The Benefits of Play-Based Learning


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The term play-based learning has become increasingly popular in early learning circles as more and more classrooms adopt this curriculum style.  

This week, we explore what play-based learning really looks like and identify the benefits of learning through play. Understanding play-based learning will help you decide whether or not you want to incorporate it into your own program. A deeper understanding will also give you tools for articulating the benefits of play-based learning to curious parents.  

What is Play-Based Learning? 

Learning and play are inherently linked, especially in the first five years. Children use play as a way to explore, investigate, and make new discoveries. They also use play as a means of building relationships and friendships with their peers. According to The Conversation, play-based learning builds on children’s natural motivation to play and uses it as a “context for learning. In this context, children can explore, experiment, discover and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways. 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.” 

When children are playing outside, drawing a picture, building with legos, or engaging in dramatic play with peers, they are learning valuable academic and social skills that will be important to them later in life. 

What are the Benefits?

  • Supports language and literacy skills: Engaging in active play from an early age encourages the development of language skills. A child’s vocabulary grows and develops in conversation during and about play.  The context of play allows for this to happen in an enjoyable, natural way. Additionally, play that involves music and rhyme supports the development of early literacy skills, including listening and sound recognition. 

  • Supports development of social skills: According to NAEYC, through play, children can learn valuable skills such as collaboration, cooperation, communication, and even self-confidence. As children play with their peers, they learn how to navigate working on a team and building relationships with their friends. Through their interactions, they are learning important social skills for their futures. 

  • Helps children learn early math skills: There are many ways to incorporate foundational math skills into play. When children play with blocks and puzzles, for example, they are engaging in spatial reasoning. Dramatic play that includes a cash register or shopping provides an opportunity to count, add and subtract.  Building with Legos and other blocks involves concepts in shape, size, and geometry. When children pretend to cook, they can be encouraged to practice measuring and even work with fractions. Each of these skills will help with kindergarten readiness and preparation for later academic success.

  • Encourages more engagement:  NAEYC shares that, “Learning that emerges through play is deep and meaningful to children because they have shaped it themselves. Play helps children make sense of their world and gives them an opportunity to learn how to get along, think, communicate, make decisions, delay gratification, solve problems, and build confidence.”  

What is the Role of the Teacher?

As an early childhood educator, your role in children’s learning is vital. The skills that children learn in your care will set the foundation for later academic success and relationship-building in elementary school and into adulthood. 

So, how do we create a curriculum that encourages exploration and play? How can we encourage children to initiate their own play experiences, and then enhance each  experience through conversations that spark cognitive and academic development?  

Create a rich and engaging classroom environment

One of the best ways that we can support play-based learning is to set up our classroom environments in a way that inspires creativity and discovery. We can provide lots of books, and open-ended learning materials such as blocks, legos, and art supplies. Early childhood educator, Tina Gabel, MEd shares, “Play-based learning at its finest utilizes the environment as a third teacher…A place where every activity and object placed in the space has a purpose, adds to the learning, and helps scaffold information across the learning domains.” 

Give children time 

Deep learning requires time. Children who are engaged in thoughtful and meaningful play should be given adequate time to explore their interests. If you notice children that are especially interested in a particular project or activity, try to respect their time by allowing them to dive deep into uninterrupted play. Allow them to concentrate, be creative, and ask questions before guiding them into the next activity. 

Introduce new words, concepts, and ideas

As we observe children in play, we might notice an opportunity for deeper learning. If we see children building a structure with blocks, we might introduce new math concepts by asking questions such as “How many blocks do you have here? What would happen if I took two blocks away…how many would you have then?” If children are interested in airplanes flying overhead, you might find some books that explore airplanes, their mechanics, and how they fly. The key is to allow the children to lead the conversation and to notice what interests them while taking advantage of opportunities for deeper learning and conversation. 

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