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Classful

For young kids, the education they receive in school is crucial to their academic development and personal growth.

The things they learn in your classroom will give them the skills they will take with them to progress throughout their education, careers, and social lives. This is why early years education is one of the most impactful vocations of our society – it’s shaping the minds of our future leaders and designing the future one class at a time. If you’re an early years teacher, you’ve probably heard of play-based learning, and we’re here to tell you the power of it.

Play-based learning has often come under scrutiny with a divide on where educators stand on its importance and usefulness. In this article, we will debunk the misconceptions about this incredibly beneficial approach to teaching and give helpful insight into the benefits of play-based learning and how you can appropriately introduce and manage it in your classroom. For more information, read on for our helpful guide. Make learning fun and reap the benefits.

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What is play-based learning?

There’s often been a common misconception surrounding the word ‘play’ when being referred to in a classroom setting. Many parents and even some educators make a general association with free time and time away from their studies. But most don’t realize that playing is a crucial part of a child’s life, and research has shown that playing is beneficial to a child’s development and crucial. The distinction between ‘play’ and ‘learning’ is false. As we learn more about the development of a child’s brain, we see that the two do not have to exist separately and, when paired together, offer a lot more stimulation and engagement than once believed.

Early childhood educator and acclaimed author Erika Christakis agrees with this and argues that kindergarten and elementary classrooms often devalue play and prioritize direct instructional learning or ‘seat time’. However, she states that play is the “defining feature” of all mammalian development that you see it linger in the lives of the kids who experience it. In a 2019 interview with Eutopia, Christakis stated that “their life expectancies are longer and their social-emotional capabilities are more robust when they have the chance to learn through play and deep relationships, and when their developing brains are given a chance to grow in a nurturing, language-rich, and relatively unhurried environment.”

She also argues that trapping young kids in educational spaces that too often feel joyless, dreary, and alienating is a poor approach to education. Yet, it somehow has an outdated hold on the system. She claims that “the notion that there is something of value in being a little kid – with little kid desires and, above all, needs – seems to have fallen out of favor.” This means that what little kids offer, that undeniable innocence and ability to dream and imagine, has been overlooked in schools to cater to a more regimented approach which has caused their needs to take a back seat.

To define play-based learning, we could say it is an in-between of the two that combines them to meet common ground. This middle path is known as ‘guided play‘ and is the most favorable play-based learning style. It acts as a ‘middle-ground’ between free play and direct instruction, incorporating both benefits.

The guided play incorporates the key elements of play, such as wonder, exploration, and student agency, into loosely structured lessons that are to be gently supported by teachers. This provides an ‘optimal’ approach for students. This is where play is incorporated into learning in the sense that it encourages discovery and imagination with the helpful guide of teachers to remain focused and supported. It’s the perfect balance between the two and challenges the current structure without causing distraction and interruption.

What are the benefits of play-based learning?

There are many benefits to play-based learning and the inclusion of this in schools, especially in the early years. It is widely acknowledged that children are more engaged when they are interested in what they are doing, so for engagement and interaction purposes, play-based learning is a great way to interest and stimulates young children’s minds.

Mental development

A clear benefit of play-based learning is how it helps develop social and emotional skills. Giving children the time to explore and express their feelings without pressure or expectations is crucial to their development. Understanding and exploring their own emotions from an early age will better the relationships they build in the future. The gift of self-awareness and understanding your emotions is an excellent skill. It will help them to regulate their emotions which will improve behavior and help in later life when in situations that may be very stressful or anxiety fuelled. Understanding their own emotions will also help them to understand other people, which will better their empathy skills, relationships, communication skills, and general caring for other people’s well-being.

Literacy skills

It will also help with literacy skills. Play is a key tool for language development which is why it’s very important to introduce play-based learning throughout their early years of education. Parents and teachers supervising can use this time to encourage conversations and introduce new words. The spontaneity of the play environment allows this to happen organically in a fun way tailored to a child’s interests.

Physical development

Another benefit is that it will help with physical development. Play is the sole method for improving essential motor skills such as balance and spatial awareness. Physical activities that happen during play are essential to childhood development.

Creativity

Creativity and imagination are one of the best attributes a child can have. Their ability to dream and believe should be kept and encouraged for as long as possible. Imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm, and persistence develop through play. Peers and teachers can support the inquiry-based nature of it. Keep children questioning and searching. It’s how they will grow their minds and look for ways to better our world in the future.

Another benefit is how it helps with critical thinking. It allows kids to develop critical thinking, which means their ability to analyze information, put it to make sense of it, and apply it in the context of the environment.

Attitudes towards learning

Play also encourages a positive attitude toward learning. By incorporating what the children enjoy, with the direction of teachers in ‘guided play,’ you help your students associate learning with fun. It will make for a more positive outlook on learning and keep them interested and engaged for a long time, which is much more productive and likely to improve retention and memory.

Children can also learn about the world through play; interaction with others and their senses help with intellectual development. A first-hand example of the intellectual development triggered by play is its prominent contribution to a child’s imagination. Children can enrich their imagination through roleplay and storytelling.

Freedom of choice

Finally, another benefit of play-based learning is that it gives students the freedom and choice over their actions and play behavior which can teach them about responsibility and cater their learning development to their needs and interests. Effective play-based learning should be child-led when possible. This will cultivate a safe environment for a child to showcase and explore their agency, motivation, and curiosity. It will also allow them to make their own decisions and respond to social interactions by themselves, which is great for their personal development and will strengthen their individuality and independence.

How do I introduce play-based learning into my classroom

There are many ways to bring play-based learning into your lesson plans and classroom. You should keep certain things in mind to make this time as effective as possible. Some of these key things to remember are:

  • Play with an objective in mind – this is one of the essential tips and will encourage effective development. Before introducing the guided-play time, you should have a ‘learning goal’ in mind. This will allow you to cater to and design the play session in a way that will specifically nurture the development of specific skills. This can change each day; however, this focused learning will make your play learning time most useful and help your kids get the most out of it.
  • Don’t pull the string too tight – keeping the previous tip in mind, it’s still important to know your limits. This should still be time for the kids to learn and grow independently, so you don’t want to make this time too structured. It’s ‘guided’ play, not ‘control’ play, so make sure to find a good balance.
  • Structure your classroom deliberately with spaces for specific areas – this will make this learning time accessible and allow you to choose where they go.

There are also many fun and interactive activities you can use in your classroom to introduce play-based learning. Below are some of these:

  • Sand play
  • Water play
  • Play-doh
  • Dress up and roleplay
  • Doll and character play
  • Drawing and painting
  • Blocks, jigsaws, and shape sorters
  • Music, dancing, and singing
  • Imaginative play
  • Running, jumping, climbing, and swinging
  • Nature play
  • Sensory play
  • Board games
  • Cooking/pretend cooking

These activities offer excellent skills for little ones and will help build the development skills they need to progress through their education and in later life.