Play-based Learning and the Indoor Learning Environment

Dr Kumaree Padayichie (PhD in Education)

Using your indoor spaces to create effective play-based learning environments.

Play and the development of 21st Century Skills

“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” - Leo F. Buscaglia (Your Therapy Source, n.d.).

When analysing the above quote, it is clearly evident that linking learning through play is imperative and a significant relationship exists between the two, as it allows for experiential and investigative learning and offers a multitude of other benefits for children.

Play allows children to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks, and create meaning (Lester & Russell, 2008:9 in Griswold 2018:11). It satisfies a basic human need to express imagination, curiosity, and creativity, which are key resources in a knowledge-driven world.

Without a doubt, the critical skills that children acquire through play in the preschool years form part of the fundamental building blocks of future complex ‘21st-century skills’ (The Lego Foundation in support of UNICEF, 2018:8). Not only does learning through play create a vessel for discovery and peaking learners’ curiosity, but learners also engage in acquiring 21st Century skills such as the 7C’s (communication, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, citizenship, character and change), 3R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) and 2M’s (motivation and metacognition).

Educators can interlace these executive function skills into learning experiences by providing ample opportunities for learning through play within the indoor learning environment which leads to an improvement in academic skills.


Scientific research over the past 30 years has revealed that the most crucial period of human development is from birth to eight years old. During these years, the development of cognitive skills, emotional well-being, social competence, and sound physical and mental health builds a solid foundation for success that leads well into the adult years.

The preschool (or kindergarten) education years fall in the middle of the early childhood period and lay the base for success in school and beyond. Learning through play is significant throughout the whole early childhood period and beyond (The Lego Foundation UNICEF, 2018:6). Griswold (2018:5), postulates that play allows kindergarten learners to become critical thinkers, and further asserts that it supports early learners in developing their social and emotional skills.

Consequently, they require an early childhood environment that is rich in providing them with social and emotional learning skills which promotes life skills that are indispensable to being a successful lifelong learner (Griswold, 2018:6). Irvin (2017:2), concurs with Griswold that play is an essential aspect of the development of key skills such as social skills and further elaborates that play has an impact on behavioural, language, and cognitive skills. Irvin (2017:2), is in further harmony with Griswold that these skills when developed will become essential skills used not only throughout childhood, but also into adulthood as well (Irvin, 2017:2).

What is the importance of play?

Griswold (2018:8), alludes to a minimum of three ways within which play is crucial for young children:

  1. Ability development
  2. Social development (Griswold, 2018:8),
  3. Imagination, creativity, and power.


Play is the channel in which the above three ways are often fostered and established (Griswold, 2018:9). Through play, children create, discover, experiment, learn, communicate, socialise acclimatise, and problem solve (Vygotsky, 1978 in Sjoerdsma, 2016:1). Ali, Constantino, Hussain & Akhtar (2018: 6808), articulate that play-based learning allows children to participate in purposeful activities that will allow for the simulation of such experiences they are likely to encounter. Thus, the words of Abraham Maslow are fitting in this context, “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play” (Your Therapy Source. n.d.).


According to Lester & Russell, (2008: 9 in Griswold 2018:11), it is believed that play shapes the operational design of the brain and that secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development. Additionally, play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways and creates a brain that has increased ‘flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life’.


Play is one of the most important ways in which young children gain essential knowledge and skills. Pre-primary programmes that advocate for play-based approaches to learning, exploration and hands-on-learning are deemed to be effective at the core. As ultimately, play should involve some degree of agency, enabling children to take on an active role and ownership in their experiences, as well as recognising and trusting children to be competent, self-directed, and agents of their own playful learning journeys (The Lego Foundation UNICEF, 2018:7).


Children develop emotionally through play, as they can master emotional issues such as anxiety, frustration, traumatic situations, unfamiliar concepts, and overwhelming experiences in their play. As a result, play helps children find new ways of dealing with their emotions and their reality. This is achieved by affording them with opportunities to imitate, re-create, and rehearse roles that help them understand and solve problems related to everyday living.

