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Play-Based Learning: What It Is and Why It Should Be a Part of Every Classroom

Play-Based Learning: What It Is and Why It Should Be a Part of Every Classroom

Renowned psychologist and child development theorist Jean Piaget was quoted in his later years as saying “Our real problem is – what is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?”

No doubt, Piaget didn’t have to deal with standardized assessment—and he would be at odds with those officials who prioritize test high scores and good grades as the primary goals of education. Instead, Piaget would advocate for helping students understand learning as a lifelong process of discovery and joy. Why do we question the value of this approach?

Being a kid is critical. We see the signature of early childhood experience literally in people’s bodies: as this study from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child shows, positive early experiences lead to longer life expectancy, better overall health, and improved ability to manage stress. Plus, long-term social emotional capabilities are more robust when children have a chance to learn through play; form deep relationships; and when their developing brains are given the chance to grow in a nurturing, language-rich, and relatively unhurried environment. 

This is something that as educators we understand in our souls but often find it difficult to implement given the restraints and restrictions of the modern classroom and accountability environment. But, it’s critical to address this disconnect directly in order to make progress. So, let’s talk about why students need play and how we can bring it into our own classrooms—even if we have to sneak it in, and even if we are working with kids who are not so little anymore.

Defining a Play-Based Approach to Learning

Play is the defining feature of human development: the impulse is hardwired into us and can’t be suppressed. It’s crucial that we recognize that while the play impulse is one thing, understanding the nuts and bolts of actually playing is not always so natural, and may require careful cultivation.

That’s why a play-based approach involves both child-initiated and teacher-supported learning. The teacher encourages children’s learning and inquiry through interactions that aim to stretch their thinking to higher levels. There are other foundational thinkers who have built from Piaget’s theories that support this; educators like Montessori and Stanley Greenspan have recognized that the way to teach a child is through their own interests and developed concrete strategies to do so.

For example, while children are playing with blocks, a teacher can pose questions that encourage problem solving, prediction, and hypothesizing. The teacher can also bring the child’s awareness towards mathematics, science, and literacy concepts. How tall can this get? How many blocks do you need? Can you BLOW the house down? Who else does that? These simple questions elevate the simple stacking of blocks to application of learning. Through play like this, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.

Understanding the Value of Play

When children engage in real‐life and imaginary activities, play can challenge children’s thinking. 

Children learn best through first-hand experiences—play motivates, stimulates and supports children in their development of skills, concepts, language acquisition, communication skills, and concentration. During play, children use all of their senses, must convey their thoughts and emotions, explore their environment, and connect what they already know with new knowledge, skills and attitudes. 

It is in the context of play that children test out new knowledge and theories. They reenact experiences to solidify understanding. And it is here where children first learn and express symbolic thought, a necessary precursor to literacy. Play is the earliest form of storytelling. And, it is how children learn how to negotiate with peers, problem-solve, and improvise.

 It is in play that basic social skills—like sharing and taking turns—are learned and practiced. Children also bring their own language, customs, and culture into play. As an added benefit, they learn about their peers’ in the process.

Involvement in play stimulates a child’s drive for exploration and discovery. This motivates the child to gain mastery over their environment, promoting focus and concentration. It also enables the child to engage in the flexible and higher-level thinking processes deemed essential for the 21st century learner. These include inquiry processes of problem solving, analyzing, evaluating, applying knowledge and creativity.

Finally, play supports positive attitudes toward learning. These include imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm, and persistence. The type of learning processes and skills fostered in play cannot be replicated through traditional rote learning, where the emphasis is on remembering facts.

Play-Based Learning and Executive Function

Children are naturally motivated to play. A play-based program builds on this motivation, using it as a context for learning. In this framework, children can explore, experiment, discover, and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways. They also expand their executive function skills by practicing their ability to retain information—like where the butterfly was in the spread of memory cards, who had the “4” in Go Fish, and what color card they have and need for in UNO.

When students play games that involve strategy, they have an opportunity to make plans, and then to adjust those plans in response to what happens during gameplay. This engages other critical executive function skills like inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. Think Battleship, checkers, tick-tack-toe, or Hide-and-Go-Seek; these games have children develop a plan and adjust on the fly in response to the other player.

Teachers can provide opportunities for students to build their executive function skills through meaningful social interactions and fun games—including activities as common as checkers, Simon Says, and I Spy. Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child offers lots of great ideas for children at different ages.

Play and the Value of Active Learning

Play-based learning is an important way to develop active learning. Active learning means using your brain in lots of ways. When children play, they explore the world—and build on their understanding of the natural and social environments around them.

On the physical level, kids work on both gross and fine motor development through play. Students working in a play-based classroom explore spatial relationships and hone these important motor capabilities. In fact, it is before the age of 7 years—traditionally known as “pre-academic” age—when children desperately need to have a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences daily in order to develop strong bodies and minds. This is best done outside where the senses can be fully engaged, and young bodies are challenged by the uneven and unpredictable, ever-changing terrain—but a well-equipped, thoughtfully set-up classroom can be just as effective.

Developing Soft Skills Through Cooperative Play

Children build language skills while developing content knowledge. Plus, cooperative experiences provide children the opportunity to cultivate social skills, competencies, and a disposition to learn.

Play also builds self-esteem. Children are most receptive to learning during play and exploration and are generally willing to persist in order to learn something new or solve a problem. The experience of successfully working through something new or challenging helps kids gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.   

And a big winner in play is Social development. Interpersonal skills like listening, negotiating, and compromising are challenging for 4- and 5-year-olds (as well as older kids and adults). Through play, children get to practice social and language skills, think creatively, and gather information about the world through their senses. Think about the games that students come up with on their own—they are creative, often intricate, and their “rules” always have to be negotiated.

Games and Gamification

Some educators regard the time kids spend socializing with their friends while gaming online as the salvation during the COVID-19 pandemic, or in any scenario where a child might experience barriers to in-person socialization. In addition to the social connections, there is an increased understanding that video games can actually improve kids’ remote learning.  As educators we know that using student’s passions to engage them in learning is critical and kids love games. Done right, gaming and gamification of games can engage both intrinsic (pleasure and fulfillment) and extrinsic (recognition and rewards) motivation. 

How Teachers Can Encourage and Promote Play-Based Learning

Teachers help enhance play-based learning by creating environments in which rich play experiences are available. The act of being a teacher is recognizing the goals of education, understanding how learning works, and figuring out how to apply all this to each student, one at a time. Teaching children how to learn is a strong basis for every grade level.

It is pretty clear that students learn through play. Every child. Some use play to explore their world, others to gain language, and on and on and on. In fact, we have also seen that it is a natural impulse—like getting hungry, or crying when upset, children play. So why not lean into it? Find ways to increase the time spent on play in your class. Whether you create centers for dramatic play, bring in costume boxes, explore problem solving with board games, or design your own multiplication board game or even better, have your students design that game, lean in. Use what is part of a child’s fabric to enhance instruction and learning.

Looking for additional ideas to make your classroom a more hands-on learning environment for your young students? Check out this blog post on Exploring CTE at the Elementary Level Through Play for more outside-the-box inspiration!

Interested in learning more about play-based learning? Check out our OnDemand webinar where we explore this topic in-depth

This post was originally published October 2019 and has been updated.

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Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently the Educator Initiatives Manager. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she learns something new and exciting every day.