Clear Filters

Play-Based Learning: Why It’s Essential for Young Children

In your search for the right preschool, you may have come across programs that label themselves as “play-based”. Play-based learning is a common term in the early childhood education world. But what does it really mean?

In this post, we’ll take a look at what play-based learning is, how it compares to academic-based preschools, and how play-based learning prepares children for kindergarten – even if doesn’t seem to.


If you decide play-based learning is right for your family, we will also discuss what to look for in a play-based program and where you can find one near you!

Learning through play is child-led and open-ended

Play-based learning is a type of early childhood education based on child-led and open-ended play. If you’re picturing preschoolers finger painting or ‘playing house’, you’re spot on.

Play itself is a voluntary, enjoyable activity with no purpose or end goal. Believe it or not, activities like this lay the foundation for a child to become a curious and excited learner later in life. Play-based learning helps children develop social skills, motivation to learn, and even language and numeracy skills. Taking initiative, focused attention, and curiosity about the world are all a part of play.

Children are naturally wired to do the very thing that will help them learn and grow. According to the NAEYC, “The impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world.”

What play is NOT

Play is not ‘work’. Play is not directed or prescribed by an adult and there’s no desired outcome in play like in more ‘work-oriented’ activities. While both ‘play’ and ‘work’ can contribute to a child’s development, they are different from each other.

Recently, certain activities have been labeled as “play-based learning” when in fact they’re gamified work. For example, using a song or game to get children to differentiate between “big A” and “little a” is not play-based learning – it’s work disguised as play. (But it’s still a great idea to make learning fun by turning it into a game!)

A good way to differentiate the two is if there’s an agenda for the activity, it’s likely not true play-based learning. Your kid won’t get the same benefits they would from true play-based learning (they may get different benefits though!)

Elements of play-based learning

Play-based learning includes the following elements:

  • Self chosen: A child voluntary chooses to play, how they’ll play, and for how long. An adult may initiate play insofar as he or she invites or suggests play but the child determines the rest.
  • Enjoyable: Play is enjoyable for the child. This emotional aspect is important. There may be some frustrations or disagreements during play but overall it’s pleasurable.
  • Unstructured: A child has ample time to explore and discover during play. They’re directed by their own interests, not by any prescribed rules or plans.
  • Process-oriented: There is no end or learning goal. Instead, it’s the process of play that’s important.
  • Make believe: Play often involves imagination, ‘make believe’, or ‘playing pretend’.

Definitions of play-based versus academic learning

Play-based and academic preschools differ in overall learning theory as well as day-to-day activities.

Learning through play helps a child develop holistically through social-emotional learning, developing confidence and motivation, and practicing cognitive skills. The academic or traditional approach to early childhood education is more focused on teaching young children cognitive skills and knowledge through structure and routine.

In play-based learning, children choose their own activities for the day. The room is often broken up into sections or stations like a block area, dramatic play area, and reading nook, among others. Play-based programs are also sometimes called ‘child-centered’ because the children guide their own learning with their curiosity and interests.

Meanwhile, academic programs are teacher-led and meant to prepare children for kindergarten. The teacher comes up with activities or games to help children learn letters and distinguish shapes, sounds, and colors. Children may spend time practicing handwriting or filling in worksheets. These programs are typically very structured with a daily routine and lots of activity prep from the teacher.

You may encounter a program that incorporates a little bit of both. Different parts of the day may be reserved for different types of learning.

You may also see a program that combines play-based learning with other learning philosophies like Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia.

“Play is the work of the child.” – Maria Montessori

Pros and Cons of Play-based vs Academic programs

Both play-based learning and academic learning have their pros and cons. Choosing one or the other for your child will depend on what you’re looking for in an early education program and how your child learns best.

Play-based learning programs: Pros

  • Children get to choose their own activities and topics and this keeps them interested
  • Contributes to kindergarten readiness:
    • Play helps develop social skills and children with social skills are more successful in academics later on
    • Children in play-based programs score better on measures of self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory (Diamond et al. 2007). Self-regulation and impulse control is predictive of later academic success

Play-based learning programs: Cons

  • Children may not be exposed directly to learning letters, numbers, or scientific concepts
  • Children may not score as highly on standardized testing (until after first grade)

Academic programs: Pros

  • Early attention skills are predictive of academic success later on
  • Children are more familiar with academic subjects by the time they enter kindergarten

Academic programs: Cons

  • Can cause children to lose interest because they are being told what to learn and do
  • Children in academic programs have been shown to score higher on standardized tests than their counterparts but this gap closes by first grade
  • Children in academic programs often have more behavior problems than those in play-based programs
  • Teaching academics earlier doesn’t lead to faster cognitive development
  • One of the most important things children need is self-confidence and judging them and telling them their ideas are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ instills the opposite. It can make them feel ashamed or embarrassed for trying.
  • Teacher-led learning can dampen creativity and curiosity (Fuller et al. 2017)

How do play-based environments support children’s development?

You may be wondering, how is my child learning if they’re just playing all day?! What do kids learn through play?

Even if it looks like your kid is just having fun, play has a major impact on their development in every way.

As the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.”

Studies have conclusively shown play contributes to the following types of child development:

Social-emotional development

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is when children “acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Children develop socially and emotionally through play as they imagine the world from a different perspective, understand the differences between themselves and others, learn how to interact with others, and more.