Accordingly, they form relationships, share, cooperate, master their feelings, extend the range of their experience, test ideas, and form associations between objects, events, and concepts. Another key emotional benefit is that there is no right or wrong way to play and children develop positive attitudes. Therefore, children must have multiple experiences in play, which positively impacts their concepts of self (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment, n.d: 271).


Through creativity, children use their imagination to conceive or construct something new. The early years are essential for the development of creativity; young children have many opportunities to express and develop their creative talents (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment, n.d: 271) and given these points a play-based curriculum is crucial in the early years as it is experiential, child-centred, developmentally appropriate, and caters to specific interests of children (Lalani, 2020: 12).

Play-based learning continuum
Play-based learning continuum

Designing the Indoor Learning Environment for play

The design of the indoor play-based learning environment is especially important and should foster the following foundational skills in  kindergarten:

  • Cognition and Problem Solving
  • Social and Emotional Skills
  • Speech and Language Development
  • Fine and Gross Motor Skills

It is important to bear in mind that kindergarten classrooms differ from learning spaces for older learners because of their focus on facilitating individual investigation and playful engagement with materials. Whether it's learners playing together in a group, or a learner independently focused on building with blocks, each area of the kindergarten classroom is dedicated to promoting growth and development which is a foundation for future learning and problem-solving (Early Childhood School Speciality, 2019).


Research has indicated that the way the classroom is arranged and the way it looks are significant because they influence children’s and adults’ behaviour. Therefore, when setting up the play-based classroom, educators should consider the following suggestions:\

  • Learning centres should be multi purposeful and not only serve one specific centre topic.
  • Have as much natural light in the classroom as possible as it not only reduces energy use but, most important, enhances task performance and improves the appearance of an area.
  • Areas such as dramatic play and music should be located opposite to the quiet area, thus allowing each area to have its activities in a comfortable location (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:262).


How does the layout of the classroom affect learning?

An organised play-based learning environment provides learning experiences that focus on child development through play-based activities. When designing the indoor learning environment, not only is the analysis of activities important in the learning environment but the learners’ sensory needs have to be considered as well. Ramazan, Ciftçi & Tezel, (2018 in Lalani, 2020:12), further expands this notion that learning centres should be designed in such a manner that learners are empowered to direct their own learning and are free to make choices.

The learning centres are arranged as per the needs, interests, and skills of children; where the centres are flexible, adaptable and have open-ended materials.


In terms of physical elements, children find the world stimulating, exciting, and challenging and use their senses to discover this new world (Alsaif,.2011: 63). Hence, the layout of an early childhood classroom greatly impacts how efficiently educators can take advantage of and facilitate learning opportunities by ensuring that the learning centres are used optimally and how learners use the tools and supplies.

Learners will be more productive, engaged, and excited about learning new things when the environment accommodates their needs and supports the learning outcomes (Early Childhood School Speciality, 2019).

Play-based learning principles
Play-based learning principles

Safety and the Indoor Environment

Planning for child’s play is an important part of ensuring that the play environment is safe (Griswold, 2018:15). Safety is a priority in terms of the layout where every learner is within the educator’s range of vision. When considering children’s safety, the educator should think beyond the physical aspects of the classroom to ‘emotional safety’. A child that feels welcomed, secure and has their emotional needs met is better equipped to learn and develop.

Furthermore, the culture of a group of young learners comes into play when considering the types of furnishings and materials that will welcome and support young children. The classroom environment should aim to be both comfortable and functional, with thought to creating a sense of familiarity that reflects the family and culture of the home (Early Childhood School Speciality, 2019). Safe, responsive, and nurturing environments are an important part of supporting the learning and development of pre-schoolers.

