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Play-based learning

Teaching strategies

Play-based learning

A guide for classroom teachers, teacher aides and school managers

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-based learning in a school.

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:

  • Physical play – This involves active movements and physical exertion. It helps to maintain children’s physical wellbeing and fitness. It also develops their gross motor skills, strength, flexibility and coordination. Physical play activities may include jumping, running, kicking, throwing and dancing.
  • Discovery play – This involves activities that encourage children to explore their environment and the resources available to them. They can undertake trial-and-error as well as cause-and-effect types of activities. Discovery play can include activities such as gardening and exploring nature.
  • Creative play – This allows children to express their thoughts and feelings via a creative outlet. It can include painting, drawing, music, dance, creative writing, role plays and performances.
  • Manipulative play – Hands and fingers are the main tools of manipulative play. It helps develop hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills. Activities include threading, cutting, playdough and sand play. Manipulative play requires a high degree of concentration and can be individual or group- based.
  • Social play – Also known as interactive play, social play is when 2 or more children voluntarily interact and communicate with each other during their play. The interaction encourages the development of social skills such as sharing, turn-taking, listening to others, language choice and empathy.
  • Imaginative play – This type of play includes games such as pretend play and role playing. It allows the child to experience life from another person’s perspective.
  • Imaginative play using objects – This is where the child uses small props such as stuffed animals as part of their play. This can help them to explore a wide range of new ideas and concepts.
  • Dramatic play – This is a type of imaginative play where children pretend to be someone (or something) else and interact with each other in an off-the-cuff performance.
  • Noisy play – Noisy play includes activities that are loud such as dancing or construction. Noisy play burns energy and satisfies children’s desire to socialise.
  • Quiet play – Quiet play includes more passive activities such as reading, puzzles, drawing and painting. Quiet play is used to calm students down or when the teacher is worried about distracting other classes.

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.

Foot notes:

  1. Gomez-Pinilla, F., & Hillman, C. (2013). The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities. Comprehensive Physiology, 3(1), 403–428. https://doi.org/10.1002/cphy.c110063

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an 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 Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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