Play-Based Learning: How does it work?

Thrive Psychology Clinic > Blog > Play-Based Learning: How does it work?

June 10, 2021 / By thadmin2

Play is an essential and enjoyable part of childhood and children are naturally motivated to play. While play is important, learning is also needed during these crucial years of development. Play-based learning cleverly leverages on this motivation and uses play as a context for learning. 


Play-based learning approach encompasses two forms – child-initiated and guided play. Child-initiated play allows children to explore the world around them freely and independently, which gradually builds up their confidence in their own abilities. While this may foster social competence and the development of their self-regulation abilities, free play alone is not sufficient in promoting academic learning. Another form of play-based learning is guided play, which is necessary to facilitate your child’s academic learning. In this case, parents take on an active role of a guide, creating a nurturing and safe environment suitable for their child to engage with.


Simply put, play-based learning is to learn while at play. It is essential that parents encourage their children to engage in play-based learning during early childhood as that is when a child’s mind is most malleable. This is crucial as such a learning approach forms the foundation for children to develop a sense of inquisitiveness which in turn enables active participation in their own learning. 


Play-Based VS Traditional Academic Learning 


You may wonder, what is the difference between play-based and academic learning? In general, play-based learning is child-centric and focuses on holistic development. Parents or educators tend to take on the role of a facilitator while children take the lead in their learning through play experiences. On the other hand, traditional academic learning emphasises on the development of cognitive abilities through routined, structured activities and frameworks. 


Here is an example to put things in perspective, imagine a lesson on animals. In play-based learning, an aged-appropriate animal that the child is interested in or adores will be involved. Parents or educators will have open-ended discussions and conversations about the animal with the child, while the children feeds or pats it. In contrast, traditional classroom academic teaching has specific topics that are set in a structured curriculum. For example, using a textbook, educators or parents will teach and discuss with the children about a general animal’s habitat, anatomy, life cycle etc. 


What are the benefits reaped by incorporating Play-Based Learning?  


Play-based learning is valuable for strengthening many areas of development. One of the main benefits children can attain from this approach is the development of their cognitive abilities while having fun. Being involved and in charge of their own play stimulates a child’s curiosity and drive for exploration, developing their motivation to learn. This in turn also promotes focus and concentration that enables children to engage in a flexible, higher-order level of critical thinking that is deemed as an important skill in the 21st century. Alongside the development of their critical thinking abilities, they also gradually develop a myriad of other skills including problem solving, gain literacy and language skills.


Children can also develop their socio-emotional skills through play-based learning. Social-emotional learning is when children can apply the knowledge and techniques learnt which are necessary to understand their own and others emotions, practice empathy, and be able to establish and maintain positive relationships with people around them. The social aspect of play encourages children to form friendships and learn how to cooperate and work with others. It also offers them the opportunity to learn how to resolve conflicts. Through certain forms of play, such as “pretend” play, children will learn to recognise the differences between themselves and others, which facilitates their learning of perspective-taking as children take on different roles and characters during make-believe play. They will be able to see how others might think differently from themselves and be able to safely explore the possible impacts of their actions in the real world. Furthermore, such play fosters the process of establishing a sense of self, which steers children towards becoming confident and motivated learners. 


Children’s physical development, which incorporates both gross and fine motor skills, can also be fostered through play-based learning. Through play, children build their muscle mass and develop body coordination. For example, children build their muscle mass through running, jumping, swinging and so on, during outdoor play. 


How parents can implement Play-Based Learning for your child


There are 5 key elements that constitute play-based learning:

  1. Voluntary: The duration, which toy and type of play is decided by the child. Parents may initiate and facilitate the play, however, play should be directed by the child, where he/she is able to freely choose what they want to do based on their interest or what they are curious about.
  2. Pleasurable: The activity/play should be enjoyable for the child. This is essential as it keeps the child interested and allows them to stay engaged in the activity. There may be some bumps and frustrations along the way, however, the overall feeling children should have during the play is joy and pleasure.
  3. Meaningful & Interactive: Through play, children are encouraged to interact with other individuals and explore the environment around them. This allows them to make meaningful connections between objects, people, events and the environment. 
  4. Process-oriented: This implies that the focus should be on the process of the play rather than on the end-goal. In fact, there is no need to have a fixed or rigid goal, since play should be unstructured.
  5. Imaginary: Play can be make-believe and often involves “pretend play”. Imaginary play gives children the opportunity to explore different scenarios as well as the possible implications of their actions through their behaviours and actions within that scenario. This allows them to discover new challenges, find solutions to these challenges which will result in a deepened understanding about the world around them. 

Ultimately, the goal is to allow children to freely learn through play, based on things that intrigue them. There is no one fixed way to carry out play-based learning. Play activities incorporated during this approach can be as simple as outdoor play at the beach or as intricate as using a science kit to conduct simple age-appropriate science experiments. Here are some additional tips that may be of help to parents when implementing play-based learning approach:


  • Monitoring screen time: 


With the increasing number of young children who are becoming active users of technological devices, parents are strongly encouraged to keep track of the amount of time that their child spends on the phone/tablets etc. It is important to find a good balance between the amount of screen time and time spent on activities such as outdoor play, which can in turn hone their self-discipline and time-management skills. Additionally, ensure that all digital devices and background electronic noise are switched off to eliminate distractions for your child as they are completing the activity/task at hand. 


  • Running Commentaries & Asking questions 


Running commentaries, in the context of play, is essentially giving a continuous description of what the child is doing, feeling and looking at in the moment. For example, parents can say “Wow, I can see that you have stacked up many blocks of lego bricks! It is getting really tall!”. The commentary, however, should be age-appropriate and tailored to the child’s level of proficiency in speech. Running commentary is one of the easiest ways to promote your child’s learning of language, tone and facial expressions which in turn promotes their social-emotional skills. Furthermore, research shows that when adults pay such attention to their play, children tend to stay attentive to the activity for a longer period of time. Parents can further facilitate play by asking questions based on the child’s actions, and offer open-ended suggestions so as to stimulate the child’s mind and allow them to achieve their learning goals. 


  • Providing a positive learning environment:


While children are still in charge of their own actions and decisions during play, parents are advised to take on an active role of a mentor. Parents can do so by preparing the environment in a certain way, for example, by providing certain types of toys and responding sensitively to children’s actions – such as using running commentaries as mentioned earlier. By providing such a positive environment, children will begin to feel more confident and validated. Over time, this contributes to the build up and maintenance of their self-esteem and competence levels, allowing them to transform into capable and resilient individuals.  


Here at Thrive Psychology clinic, we are committed to helping all children and adolescents thrive! As such, we offer a variety of services and interactive workshops which seek to inculcate and develop the important and necessary skills in our children and youth. Our goal is to get an accurate read on your child’s experiences so that we can create an individualized intervention plan that targets their unique needs. If you would like to find out more about our services or workshops, do contact us and we would be more than happy to assist you!