Such environments also help to prevent challenging behaviours and serve as a core component of interventions for young children with identified disabilities (The IRIS Center, 2022). A supportive environment is well-organised, dependable, and flexible (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021). The indoor environment should provide learners with a secure, nurturing, and safe environment which presents itself as a ‘home away from home’ where they always have a sense of belonging.

The inclusive indoor learning environment

One of the aspects of inclusive education is changing the environment to meet the needs of all learners. It does not only pertain to instruction for learners who require differentiated teaching and learning who learn at different rates, it considers the diverse range of learners to include their cultural, ethnic, and economic status.

Hence, equally important is the design of the classroom and the layout of the different learning centres. An idea is to label centres and frequently used materials in languages that represent the home languages of the children in the classroom including having children bring in pictures of their families for display in the classroom so that they feel comfortable and at home in their environment (The IRIS Center, 2022).

In terms of environmental design, consideration must be paid to the physical space within interest areas or pathways between interest areas to ensure that children with physical or mental disabilities can easily move around and participate. In addition, all children, but particularly children with social or behavioural needs or certain developmental disabilities, must benefit from a designated calming area, where they can easily access materials that help them mollify themselves and where they can spend time alone.

For children with autism or communication difficulties, it can also be helpful to provide multiple visual cues for how to use the spaces and materials. This could include providing a picture of children safely playing in the space within the entrance to each interest area or offering a small series of pictures showing, for example, how a child could pinch or roll clay with their hands or use the available clay tools next to the clay in the art area (The Indoor Environment: Designing and Organizing, 2021).

To effectively do so, educators can apply a concept known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which emphasises that the environment and its materials in it should be accessible to everyone. Creating this ease of access might involve providing books at different reading levels, placing materials within easy reach on a shelf, or creating ample space so that a child who uses a wheelchair can manoeuvre around the classroom (The IRIS Center, 2022).

With this approach in mind, the learning areas should then be set up to stimulate and challenge learners. A learning area is defined as a specific location where instructional materials are placed and organised in a classroom (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. n.d.:259).

Learners who are overwhelmed are less capable of learning and are more likely to contribute to disorder in the classroom. With the right number of materials available, educators can spend more time engaging learners, and less time exercising control in the classroom (Early Childhood School Speciality, 2019). Educators need to ensure that young children with disabilities can fully access and participate in learning experiences. They can do this by making minor changes to the physical environment, such as: (The IRIS Center, 2022).

  • Change or adjust the chairs to meet children’s needs (e.g., making sure the children’s feet touch the floor, using a sensory cushion- a cushion that stimulates learners who crave sensory or tactile input when sitting, having bean bag chairs available).
  • Putting squares or pictures on the floor to indicate where children should line up or sit.
  • Modify materials, such as markers, to make them easier for children with motor difficulties to hold (e.g., using pencil grips).
  • Providing specialised equipment (e.g., built-up handled spoons, adaptive scissors) as recommended by an occupational therapist or physical therapist to help children be more independent.
  • Making room for specialised equipment (e.g., walker) or assistive technology(e.g., communication board).
  • Creating individualised visual materials to help children to take part in daily routines (e.g., flip book) (The IRIS Center, 2022).

Designing play-based learning programs
Designing play-based learning programs

The Indoor Play Environment

The indoor play environment has a significant role in terms of providing a medium for children to ‘learn through play’. According to Kay Redfield Jamison, “Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” (Your Therapy Source. n.d.). It is a necessity as it aids in the holistic development (physical, moral, social, emotional, cognitive, language) as well as the normative development of the child. Through play they learn about their world in which they are active participants and in so doing acquire skills that are a prerequisite for present and future relationships, study purposes including their career trajectory, for world of employment with a focus on their intra and interpersonal skills.

Subsequently, the layout of the indoor play environment is crucial to a learner’s holistic development The learner must be able to engage in meaningful learning opportunities whereby they learn more about themselves whilst they explore and discover the world around them, simultaneously developing their own abilities. For these reasons it is vital to create a stimulating indoor environment that develops learners that are creative, inventive and discoverers.

