Play = Learning is a formula that most people I know are comfortable with for early childhood. Little ones, preschoolers, maybe Kindergarten ... these little kids should be playing and learning that way.
But actually, play equals learning for us all, even adults. Play relaxes us, builds relationships, improves our emotional IQ, and can give us a challenge to overcome and learn from.
I'm not very good at playing anymore. I don't know if I was better as a child, but by this point in my life I'm always too busy just being busy to sit down and immerse myself in a game without hopping up to do other things or trying to multi-task it. I wish I was better at playing, and I try.
As I was gardening last weekend, my son said "why don't you ever have fun?"
"I do!" I replied. "I'm having fun right now, gardening."
"No - why don't you have fun with me? Why don't you play catch or something?"
So I did. I left aside my garden work, and we got out the mitts and the ball and tossed it back and forth for awhile, laughing and talking. I played with him.
My daughter has been very happy with the way I cleaned up our games and puzzles shelf, and she's pulled out many games to play. "Come play with me". I try, and we've been playing a lot of Zeus on the Loose. I played with her.
I've decided the kids need a bit of American History, and to start I'm just reading Meet Felicity to them. Pause, Mom! We have to go get all the American Girl Doll stuff down from Hypatia's room and sit on the floor playing with the dolls while you read. Of course you do! Play and Learn. They played.
Carbon has been obsessed with dinosaurs again. Every documentary, every library book, everything he can get his hands on just gets consumed rapidly. After an afternoon of watching a whole lot of documentaries on the television, I suggested it would be healthy to go outside and play for awhile. He didn't want to, but then a light got in his eyes - "Can I have a shovel and dig for dinosaur bones?". Sure, go dig for dino bones. He played.
We are Middle Path homeschoolers, meaning that I want some structure, but not too much. As I personally lean more toward structure, it's always helpful to me to hold up and celebrate the value of their play and their unstructured time. Play equals learning. Play equals emotional processing. Play equals bonding and relationship building.