Anyone who’s ever watched a toddler play with water and different-sized containers has seen play-based learning in action. A child will fill up a big container and tip the water into smaller ones, watching it overflow and trickle away. This play is an example of very young children exploring volume, gravity, viscosity and, as they repeat their experiment, work with the scientific method.
Trusting the desire of young children to learn about their world, in their own exploratory way, is at the heart of play-based learning. Numerous blogs and Pinterest boards are devoted to the notion of play-based learning; there’s also broad organisational and academic research extolling its benefits.
In spite of the support for play-based learning, some are moving to encourage very young children into a more structured approach to education. In the UK, there is a move towards what professionals call the “schoolification of toddlers”. This phenomenon would see children as young as two start formal school (as in, a sitting-at-a-desk-type school). This move towards “formal learning” or “structured learning” is in opposition to the more informal, play-based approach advocated by many organisations, including Early Childhood Australia, C&K and the Queensland Studies Authority.
What is play-based learning?
The basis of play-based learning is the idea, promoted by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, that play is a vehicle for children making meaning.
However, it doesn’t mean that adults just allow the children to muck about and do whatever they want. Rather, it involves adults guiding, extending and evaluating the child’s play to engage them more deeply with the learning process. It’s an approach that gives autonomy to the child, who is able to engage with their play to learn.
As researchers have noted, the play and learning are indivisible and are an important part of the child’s engagement with the world.
Play-based learning is central to the Australian government’s Early Years Learning Framework. The framework advocates play-based learning as an approach that meets the needs of individual children while maximising adult interaction and meaningful observations. One criticism of the national curriculum is that it doesn’t have enough emphasis on play.
But what does it look like? Play-based learning generally involves the construction and manipulation of various materials. Ideally, adults will provide a variety of materials while also providing incidental teaching.
For example, a craft box may be prepared and a child may decide to make a likeness of their imaginary friend. The teacher will have conversations with the children such as, “what are you making?”, “how did you make this part?”, “what is your friend’s name?” and “what is your friend’s favourite colour?”. Incidental teaching is occurring through these conversations.
During this time, the child is developing their creativity as well as their literacy and numeracy knowledge. The educator is required to take on many roles, and be flexible within those roles. In addition, the child’s work will contribute to the assessment of skills and knowledge.
What are the benefits and pitfalls?
Play-based learning has many benefits. Several researchers argue that it facilitates learning and development, and it has been described as 'the work of children'. Play-based learning has been said to promote children’s development of problem-solving abilities, and it’s also believed to assist children’s developing bodily and communicative skills.
Play-based learning is thought to develop emotional regulation and children’s self-control. It is inexpensive, as scraps can be used to stimulate the children’s creativity.
Early Childhood Australia lists the benefits as fostering the child’s brain development, especially in terms of memory, language, self-regulation, academic learning and flexibility.
However, most academics seem to be in agreement that play-based learning is suitable only for the early years, and how you actually define play is much debated. A further disadvantage, related to the problems with definition, is that it is often not implemented in classroom settings.
There are practical challenges too, with teachers' beliefs influencing the implementation of play-based learning. There is also limited understanding of what play means to young children, and how it progresses in early childhood.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.
Rebecca English is a lecturer in education at the Queensland University of Technology.