When planning for play, educators should not only focus on the structure of the environment where it is designed with a focus on the children’s strengths and abilities, but also to expand on the children’s current knowledge to allow for an increase in this knowledge (Griswold, 2018:13). Development and learning are complex and holistic, and yet basic skills across all developmental domains should be encouraged through play, including motor, cognitive, social and emotional skills (The Lego Foundation in support of UNICEF, 2018:8). Permanent learning spaces are normally placed around the perimeter of the classroom or in alcoves where with the movement and flow of the classroom is not hampered (Cox, 2019).


The link below provides insight into the messages that indoor environments send to learners.

Examples of learning areas in the classroom

  1. Discovery
  2. Creative Arts
  3. Music
  4. Dramatic Play
  5. Block or Construction
  6. Cognitive
  7. Writing
  8. Reading
  9. Computer


1. Discovery

The discovery area is children’s gateway to scientific exploration. It contains materials meant for open-ended exploration. A wide variety of natural materials are often displayed for children to explore. Tools for exploration are also provided and some examples are:

  • microscopes,
  • magnifying glasses (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021).
  • aquarium/terrarium (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:262)

2. Creative Art Area


The art area provides opportunities for children to express themselves and develop fine motor skills. Visual art can include painting, drawing, and sculpturing. This is a space for inspiration and creativity. Well-developed art areas include a variety of materials for children to use and explore, such as sponges, rollers, glitter and recycled materials of all types (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021). The art area provides a host of developmental advantages:

  • develop children's creative thinking skills and provide the opportunity for self-expression.
  • provide emotional release and strengthen self-image and self-confidence.
  • develop an appreciation of aesthetics; and develop fine-motor skills.


Types of creative activities include the following:

  • painting free expression.
  • modelling with dough or playdough and making box or container constructions (anti-waste); (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:260)


3. Music Area


As music develops the whole child, there should be a space for children to engage in musical activities. It is important to provide a variety of materials here, such as streamers, ribbons, shakers, musical instruments, and recorded music. The music and movement area can provide an opportunity for dance and rhythm (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021) and has the following benefits:

  • physical, emotional; social; and cognitive development (intellectually),
  • from dancing a pattern such as step forward, step back twirl, clap, and repeat, they begin to understand the features of patterns that are the foundation for mathematics. (The Lego Foundation in support of UNICEF, 2018:8).


4. Dramatic Play Area

The dramatic play area allows children to take on roles and try out new ideas. Children use their imaginations as they cooperate with one another and practice their self-care skills as they try on dress-up clothes. Children may use props to create a bakery, post office, supermarket, or any other scenario. A functional dramatic play area offers children an opportunity to mimic their own home and family themes with props like a kitchen, table, food, and dolls. It is important to offer additional props or dress-up items (culturally sensitive) according to children’s current interests, or ideas currently being exploring (e.g., community helpers such as firefighters or police officers) (Learning Environments: An Introduction, 2021).


Cooperative play is a more sophisticated type of play because it requires the process of negotiation among two or more children. An example of this negotiation process is when children pretend to be a doctor and a patient or a hospital scenario where they learn the rules and roles of those positions (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. n.d.:270). One child pretends to be the doctor, the second a nurse, and the third the patient. First, they negotiate by alternating their roles in the play, then they make suggestions about the plot, and one suggests they pretend (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. n.d.:271). An example is that a patient has fractured their leg and requires a splint.


When children are engaged in playing ‘house’ or ‘dress up,’ they are often interacting with one another, which is important for the development of their language skills as they are applying and adapting their existing knowledge about the real world (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment, n.d: 267). Pretend or ‘symbolic’ play (such as playing house or market) is especially beneficial: in such play, children express their ideas, thoughts, and feelings, learn how to control their emotions, interact with others, resolve conflicts, and gain a sense of competence (The Lego Foundation in support of UNICEF, 2018:8).

