Play-based learning – learning (such as learning social skills) that occurs when children engage in mostly unstructured leisure activities involving toys, play equipment, digital technology or natural areas.
Play is an essential part of childhood development; much of what children learn in their early years comes from play. Early childhood educators base most of their curriculum on play-based learning combined with regular but short and explicit learning activities. Play is vital for social, emotional, cognitive and physical development. Children experience enjoyment, leisure and relaxation through play. They learn about what their bodies can do, how to interact and negotiate with others and what is (and is not) socially acceptable behaviour. Children use play to learn how communication works: manipulating words, tone, volume and expression for their own ends. Play provides an outlet for excess energy and it is the main source of exercise for children. Physical health, fitness, flexibility, strength, gross motor skills and fine motor skills are the results of play-based activities. Ultimately, play is a learning strategy; a giant experiment where children can explore, make mistakes, reflect and improve.
Children use play to learn how communication works: manipulating words, tone, volume and expression for their own ends.
Play can be unstructured, semi-structured or structured. For unstructured play, adults simply provide resources, guidance, ideas and supervision – they can become involved and even participate, however the children are free to choose how they play. For semi-structured play, teachers add some rules and structure to guide the activity. Quite often, semi-structured play activities lay the foundation for more explicit teacher-led activities such as language learning. Structured play includes more rigid activities such as games, sports, rehearsals and simulations that incorporate adult-imposed rules.
Play-based learning opportunities can also be effective with older students and adults in many ways. Games are effective for learners of all ages. Quizzes are always a crowd favourite and can easily be combined with a series of short, sharp learning opportunities. In adulthood, play-based learning makes way for sports, hobbies, past-times and interests. Play-based learning is an effective strategy for students of all ages because learning is accelerated when it is fun, interesting and exciting. Some research has also shown that light physical activity (including walking) improves cognitive tasks such as problem solving and reasoning.i This is not news to experienced teachers who commonly say things like ‘get their blood flowing’ and ‘get them moving’. Middle school teachers have long used classroom activities that combine movement and learning to help allay boisterous classes.
Quite often, semi-structured play activities lay the foundation for more explicit teacher-led activities such as language learning.
Play-based learning can be used in early childhood as part of a phonics, reading, writing, number sense or numeracy program. For older students, almost all subjects benefit from the occasional game that promotes cooperative learning or competition. Consolidation and revision can be boring and predictable – a game can spice up the lesson and help students commit knowledge to long-term memory. Play-based learning helps stressed students to relax, unwind and reduce their stress. This can be handy in the lead-up to exams or toward the end of the school year. Fun social activities not only help students to relax but they provide a much-needed break from the drudgery of more traditional learning activities.
Unstructured, semi-structured or structured play can be further categorised as being one or more of the following types:
Hint: use play-based learning to get students' attention at the start of the lesson. A short, sharp activity also serves to focus the group on the task ahead and helps students to transition to a learning frame of mind. However, be careful to not whip up too much excitement as students may struggle to settle down afterwards.
Play-based learning is implemented in a similar way to any other teaching strategy. Before the activity, the teacher sets educational goals, ensures that all resources are available and takes a risk-based approach to predict and prevent injury. Before the activity, students should be calm and quiet in order to listen to instructions. Only when all children are paying attention can the teacher explain the rules, boundaries, expectations and consequences. Additionally, best practice involves checking for understanding before children begin the activity. Unfortunately, an all too common mistake is to rush these essential preparatory steps. This type of minor procedural negligence leads to ongoing issues throughout the activity such as behaviour problems and rule breaking. During the activity, teachers should continually scan, watch and predict issues in order to take pre-emptive action. After the activity, students and the teacher should reflect on what they learnt and how they could improve for next time.
Hint: when playing any game, an important rule is that the teacher’s decision is final – no arguments are allowed! If students learn that arguing is effective, chaos will soon ensue.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of FTTA, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.
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