When you were a child, did you ever read the book, What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry?
The world of adults is incomprehensible to a young child. Adults do so much! There are police officers, engineers, pilots and doctors and a thousand more.
But children only do one thing:
It’s how they have fun but also how they learn.
Play-based learning (also called ‘learning through play’) is something we have all heard about but what exactly does it mean? Play-based learning is an approach that uses play as a natural way for children to explore, learn, and develop. It recognises that young children learn best when they are actively engaged and having fun.
The old way
While traditional teaching methods often rely on direct instruction and rote memorisation, play-based learning emphasises exploration, creativity, and hands-on experiences. It is more engaging and effective for young children, as it aligns with their natural curiosity and developmental needs.
That’s not to say that rote learning never works. Try ‘discovering’ the alphabet or the times tables through play. But, in most circumstances, play is key.
The science behind play-based learning
Recent research* in developmental psychology and neuroscience has shown that play is essential for children's cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Play stimulates the growth of neural connections in the brain, fostering the development of essential skills like problem-solving, creativity, and self-regulation.
In other words, play is interesting and fun, so we want to do more of it. And we naturally play at a level that is developmentally appropriate.
As long as we offer our children open-ended toys that they can explore at their own pace, the challenge will be just right.
In essence, play-based learning harnesses the power of play to help children learn and grow.
Key principles of play-based learning
To effectively support play-based learning, keep these key principles in mind:
Child-led: Follow your child's interests and allow them to take the lead in their learning journey.
Open-ended: Provide opportunities for children to explore and experiment without a predefined outcome.
Process-orientated: Focus on the learning process rather than specific outcomes or products.
Safe and supportive environment: Don’t underestimate the power of safety. The more secure your child feels, the more risks she is willing to take. A safe physical environment is important, of course, but so too is a secure attachment bond with the primary caregiver. Attachment theory is a topic for another day but, in essence, the more positive and non-judgmental you are, the more confident your child feels.
Types of play-based learning activities
But play-based learning isn’t so much a set of activities as a state of mind.
Does your child have a spirit of inquiry? Do you offer open-ended materials that are focused on exploration and discovery?
Best toys for play-based learning
Wooden blocks: Is there a more open-ended and creative toy than the humble block?
Pretend play: How many stories can you tell with a simple toy kitchen? And how many ways can you think to modify it? Today it is a restaurant, tomorrow the command module of a rocket.
Craft materials: Scissors, pencils, glue and tape; felt, buttons, string and paint. So much is possible with these simple materials.
Puzzles and board games: Puzzles and board games are a cognitive challenge and also encourage cooperation, patience and strategy development.
Sensory toys: Playdough, kinetic sand, and sensory bins filled with various materials help children engage their senses and develop fine motor skills.
Loose parts: Natural or recycled materials like stones, shells, bottle caps, or fabric scraps can be used in numerous ways, promoting creativity, critical thinking, and open-ended play.
Outdoor toys: Equipment like tricycles, skipping ropes, balls, and chalk encourages physical play, helping children develop gross motor skills, coordination, and balance.
Musical instruments: To adult ears, drums, xylophones, or maracas in the hands of an under five is the very definition of a cacophony. But there is a lot of good learning going on. Get some ear plugs and take a deep breath…
When choosing toys for play-based learning, focus on those that offer many ways to play, encourage creativity and critical thinking, promoting active engagement rather than passive entertainment.
How to encourage play-based learning
- Allocate time for free play and exploration
- Provide a range of open-ended materials and toys
- Encourage your child to take risks and make mistakes
- Ask open-ended questions to stimulate curiosity and critical thinking
As a parent, you may face some challenges in embracing play-based learning:
Letting go of control: Give your child autonomy and resist the urge to intervene too often.
Trusting the process: Understand that learning is happening, even if it is not immediately apparent.
Managing expectations: Avoid comparing your child's progress to others and focus on their individual growth.
What do children do all day? Play.
But not all play is created equal. The more inquiry-based and exploratory it is, the more your child will learn.
*Research on play
Numerous research studies have highlighted the importance of play-based learning in early childhood development.
Here are a few examples:
The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds (Ginsburg, 2007): In this report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg highlights the importance of play for children's cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. The report emphasises that play helps build resilience, fosters creativity, and strengthens the parent-child bond.
The Role of Play in Children's Cognitive Development (Lillard et al., 2013): This study examines the relationship between pretend play and cognitive development in young children. The researchers found that children who engage in more complex, imaginative play show better problem-solving, language, and social skills than those who engage in simpler play activities.
The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning (White, 2012): In this comprehensive review of play research, Dr. Rachel White summarises the evidence supporting the value of play for children's learning and development. The report highlights that play-based learning can improve memory, attention, creativity, and social skills.
Vygotsky's Theory of Social Constructivism: Lev Vygotsky, a renowned psychologist, emphasized the importance of play in children's cognitive development. According to Vygotsky, play allows children to explore their environment, test social roles, and experiment with problem-solving, ultimately leading to the development of higher cognitive functions.
Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development: Jean Piaget, another influential psychologist, argued that children learn through active exploration and manipulation of their environment. His theory suggests that play is crucial for developing children's cognitive abilities, as it provides opportunities for them to engage with the world around them and construct their understanding.