During play, children are also able to begin their gender identity process; establish relationships with one another, thus creating a sense of closeness. While engaged in play, children feel safe and can express any part of themselves at that moment without worrying about reprisal (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment, n.d: 267). Furthermore, play is a natural tool that children can use to build their resilience and coping skills, as they learn to navigate relationships and deal with social challenges as well as conquering their fears, for example through re-enacting fantasy heroes (The Lego Foundation in support of UNICEF, 2018:8).


Examples of items to include are:

  • Child-sized kitchen equipment, tables and chairs.
  • Child-sized cleaning equipment (brooms, mops, dustpan).
  • Assorted dolls (multicultural) and assorted dress-up clothing and costumes [multicultural] (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:260)


5. Block or Construction Area

The block area needs to be placed in a corner of the classroom where there is less ‘pedestrian’ traffic. A well-developed block area contains a variety of materials that serve as a stimulus for curiosity and exploration. Children use the block area to explore how things work; they build, create and it is important to include accessories like toy figures, cars, and construction equipment. Block areas should include natural or recycled materials that children can include in their structures.

The accessories available should be changed periodically and be based on children’s current interests and learning goals (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021). As an example, while children are playing, they can try out new social skills (as an example sharing toys, agreeing on how to work together with materials), and they often take on some challenging cognitive tasks by problem-solving (as an example, how to make a building with smaller blocks when the larger ones are not available). They need a lot of practice with solid objects to understand abstract concepts. For example, by playing with geometric blocks they understand the concept that two squares can form a rectangle and two triangles can form a square (The Lego Foundation in support of UNICEF, 2018:8). Examples of items to include are:

  • Blocks of different sizes and block accessories (people, cars, safety signs).
  • Sturdy wooden vehicles (cars, trucks, boats, planes, tractors, fire engines, buses, helicopters) (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:260)

6. Cognitive Area


The cognitive area is a quiet area where children can complete puzzles, play educational games, and play other brain games. Toys and games allow children to develop important thinking skills, social skills, and fine motor skills. The toy and game area can include a range of puzzles, board games, and small objects. This area can provide a good opportunity for children to identify and match colours, shapes, sizes, and textures. It also offers them a chance to practice turn-taking and negotiation, and academic skills (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021).


The cognitive area should consist of the educational toys or games. Examples of items to include are:

  • Educational toys can include the following:
  • jig-saw, body image, inset, seriation, shape, number, and large floor puzzles,
  • picture and alphabet puzzles,
  • dominoes


Manipulative toys, which require the use of the small muscles in the hands. Examples of items to include are:

  • Lego Duplo blocks,
  • beads to thread on laces or pieces of string; lacing cards; peg boards; sewing cards,
  • Games (board games),
  • LEGO bricks (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:261).


Educational games include the following:

  • Number games for counting and matching shapes,
  • Memory games, such as Snap; and picture-matching games (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:261).


7. Writing Area

  • Young children's emergent writing skills can be developed as follows:
  • Provide children with a variety of tools for drawing.
  • Provide the opportunity for them to draw daily.


Examples of some items are:

  • Computer, printer, and typewriter
  • Paper (various colours, sizes, shapes) and writing instruments [pencils, markers] (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:260).


8. Reading and Listening Area

Books should be placed in a quiet part of the room and should be visible to the children. This is a quiet space where children can relax and enjoy reading. This learning area includes a variety of books: fiction, nonfiction, alphabet books, number books, nursery rhymes, magazines, and resource books. It typically includes soft furniture or pillows. Books can be displayed on shelves or in baskets for easy access.

This area can also include a listening station, felt board, literacy activities, or other materials that introduce children to language and print. Although this area supports children’s literacy development, it is important to include print materials (such as books, maps, or magazines) and writing materials in every interest area (Learning Environments: An Introduction. 2021).


