Play-Based Teaching

I believe, and all my experience to date back up this belief, that children learn best about the world around them through play. Research backs up this statement; organisations such as the Lego Foundation and brain development and psychiatry researchers have produced studies that continually show the power of play and its ability to teach and inspire both children and adults alike.

Play is learning – learning is play.

If I hold this statement true and it remains the foundation of my personal educational philosophy and by extension,my teaching practice, then when I use the term or expression play-based learning, I am simply repeating myself. In a sense, it is a tautology. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a tautology as a needless repetition of an idea, statement or word. 

By putting play and learning into one sentence, am I saying learning twice? I am a firm believer in play and believe that in all play there is learning; therefore, surely, I only need to use the word play. 

Over my 20-year teaching career, play has sometimes been seen outside of learning. Educators have derived various ways of saying play without actually saying play – exploration time and tinker time. Sometimes they will say play but add an extra word to ensure we know that learning will be happening – guided play is a good example. The most popular is play-based learning; I add this to almost every tweet and regularly use it when talking to parents and colleagues. But, if I believe play is learning, I have to ask why I am repeating myself? 

I recently came across a report about the benefits of guided play versus direct instruction. As I began reading, I noticed that by guided play, the author was referring to play; the difference was in the teaching practice, not the children’s play itself. It is the same when reflecting on my classroom and how the children in this space interact. I have long believed that my actions change, respond to, and stimulate children’s play. 

Children are masters of play, and I always aim to give them the space to do what they do best. All equipment and resources are available for them to use in any (respectful) way they see fit, and they are welcome to take items from room to room. When I set up activities to extend ideas or thinking, I am ready to change direction, ideas and pace from where I may have initially thought it could go. I work in an IBPYP school and am very explicit in creating units of inquiry that fit the children, never the other way round. I facilitate all four units yearlong to ensure that each child is given time to explore the world around them in their own way and at a time that they are developmentally ready to engage. I have in the past, built lines of inquiry out of their play, creating these as the unit progresses over the year, again to more authentically reflect their thinking and not to allow my own passion dictate. .

Throughout all of this, one thing does not change, play. The children come in every morning and explore questions, wonder and begin to make sense of the world and how it works ALL IN PLAY.

What adds to the difference is me. I am a follower, prompter, fellow wonderer and questioner, and an offerer of ideas and materials. It is with me that children can extend their zones of proximal development, stretch to new ways of thinking, problem-solve and learn. My job is to know the curriculum and find contextual ways to learn and understand big concepts and small facts. I set up spaces (in collaboration with the children), order resources and propose activities for further learning to deeper understanding. 

I use each child’s play to guide my day. To fully understand how packed and busy this makes my day, I tracked the concepts, ideas and skills that I explored throughout one day with various children. I explored equal opportunities, animal behaviour, number bonds, rhyming words, how mining machines work, classroom expectations, and the best way to scale the climbing wall, to name a few. 

Every one of these came out of play. My role prompted, supported, and extended each of these concepts, ideas, and skills. 

A while ago, I came across this image. I use child-led in describing my practice. I recognise that the definition is all about the actions and role of the adult, not the play of children. 

This leads me back to, are we repeating ourselves? If the play is learning and this does not change, why are we continuing to add extra words which effectively mean the same thing – guided play, play-based learning, child-led play. The play doesn’t change, but the practice or teaching does. Should we not be saying play-based teaching, guided teaching, child-led teaching?

Through the work of the Lego Foundation, Dr Peter Gray, The National Institute for Play and many others, the role of play in education is growing. Groups like PressPlay and Longworth Education in New Zealand advocate more play in elementary schools. 

With the value of play and its role in education growing, isn’t it time we stop adding words to play and start adding those exact words to define our pedagogy and practice? 




1 Comment

  1. As always Helen you have helped me clarify some of my own questions (and a new word: tautology, love it!).

    The part that really resonated with me was this:
    “The play doesn’t change, but the practice or teaching does. Should we not be saying play-based teaching, guided teaching, child-led teaching?”

    And there I feel we get to the crux of all the matter, let’s call it play, and leave that to the masters of that universe. And never lose sight of the fact that our practice or teaching is the ever changing constant in our learners’ day. How we choose to interact and react and as you so beautifully explained, [you are] “a follower, prompter, fellow wonderer and questioner, and an offerer of ideas and materials.”

    Thank you Helen, for helping me further along in my own understanding of play-based teaching.


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