Finding the right learning environment for your children can be challenging. You want your kids to be happy and well-prepared for their next educational experiences and the world around them.
Often, the discussion over which experiences comprise the best types of preschool education comes down to a conversation about what values to prioritize, and there is no question about the importance of play for kids as an essential outlet for a child’s growth and development.
Educators have demonstrated that not only can play-based education compare with more traditional views in learning content, but that it can also have positive effects on motivation and creativity, as well as school-readiness skills.
What Is a Play-Based Curriculum?
At the heart of play-based learning is the concept that humans are naturally curious and want to interact with their environment. Through this process, learners — especially children — engage with ideas and challenges that are meaningful to them. Psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky influenced the development of play-based learning, which uses a child’s natural inclination to interact with and learn about the situations around them.
Though it may be difficult to work into a concise definition, play-based learning has several recognizable traits.
- Interactive: Interactivity is the difference between playing in a baseball game and watching one. The activity must require input on the learner’s part, so the ability to affect the environment is a critical piece in children learning new information.
- Exploratory: One of the principal tenets of a game is that there is no predetermined outcome. While particular rules might direct toward specific scenarios, the overall concept is that the developments and conclusions are unknown.
- Involves risk: Because of those unknown developments, playing involves risk evaluation. Each decision carries inherent societal or game-related risks that help students understand the results of their actions. This risk helps create a sense of investment.
- Enjoyable: Although it seems obvious, play is an enjoyable activity. That doesn’t mean there can’t be hardships or difficulties, but on the whole, the idea of playing itself should elicit a positive response.
- Meaningful: Play allows students to act out their perceptions of the world around them. They can try new ways of interacting with society and peers, constructing meaning and understanding in the process.
Using these guiding principles, teachers and mentors can support children in finding worthwhile ways to interact with their environment. However, in guiding students, it’s essential that it remain the child’s play, not an adult’s scripted version of how the child should play. One of the common problems advocates face is seeing adult-centered activities disguised as “play-based learning.” In these scenarios, adults imply a situation will be student-led, exploratory play, but in reality, it is a contrived method for an adult to get a predetermined result.
How Should Students Play?
Another hurdle in describing play is that it can take on so many forms. Does it involve another child? Does someone have to be in charge? These questions can frustrate some educators in more traditional settings, as the open-ended nature of play can feel like a lack of control.
Here are a few ways children might choose to engage.
- Social play: Social play is when students create scenarios or games with their peers. This type of play can encourage social connection and interaction.
- Individual play: This type of play occurs with a child develops games or otherwise engages in personal creative endeavors, such as making up stories or drawing a picture.
- Guided play: Guided play differs from free play in that an adult might set out a particular problem or situation that children then play through. Teachers can assist by asking questions or extending the game students are playing.
However, note that this can quickly become a direct lesson with a planned outcome. For instance, in guided play, an adult might present a restaurant scenario and then participate in the process as children fill the scene. Conversely, with direct lessons, an adult might tell the students to imagine the restaurant and then to count money to work with numbers.
What Are the Differences Between Play-Based Learning and Direct Instruction?
When comparing play-based learning and traditional direct instruction, examining aspects of interactivity and exploration can often be enough to tell the difference, but another defining trait marks an even more distinct division. In a direct-instruction model, the teacher is the focal point of the classroom. The teacher passes along all instruction — almost always to the group rather than to an individual student.
Another indicator of direct instruction is that someone plans the outcomes, even if they involve some aspects of interactivity or enjoyability. For example, a preschool teacher may set up several colors of paints to teach students about mixing primary colors. In a direct-instruction mode, the teacher will tell students which paints to mix and what colors they should expect. In a play-based classroom, students will have access to mix and experiment any way they want to find how the colors work together. Even though both lessons are interactive, only one is exploratory with unknown outcomes.
Play-Based Learning vs. Direct Instruction
Educators and theorists alike often view differing methods of education as opposing forces. Though not an explicit dichotomy — both direct lessons and play-based education can share these qualities — these learning styles clearly emphasize and develop particular traits based on their implementation and strengths. Because of these differences, there are some perceived pros and cons of play-based learning and direct instruction.
- Depth vs. breadth: Direct instruction, especially in preschool and the early elementary years, can be an excellent way to provide information on a breadth of topics. Adults give children the information they need, then move on. In contrast, play-based learning may take more time to develop, but the understandings often make a profound impact because there is a meaningful connection. Moreover, as students explore, they find more information about topics of their interest, rather than moving on to another piece of information. Students naturally dive deeper into subjects.