  • Trying on different roles during play helps children learn how other people feel and think. When they role play and act out scenarios, they’re exploring the possibilities of their actions in the real world.
  • The social aspect of play helps children build friendships and learn how to cooperate and work together. It offers opportunities for them to learn to resolve conflict (Blasi & Hurwitz 2012, Erickson 1985, Pellegrini & Smith 1998).
  • Playing with others also helps children establish a sense of self. They can initiate play and make decisions, which empowers them to become confident and motivated learners.
  • Creating art in a play-based learning environment exposes children to process vs product-focused art. Process-focused art experiences have no rules and no examples to guide the children. There is no right or wrong way to create. Meanwhile, product-focused art is based on instructions and guided by examples the teacher makes. In this type of art, there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to create. Process focused art benefits children by allowing them to express their feelings or ideas the way they want to and they feel successful no matter what they make.
  • Play reduced stress and serves as an outlet for anxiety

Cognitive development

Cognitive development is a child’s growing ability to use their intellect to process information. It includes problem-solving, language learning, and the interpretation of sensations.

Play has been shown to support healthy brain development (Shonkoff & Phillips 2000, Frost 1998). It also engages a child’s mind and helps them hone early literacy and language skills, sensation and perception, and even basic science and math.

  • Doing art like making collages or adding names to drawings helps children learn to represent ideas through images, use letters to convey meaning, and understand the purpose of writing.
  • When children play, they use their imagination. Imagination is all about symbols: a laundry basket symbolizes a car, a stick symbolizes a fishing rod, and so on. Understanding symbols is key to reading and writing, as letters are symbols. The same goes for mathematical concepts and numbers.
  • During dramatic play, children use language to talk to each other. They represent and act out stories, practicing their language and storytelling skills.
  • Children develop an elementary understanding of scientific concepts as they learn how the world around them works. For example, what happens when you stack one block on top of another or what the feathers of a bird feel like.

Physical development

Physical development refers to gross and fine motor skills development and how a child uses their body. Through play, children build muscle mass and coordination, explore different tactile experiences, and get a healthy amount of exercise.

  • Art and play expose children to different tactile experiences. They learn about the feeling of wooden blocks, soft plushy toys, wet paint, and more.
  • Play increases physical activity when compared to passive forms of entertainment like watching TV or playing games on an iPad (Burdette & Whitacker 2005).
  • Children build muscle mass and coordination as they jump, climb, swing, run, and move during play.

But will my child be ready for kindergarten?

The short answer is yes.

In a time when children are being pressured to achieve academic success before they even get to kindergarten, it’s important to look at the evidence that play-based learning absolutely prepares children for school.

Play-based learning contributes to kindergarten readiness

According to a study conducted by the Gesell Institute for Human Development, even though kindergarten has become increasingly focused on academic skills, children pass cognitive milestones at the same rate as in the past, before kindergarten became this serious.

In this study, researchers did cognitive assessments with children ages 3-6 in schools across the country and found there was no significant difference in development between these children and children from past studies from 1925, 1940, 1964 and 1979. Ultimately, teaching academic skills earlier does not affect a child’s natural pace of development.

It’s important that when your kid gets to kindergarten, they’re comfortable in a school setting, comfortable engaging with other children, and excited to learn. Emotional learning is as important, if not more, as academic skills learning. This is what they will acquire in a play-based program.

How do I know my child is learning?

A high-quality play-based preschool will help children:

  • Adjust to a school setting
  • Be ready to learn
  • Acquire better problem-solving skills
  • Have better learning behaviors

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

Overall, the program will establish a basis for learning as your child gets older. There are certain kindergarten readiness indicators you can look for as your preschooler nears age 5 or 6. Here are just a few examples, drawn from Arkansas’s Department of Human Services Kindergarten Readiness Indicator Checklist:

  • Physical development: Catches a ball with both hands
  • Language: Uses 4-6 word sentences
  • Literacy: Listens and engages in stories
  • Social-emotional development: Shares and plays with others
  • Cognitive development: Sorts objects by color, shape, and size

How do I find a good play-based program?

What to look for in a play-based program

A quality play-based program can be hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Here are some suggestions of what to look for as you compare your options:

  • A program that incorporates the children’s natural interests into the daily flow
  • Both indoor and outdoor play
  • A variety of play spaces available, like dramatic play areas, block building area, and sensory area
  • Children get to self-select their play experience and materials
  • Children can play for long periods of time without interruption
  • Children have the opportunity to play with others and to play alone as well

The adult supervisor’s role is to view the child as confident and a director of his or her own learning experience. The caregiver in a play-based program learns about the individual children and families in the program and makes adjustments accordingly. They should also interact with, offer suggestions, and support children.

Incorporate play-based learning at home

It’s important for children to play with each other, but also for parents to play with their children. You could play outdoors by throwing a ball, digging in the mud, or swinging on a swing set with your little one.

You could play indoors by dancing to music, letting them tell you stories with stuffed animals, or doing puzzles together. First 5 California has some more ideas of ways to play with your children here.

Find a play-based program near you

Wonderschool is a network of in-home early education programs, including many that are primarily play-based. Start exploring the right child care option for you here.


Michelle is a freelance writer and content marketing strategist, and content creator for Wonderschool. When she taught preschool in Thailand, her students' favorite word in English was "Octopus!"