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How Play Shapes Learning and Development

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24th November 2020

Are you aware that learning through play in early childhood education can help learners succeed in school and life?

The importance of early learning in students’ development is integral. This is why it is entrenched in the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For parents, the school in which you enroll your child for preschool is crucial. On the other hand, educators need to find the best learning programs to help activate each child’s potential. In this regard, learning through play has emerged as an ideal option as it offers the necessary stimulation to engage children as they learn.

In this article, you will find insight into play-based learning and find out what to look for in such a program.


What is Play-based Learning?

Children are naturally curious and love playing. Play-based learning programs use their motivation to play as the foundation of learning. Instead of the ordinary teacher-student instruction method, creative and playful methods help learners explore, experiment, and understand concepts.

Such programs incorporate both teacher-supported and student-initiated learning. Since play is an enjoyable activity that comes naturally to children, such a learning program motivates them to learn. Through it, they are able to improve language and numerical skills as well as develop social skills.

What are the Elements of Play-based Learning?

There are key elements that help distinguish play-based learning from other programs. They include:

  • Unstructured: There are no rules or predetermined plans to guide activities to allow children to explore and discover as they play.
  • Enjoyable: For it to qualify as play, children must enjoy the experience, even if there may be some disagreements here and there.
  • Self-chosen: Adults may initiate and invite children to play, but children are not required to oblige, and they are the ones who determine how they’ll play and for how long.
  • Process-oriented: Focus is on the process of play rather than a learning objective.
  • Make-believe: To spur creativity, activities often involve make-believe games.

How Does Learning Through Play Compare to Academic Learning?

Some early learning programs have thus far focused on academics. Teachers develop curriculum to help preschoolers learn colors, sounds, shapes, and letters. Such programs have a predetermined routine and are controlled by the teachers.

Rather than placing emphasis on teaching cognitive skills, play-based learning focuses on developing a child in a holistic manner. This is by encouraging their inquisitive nature, building their confidence, social-emotional learning, and developing cognitive skills.

These programs differ in focus areas and learning methodology.

Advantages of Learning Through Play

Play-based learning has significant variations from academic learning and allows children to learn in a different way. Some of the benefits it offers include:

  • It is engaging as children choose activities and topics.
  • Through constant interaction, children develop social skills which are crucial in life.
  • It helps develop language skills.
  • It fosters imagination and creativity.

Compared to academic programs, play-based learning does not focus too much on loading children with information. However, research shows that children who go through play-based programs outperform those from academic programs in areas such as working memory, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility.

Disadvantages of Play-based Learning

Learning through play helps develop children in a holistic way. However, it also has some downsides, such as:

  • The program may not expose children directly to scientific concepts, letters, and numbers
  • Compared to students in traditional academic programs, children may perform worse on standardized tests

Advantages of Academic Programs

  • Children may have a better grasp of academic concepts when joining kindergarten.
  • It’s easy to predict future academic success by monitoring early attention skills.

Disadvantages of Academic Programs

Despite performing better on standardized tests than students that learn through play, the gap disappears by the first grade.

  • Students are more likely to have behavior problems.
  • The structured format may cause children to lose interest in learning.
  • Due to the format of testing, children who do not perform well may lose confidence.
  • Too much structure inhibits curiosity and creativity.
  • Rote memorization of academic concepts is not the same as comprehension of an academic concept

How Play-based Learning Environments Support Children’s Development

One of the biggest challenges for parents with this learning environment is that it is not easy to gauge progress or whether a child is learning at all. In most cases, it seems like children are just having a good time.

However, playing has a much bigger impact on children than what is evident. Results from multiple studies show that playing significantly boosts a child’s development in the following areas.

Cognitive Development

Though play-based learning does not focus on cognitive tasks, it helps children develop in areas such as language learning, problem-solving, and interpretation of sensations. Some of the activities that support healthy brain development include:

  • Make-believe games boost imagination.
  • Art and drawing activities teach them how to convey meaning through symbols, thus increasing their understanding of the purpose of writing.

Physical Development

Through playing actively, children develop physically. This is more than just growth but develops their gross and fine motor skills, balance, and coordination. Due to energy expenditure, such activities also improve eating and sleeping habits, promoting overall body health. Researchers have also identified an association between early childhood play and active lifestyles in adulthood.

Social-Emotional Development

Over the course of life, one comes across different types of people and experiences many things that elicit varying emotions. Regardless of whether good or bad, one must be able to respond in a manner that’s suitable for them and those around them.

As they play and interact, different situations and challenges will arise. Through such early exposure, children become better placed to understand and manage their emotions.

Social-emotional skills such as self-help, dressing and undressing oneself, using the restroom and other personal care skills independently, getting along with others, advocating for oneself are all skills that are critically important for a child to have before they get to kindergarten.

How to Choose a Suitable Play-based Program

The quality of play-based programs can vary significantly. Therefore, it is crucial to know what exactly you want from one. As you assess institutions, take a look at how much the elements of play-based learning are observed. This will give you a clear indication of what to expect.
Do you want to enroll your child in a learn-through play institution? Wonderschool is a platform that makes it easy for parents to find play-based learning institutions. Explore our network of programs to find one that’s suitable for your child.