Learning through play: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

Why is learning through play such an important aspect of childhood and education? Find out how you can promote playfulness in your classroom.

What is learning through play?

Play is an integral part of a healthy childhood. Learning through play is a really positive way to build executive functions. It's possible to get a child to focus on an activity and try to work through all the challenges that are presented in a game and there's evidence that this kind of off focused play can build executive functions. In this article, we are going to explore how play-based activities can be incorporated into the classroom. We will look at how a physical activity can be used in both primary and secondary settings to achieve agency and depth of learning. Practical activities shouldn't just be reserved for early years, the cognitive development of students of all ages can be enhanced using a simple tool such as building brick. The developmental benefits of building, talking and connecting have been known for decades, we will explore how we can incorporate this domain into a literacy - activity. We will also argue that every child deserves to have playful experiences built into their school day.

Learning through play isn't just for the early years
Learning through play isn't just for the early years

Why is learning through play so important?

Playing has a major role in a children's early development. Playing is important for young children’s brain development and for their communication skills and language acquisition.

Simple games such as shaking a rattle or peek-a-boo, are much more meaningful than just a way to please the children. They strengthen young children's motor skills, communication and problem-solving skills.

Games of stacking and knocking over blocks help toddlers with science and maths concepts, including counting, balance, shapes and gravity.

Games are also important for preparing children for formal education in early childhood years. For most children, learning through play begins with the carers or parents responding to, playing with or engaging with the child.

What is Meaningful Play?

Schools that provide Montessori education emphasize learning through “meaningful play.” In the book, "From Play to Practice: Connecting Teachers' Play to Children's Learning, “meaningful play,” Marcia L. Nell has described the following five characteristics of meaningful play:

  1. It enables the child to choose what he/she wants to do;
  2. It feels enjoyable and fun-filled for the children;
  3. It allows the child to evolve naturally, rather than providing a script to follow;
  4. It is led by intrinsic motivation about what the child wishes to do;
  5. It provides a risk-free environment where children can experiment and use new ideas.

Children are the main participants in meaningful play. For example, instead of passively participating in a lesson, children accept roles along with their peers and follow the self-created rules of play.

It is believed that “rules” can be counterintuitive to the concept of free, voluntary play, a scheme of mind rules is one of the additional main characteristics of play. Children may demonstrate mind rules explicitly, create them with collaboration or make a leader, or use an innate sense of what regulates the rules of their playful actions.

Being playful shouldn't be restricted to just the early years
Being playful shouldn't be restricted to just the early years

Ways to incorporate Learning Through Play

Play or first-hand experience has a major role in children's learning. Play supports, stimulates and motivates children to develop a variety of skills. Children use all of their senses during play, they learn to convey their opinions and emotions, discover their environment, and connect their pre-existing knowledge with new knowledge, skills and abilities. Following are some of the most effective ways to incorporate learning through play in a classroom!

  1. Play-Based Learning Centers

This is an easy way to include play into a classroom's everyday routine. Whether the collection of boxes on a shelf or traditional play centres (blocks, dramatic play and sand etc.), it is the first step to have the essential resources available to add more play into the class routine. Teachers can add things like blocks, puppets and puzzles in these centres and connect these to classroom learning.

  1. Manipulatives

Young students learn by doing as they are concrete learners. This makes play a powerful tool! It is also suggested to use manipulatives to teach new concepts. For example, Letter tiles can be used to teach spelling and toy cars can be used to teach about sounds.

  1. Taking Learning Outside the Classroom

When teachers take learners outside the classroom, they show great interest in learning. For example: For Science lessons, children can collect seeds, grass, flowers, to learn about their characteristics. Teachers can also take students outside to teach about seasons of the year.

  1. Act it Out

Instead of retelling a story, teachers can act it out to increase students' interest in the lesson. Students show great engagement and love it when they are chosen to be actors. Students can learn concepts such as sentence structure or social problem solving through role-plays or acting it out in the classroom.

  1. Making Learning an Adventure

Instead of sharing the title of the new topic, teachers can encourage students to visualize through their imagination. For instance, to teach about the life under-water, a classroom can be changed into an ocean! Pictures of underwater plants and animals can be displayed around the classroom and students can pretend to be scuba diving or exploring new things.

Advantages of Play in the Classroom

In a classroom, play can help young learners to learn and grow. The use of educational toys and play can help children learn a variety of skills they will use later in life.