Examples of items are:

  • Headphones, tape recorder, tapes, books with tapes, record player
  • Flannel board with stand and flannel pieces
  • Books (professional and published by classroom authors)
  • Magazines (Chapter 10. Play and the Learning Environment. d.:260)


Multicultural Literature

Multicultural literature has special effects for both learners and educators. Learners from the mainstream culture learn that there are other perspectives and ways of doing things that are just as valuable as their own. Multicultural literature can also play a very important role for educators (Boles, 2016: 4). As we have diverse societies, it is crucial that classrooms represent the learners who are active participants within it (Boles, 2016:5). All learners must feel acknowledged, recognised and understood. Hence, it is important that classroom literature, fantasy area, clothes and toys represent diversity.


9. Computer Area

As children are born into a digital age, technological literacy (21st Century Skills) is a key skill that learners need to have. The use of computers, or other technology and media (example, tablets), can provide developmentally appropriate learning opportunities to children of a variety of ages. Computers and the internet can expose children to people, animals, activities, and places that they cannot experience in person. For example, if children are interested in construction, they could use the internet to observe how different trucks operate. Using interactive eBooks and playing games that facilitate learning of letters, letter sounds, and numbers are additional ways children can use computers to meet learning goals (Learning Environments: An Introduction, 2021). Internet safety precautions must be implemented.


Some classes have assigned spaces for learning centres for the duration of the year while educators in smaller classrooms set up the learning centre and take them down as needed. As not all schools have large classrooms to accommodate the different learning areas, and this should not disadvantage the learners from gaining valuable hands-one experience. An idea would be to rotate the learning areas where learners have autonomy and reduce the number of learners in the group or learners could be in pairs. These designated spaces allow children to work collaboratively by accomplishing activities given in an apportioned amount of time (Cox 2019). Another option is setting up the learning area in one available classroom and each class has the opportunity of experiencing the learning areas by making use of a roster.

Benefits of play-based learning
Benefits of play-based learning

The Value of Incorporating Multiple Intelligence in the Indoor Learning Environment

The layout of the indoor classroom and the different learning centres must support the different multiple intelligence and learning styles. Multiple Intelligences (MI) and learning styles are commonly confused with one another, but they are not the same. MI represent different intellectual abilities and strengths, whereas learning styles are about how an individual may approach a task. Learning styles are fluid, and may not correlate completely to the intelligence type (What is Multiple Intelligence Theory? 2022).

The term ‘learning styles’ speaks to the understanding that every learner learns differently. An individual’s learning style refers to the preferential way in which the learner absorbs, processes, comprehends and retains information. For example, when learning how to build a clock, some learners understand the process by following verbal instructions, while others must physically manipulate the clock themselves.

This notion of individualised learning styles has gained widespread recognition in education theory and classroom management strategy. Individual learning styles depend on cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors, as well as prior experience. It is important for educators to understand the differences in their learners’ learning styles, so that they can implement best practice strategies into their daily activities, curriculum, and assessments (Learning Styles, 2020).


Visual: Learners prefer the use of images, maps, and graphic organisers to access and understand new information.

Auditory: Learners best understand new content through listening and speaking in situations such as lectures and group discussions.

Kinaesthetic/Tactile: A kinaesthetic learner is one who needs to be actively engaged in their learning. They are ‘tactile’ learners who use movement, testing, trial and error and a non-traditional learning environment to retain and recall information,

(Learning Styles, 2020)

 Armstrong (1994 in Alsaif, 2011:47), claims that using MI as a learning style is not difficult to implement. For any lesson or theme, educators must link the instructional objective to the multiple intelligences. This is linking the lesson to words, numbers or logic, pictures, music, the body, social interaction and/or personal experience (Alsaif, 2011:47). Thus, incorporating MI withing the indoor learning environment further facilitates the shift from the traditional approaches of learning to play-based programs.

 In conclusion, in the words of Plato “Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play,’ as George Dorsey affirms “Play is the beginning of knowledge.” (Your Therapy Source. n.d.).




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