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Research

For Young Kids, The Power of Play-Based Learning

New research shows play-based learning can be more effective than direct instruction at improving outcomes for early learners—particularly in the development of mathematical and spatial skills.

August 5, 2022

The mere presence of the word play in the teaching method known as play-based learning can alarm some parents of early childhood learners. Students, even our youngest students, should be “playing” at home. They come to school to learn, they might say.

That distinction—between “learning” and “play”—is a false one, according to early childhood educator and author Erika Christakis. Although kindergarten and elementary classrooms often devalue it in favor of direct instruction or seat time, play is the “defining feature” of all mammalian development, and its “signature” is apparent in the bodies and lives of little kids who experience it: “Their life expectancies are longer and their social-emotional capabilities are more robust when they have a chance to learn through play and deep relationships, and when their developing brains are given the chance to grow in a nurturing, language-rich, and relatively unhurried environment,” Christakis told Edutopia in a 2019 interview.

Children aren’t miniature adults. Nonetheless, a bias toward adult perspectives of childhood, with its attendant schedules and routines, has gradually exerted a stranglehold on our educational system, Christakis continues, trapping young kids in educational spaces that too often feel dreary, joyless, and alienating. “The notion that there is something of value in being a little kid—with little kid desires and, above all, needs—seems to have fallen out of favor.”

Breaking the Cycle

Despite the clear benefits of play, setting aside the time for even the youngest students can seem out of step with the academic demands of the school day. Early childhood teachers are pressured to meet strict seat-time guidelines in their classrooms, and they often feel that direct instruction is the best method to achieve the many curricular objectives that parents, principals, and other leaders expect.

According to a new study, there’s a middle path. A group of researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed decades of research on “guided play”—more commonly called play-based learning—and concluded that it can have a “greater positive effect” on the acquisition of skills like math, shape knowledge, and task switching than more traditional approaches that prioritize seat time and explicit instruction.

“In redefining play as a spectrum with varying degrees of child autonomy and adult guidance, guided play has been situated as a ‘middle-ground’ between free play and direct instruction,” the researchers concluded. The learning is inherently rich and meaningful because “play naturally cultivates their enjoyment, motivation, and agency; while the inclusion of guidance by a supportive adult extends the scope for learning beyond what the child might achieve on their own.”

Incorporating key elements of play—like wonder, exploration, and student agency—into loosely structured lessons that are gently supported by teachers provides an “optimal” approach for students, according to the researchers. For Christakis, this means that play-based learning experiences should provide students with a “steady diet of free, unstructured time and access to open-ended materials” that allow them to engage in “rambling” storytelling and provide plenty of time to just “mess around and make their own rules.”

Play, With an Objective in Mind

In a successful play-based learning class, teachers often have a clear “learning goal” behind the play they let students engage in ahead of time, according to the Cambridge study. A teacher should keep this goal in mind during the play and subtly guide the child toward the goal.

Don’t pull the strings too tight: According to primary teacher Maggie Sabin, teachers shouldn’t necessarily expect students to produce specific outputs. For example, to teach students how colors can be mixed to form new colors, you might avoid giving students instructions to mix specific colors and instead model one example and then allow them to make their own combinations. “Be well prepared and intentional in planning, but allow for flexibility and inspiration,” writes Sabin.

One way to make sure that students are playing with purpose is to structure your classroom with deliberate spaces or centers containing materials, games, or objects intentionally chosen for students to engage with and make sense of.

An area in Sabin’s classroom, for example, contains a “tinker tray” of items that might seem random but are related to lessons or units she is using direct instruction to guide students through. During a unit on nature and natural materials, for example, the tray is stocked with items like pebbles, leaves, or sticks that students can both practice naming and manipulating. The materials can also be used to practice early math skills through the course of play by simply asking students how many pebbles they have or how many pebbles they have left after giving some to a friend.

Providing Choice and Agency

Effective play-based learning should be child-led when possible and give students “freedom and choice over their actions and play behavior,” the researchers assert. However, their findings suggest that the level of autonomy being given to students in play-based learning scenarios is often less than the amount needed to “cultivate children’s agency, motivation, and curiosity.”

To foster that agency, New Hampshire kindergarten teacher Jessica Arrow often starts the day by allowing students 30 to 45 minutes of “choice time” to explore various spaces in the classroom—a block center, math center, science center, art center, book nook, or dramatic play corner.

The items they encounter are related to previous lessons and the interests her students have expressed. For example, after reading the children’s book Miss Maple’s Seeds, Arrow said, her students became fascinated by the author’s process of creating the book from her imagination. As a result, Arrow’s art center included materials for students to create stories of their own and to practice speaking, listening, and writing standards in the process.

Arrow writes that their bookmaking interests eventually carried over into other areas of learning. For example, one student created a number book. After Arrow shared it with the class, number books became popular, and her students were referencing number grids and creating their own number books that helped them count and identify large numbers in the process.

“Once my students had experienced play-based learning, they were more focused, motivated, and purposeful,” writes Arrow. “Most important, they were happier. Bringing play-based learning to my classroom created balance, deepened our learning, and defined our classroom community as a place where we could learn and grow together.”

When to Step In

As children play, teachers should be observing closely to gather insights about the way students are learning and use open-ended questions, hints, and prompts to gently nudge students and encourage deeper thinking. You might step in “when a child appears to find an activity too difficult or too easy” so that you “can help them learn beyond what might be possible in independent play,” the researchers say.

For example, when children are playing with blocks, open-ended questions can be posed to encourage problem-solving, prediction, and hypothesizing, according to veteran teacher and curriculum manager for Edmentum Winnie O’Leary. A teacher can bring awareness to math standards by asking students low-stakes questions such as “I wonder how tall this tower can get?” or “I wonder how many blocks you need to make that tower as tall as your friend’s?”

Simple questions can also encourage practice recalling information and identifying shapes, objects, or colors, according to O’Leary. During a game of Go Fish, for example, you can ask, “Hey, who had the number 4 in the last round?” Or during a game of Uno you might ask, “Hmm, what color card do you need to add to the center deck?” Games involving strategy—like checkers or tic-tac-toe—are great to get students thinking critically about their objectives and how to adjust them based on what is happening during the game. Try questions like “I wonder what move you could have made to win?”

Use these strategies wisely, though, the researchers caution. In the end, hints and questions should not feel like directives.

Christakis agrees, telling Edutopia that she often coaches teachers to stay away from “checking questions” such as “What color is the apple?” or “What are you drawing?” Instead, she says, teachers should ask questions like “Tell me about your drawing.”

“The open-ended response really opens up a huge space for spontaneous and deep learning,” Christakis says. 

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