  1. Effective Communication: When a child is engaged in the play, either alone or with other children, he builds significant listening skills as well as language and speaking skills. Activities such as role-playing and action stories are great for building communication skills in children.
  2. Social Skills: Playtime helps young learners in learning to work with other children with a mutual goal. Through play, children develop collaborative skills, which is important in building friendships and developing social skills. Games such as 'staring contest' and virtual gaming are important for building social skills.
  3. Cognitive, Critical Thinking, & Motor Skills: Throughout the play, children are provided with enormous opportunities to try new stuff and see the outcomes of that learning. Simple board games and stacking and building games support cognitive skills building. Games such as 'guess the toy' or 'food tasting' develop critical thinking. Games such as playing with sponges and play-dough are good for building motor skills in children.
  4. Confidence Building: A major advantage of play is confidence building. Children need the confidence to develop their ability to try new things and take risks. Activities such as unstructured outdoor games and climbing up high objects are helpful to build confidence in children.
  5. Creativity: Creativity occurs when a child’s skill development and critical thinking are combined to develop something new and different. Creativity is developed when children use a familiar object unusually or uniquely, and when children engage in imaginative play.
  6. Intelligence: When children use all of their senses in learning, they expand their ability to learn. A play-based curriculum enables children to use all of their senses in learning which improves their intelligence.
  7. Problem-Solving Skills: Learning through play gives a chance to children to ask questions, guess an answer and assess their answer through experiment and error. During play, children are constantly guessing and making choices. This gives them a chance to check those guesses and reveal how to work out a problem. They can stack up some blocks and check how tall their tower can become before falling, or mix different colours of paint to make a new colour.
  8. Emotional Literacy: Play-based learning greatly enhances children's ability to work with other people, wait for their turn and understand others' emotions. While playing in the sand, or building with blocks, children will learn how to share ideas, talk about their play, share different materials, and understand the emotions of others.


Getting started with Learning through play

To conclude, learning through play is effective because it enables learners to express themselves, ask questions, take creative risks and collaborate with others. Who doesn't know about the famous saying of Maria Montessori about the play: "Play is the work of the child." In simple words, play helps a child's learning and growth. However, Montessori also identified that children enjoy the most when play is based upon reality. Children are even happier when they play with real objects that lead to real outcomes. Providing opportunities for children to explore their environment and have a go is an important part of an effective classroom experience. We know that intelligence in children is influenced by the quality of play they engage with in early-years. The block building methodology that we have been researching over the last few years develops interactions between children. This acts as a vehicle for children to develop emotional and social intelligence.

These experiences for children allow groups of learners to practice how things fit together. The first version won't probably be their last version and this is part of the learning cycle. We believe that providing experiences for children that build an understanding of the world around them is a vital part of childhood. In many classrooms, the pressures of the curriculum force us to deny opportunities for children that would enable them to construct complex schemata. An aspect of children's play is to give them time and space to try things out. We are not limiting this to early years practice either, our mental modelling concept has been utilised in six forms around the United Kingdom. Taking a playful approach gives the learner a more active role in their education. The pupil now takes a critical role in the development of their knowledge, it's not simply 'chalk and talk.'

Play brings engagement to any classroom
Play brings engagement to any classroom


How does learning through play build knowledge?

As well as playing a central role in the fundamental development of a child's emotional and social well-being, being playful can also enable a child to build abstract knowledge. The block-building activity that we have been promoting in classrooms enables students to construct knowledge meaningfully. The many benefits that have been cited include the development of both declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. What we mean by this is, the method can help make a body of knowledge more concrete and accessible. At the same time, this play-based learning approach helps students build the critical thinking skills they need to be successful in education. Being able to elaborate and expand upon the block structures is an essential part of the learning process. When students are modelling with the blocks they are making academic knowledge meaningful. Depending on the circumstance, these collaborative structured activities can be self-directed or guided by a learning coach.

When should we stop learning playfully?

Never! As we have discussed, playful activities provide opportunities for children to try out new ideas. In recent years we have seen how Lego has been used in corporate activities to promote playfulness. As we get older, we sometimes get stuck in a particular train of thought. Playful learning approaches allow us to safely explore new territory without getting hung up on being wrong. We have explored the developmental benefits of being playful but there are also significant educational and civic opportunities for engaging in play. If you are still not convinced about the opportunities of playful learning then please do check out the PEDAL centre located in Cambridge. They have a wealth of evidence to support the claims about the benefits of learning playfully.