of Developmental Play.


Once all these three levels are firmly established, the child can reach Level 4, higher play. “This is the level where children employ their imagination, they can create narratives about being a pirate, for example, or going on a journey in a cardboard box. They begin to be complex problem solvers and to understand rules and roles. They are social learners, ready for group learning, playing, and relating.”


We often define play in terms of Level 4, because this is the kind of play we remember doing. However, it can only happen optimally when a firm foundation at the earlier levels has been formed. This is why the first three levels of the Developmental Play Pyramid are important. If we want children to be creative and entrepreneurial, we may need to give them more exposure to Level 2. If they have not reached Level 4, we need to see where the gaps are and take them back to rebuild earlier levels.


Remember that everyone can be involved, an adult who is involved in a child’s play should ensure to facilitate the play. Facilitating play means that the environment should be safe and full of opportunities for the child to discover their environment and learn from it. According to research, parents who are involved in their child’s learning are most likely to achieve academically and socially.


Explore the range of toys you can introduce to your children and begin their developmental play journey.


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