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Play-Based Learning: What It Is and Why It’s Important

Play-Based Learning

Play-based learning is an approach to early education that involves both child-directed and teacher-guided play. Through this approach, children are encouraged to enquire, question and solve problems through hands-on activities.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development suggests that human cognizance is a reorganization of thought processes that happens over time as a result of both biological maturation and learning through experience. Between birth and the age of 11 children progress through 4 key developmental stages on their way to being fully rational, human beings.

Play-Based Learning: What It Is and Why It’s Important
Play-Based Learning: What It Is and Why It’s Important

Piaget suggests that the Preoperational Phase of development, which happens between the ages of 3 and 7 years, is the stage at which children begin to understand language and expand their imagination. Engaging in games such as role playing and other highly social activities is the type of developmental play that forms the basis of the child’s creativity and socio behavioral patterns that will last into adulthood.

Encouraging children to explore, enquire and solve problems during this highly important stage of life is paramount to their intellectual and social development. This is why providing a play-based learning environment or outdoor education area that encourages both child directed, and teacher guided play is essential.

Why play?

Play serves a crucial function in children’s development. Through play, children practice language, develop social skills, learn how to regulate emotions and even begin to grasp mathematical and scientific concepts.

Children are also wired to play. It is entirely natural for them, regardless of where they live or their situation. A play-based approach to education builds on this natural motivation and curiosity. It allows children to learn at their own pace and absorb information about the world in ways that are easier for them to grasp and retain.

How does a play-based approach differ from tradition?

The more traditional, teacher-directed approach to learning involves rote learning of facts, textbooks, worksheets, testing and meeting specific standards.

While formal learning approaches have their place, the evidence shows a play-based approach enables younger children to learn in the way that is most natural to them and in line with their development.

What is the evidence?

There is considerable evidence in favour of a play-based approach for younger children.

For example, a US study shows primary school children who had experienced a play-based approach in preschool had better outcomes later on. This included better transition to a school environment and higher overall grades. Children from traditional-approach preschools were shown to be the least successful in these areas.

The expectation of many adults might be that preschool is for play and formal learning should begin in early primary school. However, there is emerging research that a play-based approach in early primary school as well can lead to better outcomes.

A six-month Australian study of first-year students found that children in a play-based curriculum significantly improved in vocabulary and grammar knowledge and other measures compared to those in a traditional-learning group.

The downsides of a traditional approach before kids are ready for it can include increased stress, decreased motivation, lower achievements and behavioural problems.

What schools can do to encourage play

Schools can facilitate the play-based approach in various ways. This includes incorporating playgrounds that encourage children to explore, play cooperatively and invent games and ideas. Examples include outdoor objects and features that offer a diversity of shapes, colours, sizes and locations.

Schools can offer spaces for:

  • Thinking 
    A good play area encourages a child to use their problem solving skills, allowing them to further develop these skills. Play areas should be filled with equipment that encourages and challenges children to problem solve independently and in groups through their play.
  • Doing
    The physical activities involved in any good play area allow children to be curious and adventurous with a positive affect on their physical health. By learning to take risks in a controlled yet safely challenging environment children gain confidence and assuredness through play. An adventurous and active child becomes a capable adult.
  • Being 
    Giving children the autonomy to explore and play on their own allows them to develop their imaginations and identities. When they play together or individually they are able to understand more about socialising and roleplay. These qualities will foster better development and help them define who they are through play.
  • Feeling 
    Engaging and stimulating the 5 senses is important in order to foster holistic development for children engaging in play. Equipment like sand pits, balance beams, and nature play areas encourage children to use their sense of touch, spatial awareness, and balance.

A US study shows primary school children who had experienced a play-based approach in preschool had better outcomes later on.

University of Illinois

Why school playgrounds matter

Teachers often think of specific locations to support play-based learning. But there’s one place within the school that is perfect for a variety of spontaneous play-based exploration: the school playground. It offers wide open spaces better suited to active play. Without the space restrictions of a classroom, it allows for larger groups of kids to play together.

Play-based learning should always be supervised and safe, without being overbearing and still allowing children to make their own decisions. So while playground equipment offers unlimited opportunities for exploration and learning, school administrators and teachers should deliberately choose and use play structures that best encourage outdoor education.

If you already have existing play structures, you can get creative with how you use the components. For instance, when children are on slides or swings, you can ask them to practice counting while taking their turn. Are you building a new playground or expanding an existing outdoor play space? Look for age-appropriate equipment that encourages play-based learning, such as a panel with a maze or tiny train rockers.

Sensory play areas complement the outdoor education approach. You can choose to integrate musical instruments into the design of your new playground. Varied textures on the play surfaces also work well.

Themed playgrounds also support imaginative play. With a nautical or castle-themed play space, you can promote language and emotional development by asking kids to tell stories based on their surroundings.

Through play-based learning, educators can introduce and reinforce concepts children need to learn — in a way that engages kids’ interests. Capitalise on children’s natural sense of discovery by creating spaces that allow for it. adventure+ is here to help you develop a playground that encourages outdoor education.

Consult with Us

With over 35 years of experience in developing innovative play areas for thousands of children across Australia, we can help you build a play space in your school that thrills students and supports play-based learning.

If you would like to know more about how playground design can complement learning and facilitate positive play for children, get in touch with us for a consultation.

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