Learning through play is a term used in education and psychology to describe how a child can learn to make sense of the world around them. Through play children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.
Key ways that young children learn include playing, being with other people, being active, exploring and new experiences, talking to themselves, communication with others, meeting physical and mental challenges, being shown how to do new things, practicing and repeating skills and having fun
The way that children learn through play is culturally specific "as result of differences in childrearing beliefs, values, and practices."  Play both influences and reflects the way children from different cultures learn. Most western cultures would agree with the previously described definition of play where play is enjoyable, have no extrinsic goals, no prescribed learning that must occur, is spontaneous and voluntary, involves active engagement on the part of the player, involves an element of make-believe. However, that is not so for most others. For example, Yucatec Mayans do not have emotional aspects in pretend/ make believe play and most of their play is reality based.
Yucatec Mayans commonly learn through Intent Community Participation, a very different approach than is common among middle class European American families. This approach stresses observation that intertwines individuals in community action.
Unlike children from the U.S., Yucatec Mayan children seldom engage in pretend play; their cultural structure does not support idea of "pretend."  Instead of having imaginary circumstances and friends, they play through various real life situations that reflect everyday life of the Yucatec. For example, children go through the steps of making tortillas, weaving, and cleaning clothing. This relates to not having Age Segregation. Unlike children of the industrialized middle-class who play mainly with children of the same age, The Yucatec Mayan children engage with all ages, exploring activities of daily life.
Different cultures and communities encourage children to play in different ways. Parents may not join in the play. Children may not be given toys to play with, but they often make their own. Children may play in mixed age groups away from adults. They may be expected to grow out of play by 5 or in middle childhood. 
Different age groups have different cognitive capabilities. For example, when older Yucatec children pretend to discipline (modeling parental structures and exploring emotions), children who are younger may react negatively because they do not understand that the discipline is a game.
Their culture also emphasizes learning through observation. Children are active participators by observing and modeling activities that are useful to the community. " It is inherently integrated into the daily activities of the compound."  Their repeated realistic representations of the adult world are represented through their play.
Yucatec Mayan parents also do not support the idea of pretend. Pretend Play is considered a form of lying because children are not representing something that actually happens. For example, a Mayan mother told an ethnographer that she would "tolerate" her child pretending that the leaves in the bowl was a form of food.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Susan Isaacs introduced the study of play. This came from the understanding of child development that came from Western Europe and the USA. However, experts such as Gunilla Dahlberg et al. (1999) suggest that Western ways of looking at play cannot be applied cross culturally. Fleer's (1995) work with Australian aboriginal children challenges Western experts as to whether it is ideal to encourage play. She suggests that, "the children she studied did not play, and that it is not necessary for them to do so".
Play is sufficiently important to the United Nations that it has recognized it as a specific right for all children. Children need the freedom to explore and play. Play also contributes to brain development. Evidence from neuroscience shows that the early years of a child’s development (from birth to age six) set the basis for learning, behavior and health throughout life. The child’s neural pathways are influenced in their development through the exploration, thinking, problem-solving and language expression which occur during play episodes. According to the Canadian Council on Learning, "Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development – it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Play 'paves the way for learning'”.
Learning occurs when children play with blocks, paint a picture or play make-believe. During play children try new things, solve problems, invent, create, test ideas and explore. Children need unstructured, creative playtime; in other words, children need time to learn through their play.
According to researcher Charles E. Pascel, "Play is serious business for the development of young learners. This is such an important understanding. A deliberate and effective play-based approach supports young children’s cognitive development. When well designed, such an approach taps into children’s individual interests, draws out their emerging capacities, and responds to their sense of inquiry and exploration of the world around them. It generates highly motivated children enjoying an environment where the learning outcomes of a curriculum are more likely to be achieved”.
According to Fox. J., children can develop their social competence and language development from interacting with their friends, parents or teacher; enhance creativity, thinking skills and imagination when they play independently (2015)
Play-based learning programs include: