Learning through play! The ins and out of play-based learning

Do you remember all the games you used to play as a child? Remember your toys and puzzles, your imaginary friends, and all the parties and adventures you could go to from the middle of your living room? Playing, with real people or in your imagination, helped you explore, discover and learn about the world that surrounds you and beyond.

Children learn naturally through play. Play is a valuable learning activity in and of itself that gives children the freedom to explore, to make mistakes, to investigate, to try trial and error. In addition, it supports children’s internalisation of concepts, and provides motivation to learn new things, especially when that knowledge will allow them to extend the narrative of their play.

It comes as no surprise then that play has turned into an integral part of early education and kindergarten. In Australia, play-based learning became one of the pillars of childhood education in 2009 with the introduction of ‘Belonging, being and becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia’ (the EYLF), Australia’s first national early education curriculum framework.

The EYLF became mandatory in 2012 as a central component of the National Quality Framework for early childhood services. It outlines principles, practices and outcomes to extend and enrich young children’s learning from birth to five years and through transition to school.

Play-based learning has been described as a teaching approach involving playful, child directed elements along with some degree of adult guidance and scaffolded learning objectives. It is different from traditional teaching, which emphasises teacher-directed academic instruction where children take on the role of passive recipients of knowledge, but works in combination with it to improve learning outcomes.

Play vs Play-based Learning

Play has long been researched and, while it has varying definitions, child-directedness and enjoyment are common elements of most of them. Play is often identified only as a recreational activity, used for pure enjoyment, with no practical use in the learning of concrete skills.

On the other hand, the purpose of play-based learning is inherent in its title: to learn while at play. Play-based learning includes a greater integration of adult support and more intentionality in the planning for play contexts. The most effective play-based learning occurs when the educator is there to facilitate and scaffold learning.

In pedagogical play or play-based learning, children direct their own learning within the established play contexts, while educators enhance the learning experience by playing the role of commenters, co-players, questioners, or demonstrators of new ways to interact with the materials involved.

The Play-based Learning Continuum

Play-based learning ranges from active play that requires physical, verbal or mental engagement to pleasurable play that emphasises enjoyment as a key feature. It includes, free play, structured collaborative play, and adult-driven playful learning.

  • Free play

The most common examples of free play for learning are building (big blocks, Lego, etc.), playing with toys (puzzles, dinosaurs, etc.), and the sensory play (sand, play dough, etc.). Free play gives children the opportunities to explore and discover the materials they were working with. It allows teachers to observe children’s play and establish an understanding of how and why children think about particular ideas and topics.

  • Collaborative play

In collaborative play, the teacher and children design the context of the play together, including both the theme and the resources necessary to the play. It enables educators to directly illustrate concepts to children while letting them explore and deepen their understanding of concepts within the boundaries agreed before.  

  • Adult-driven play

Adult-driven play is important because it enables educators to introduce new ideas using a variety of materials such as books, posters, songs and videos. Learning through games, is intended to support the learning of targeted academic skills in a manner that is playful and engaging for the children. It’s doing it in a way that they don’t realise they are being taught and that they are learning.

The Benefits of Play-based Learning

Play in a classroom environment gives children the opportunity to grow physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. Child-directed play, collaboratively created play and teacher-directed play all present important opportunities for personal, social and academic growth.

There are many and well-documented benefits to play-based learning, and here are some of them:

  • Play-based learning aids in fostering independence and self-motivated learning in children. By making tasks fun for children, it translates to an increased engagement and supports academic learning.
  • There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the use of play-based learning leads to increased literacy development. Play-based learning provides children with opportunities to use language and new vocabulary that support later reading and writing development.
  • Play-based approach improves creativity and adaptability that then leads to innovative thinking closely linked with academic subjects such as maths and sciences.
  • Play-based learning gives educators the ability to differentiate according to the child’s ability. Children are not being forced to do anything they are not ready for, approaching learning at their level of readiness.

Through play, children learn to respond to their environment by reproducing what they experience. Play allows them to create new objects or ideas that help children to respond to new challenges within their environment.

Adapting to a Play-based Learning Pedagogy

While play-based learning has become the preferred approach to teaching in early education and kindergarten in Australia, educators and parents alike still face some adaptation to the style. In particular, there is a curriculum heavily focus on teaching academic skills as early as possible in order to maximize children’s future academic success.

Educators then have to choose between teaching academic content through direct instruction or allowing children time to engage in child-led play. This leads to educators continuing to face implementation challenges, and many activities being categorised as play actually being teacher-directed.

Parents sometimes can also misunderstand the rich learning and engagement that can occur through play. They heighten academic expectations, believing that children should play at home and learn at school, meaning paper tasks.

Last but not least, many educators still struggle with thoughtfully preparing an engaging environment and set up playful learning opportunities with specific learning outcomes. While there is general agreement that play belongs in the kindergarten classroom, what this play consists of, when and how to implement it, are still unclear for many.

Play-based Learning at Jumbo and at Home

At Jumbo we believe that children learning in early childhood and kindergarten need opportunities to engage in and enjoy socialisation, cognitive and physical development experiences. 

With play-based learning, children get access to more fine and gross motor opportunities compared to the more sedentary traditional teaching methods. Teacher-directed play-based learning also allows children to develop the necessary academic skills in an engaging and playful manner.

Our educators, and parents, can be involved in the play via different elements (e.g., materials, environment, subject, roles) ensuring the creation of a rich reality for children. This happens via the provision of materials for exploration and experimentation, and the modelled and collaboratively-framed play that promotes discussing and connecting existing and new information and ideas.

As an educator, after preparation and set up of resources for considered play-based learning, our role is to support. We ensure we are available to help children when they have a question, to make them feel supported in asking it, and to provide tools to explore their questions further. When we ask challenging questions we aim to create conscious learners who know how to, and choose to, seek more information.

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