- Knowledge vs. skill emphasis: Play-based classrooms also emphasize different forms of knowledge. Direct instruction often focuses on obtaining a particular piece of information, and the connections to self and world are secondary to that. However, play emphasizes soft skills that have become integral in both early and secondary education. That isn’t to say play-based learning doesn’t address basic knowledge, nor that traditional learning does not integrate soft skills. But shifting the focus changes the emphasis of the lessons and traits students interact with, ultimately leading to different understandings of the world.
- Self-discovery vs. authority-assigned meaning: Play-based education reflects more liberation-based education theories like those of Paulo Freire. Writing in the 1970s, Freire proposed that education is less about passing along facts and more about a sense of self-and-world discovery. Freire suggested traditional classrooms established teachers as “a banker,” whose success depends on successfully “depositing” facts into the students. Freire described this type of education as an act of aggression that inhibits students from fully realizing their potential, instead turning them into who the teacher demands. As in play-based learning, Freire advocated for a system in which students discover their views on the world through interactions with each other, rather than passively accepting the world around them.
- Autonomy vs. hierarchy: Along with breaking the chain of teacher-implanted knowledge, play-based education also establishes a sense of learning autonomy. Meanwhile, traditional education focuses more on a chain of command in which learning happens because the adult says it should happen. While playing, students learn because they are curious and invested, but in adult-focused classrooms, students learn because the teacher tells them to.
What Are the Benefits of Play-Based Learning?
Play-based learning has many benefits for children. In addition to being fun and validating a child’s sense of importance and agency in the world, play-based education develops positive traits and may improve particular brain functions.
- Comfort with the unstructured: Educators from a more traditional background sometimes condemn play-based or student-led education as messy or chaotic. Standardized education, in general, assumes conveying a set of central knowledge from point A to point B. It’s easy to see, then, how play-based learning can come across as chaotic and perhaps even unproductive through that lens. However, that mindset focuses on adult control of all situations. If the ultimate goal is every child sitting and listening to an adult, having more than a dozen different learning experiences happening simultaneously can seem like an impossible learning environment.
- Love of learning: Because children’s curiosity is the root of play, play-based education reinforces the idea that accumulating knowledge is about asking questions about the world and then working to answer them. It provides a sense of meaningful accomplishment as kids engage with and overcome challenges, leading to a love of discoveries and conquering difficult tasks.
- Reinstitutes play: Despite the known importance of play in preschool, current educational trends have pushed play further to the sidelines to present more standardized, traditional learning. As schools continue to require more from students at younger ages and preschools scramble to push preliminary skills to students, they are replacing free play time with direct instruction time. In fewer than two decades since the implementation of No Child Left Behind legislation, average elementary school recess time across the country has decreased by more than 10 minutes, now coming in at under half an hour. In response, some preschools have followed suit in the belief that it will prepare students for kindergarten. By instituting play-based education, schools can maintain academic expectation while reinstituting playtime for children.
- Develops executive functioning skills: Play has been shown to help children develop executive functioning skills. These critical brain processes help students with organization, impulsivity and attention. Researchers found this is especially helpful in response to abuse or neglect.
- Socialization factors: Another critical aspect of play-based education is that it allows for more direct interaction between students. In play-based educational systems, students who have different skills, abilities and backgrounds work together to form the world they are constructing. This system is in contrast to traditional direct instruction, in which the teacher organizes and directs much of the interaction.
- Fostering autonomous learners: One of the best features of play-based learning programs is that they promote a natural sense of curiosity and exploration. Traditional education setups encourage students to follow the teacher’s instructions and learn the material because it will make instructors and parents happy. While forming strong relationships with adult role models is essential, it can cause students to see learning as an extrinsic goal meant to please people around them from an extremely early age. Conversely, play-based education at young ages encourages students to pursue their interests and engage in challenges they find meaningful. Rather than only participating in learning to please others, students develop a sense of intrinsic satisfaction from overcoming obstacles and learning about topics they have decided are important.
Is Play-Based Learning Best for Your Child?
Though play-based curricula may have many positives, there are still several components you might need to weigh before selecting to embrace a play-based learning environment for your child.
If you are unsure of this, consider the following factors.
- Child’s personality: Though all students can benefit from a play-based curriculum, it’s essential to think about whether this teaching style will mesh with your child’s personality. Learning to face open-ended challenges is vital for all students, but a lack of focused orders can frustrate some children. It can be especially difficult for students who have already experienced more traditional school settings that define learning as something a student receives, rather than something they fully engage in.
- Parenting philosophy: All parents weigh values differently. For example, while most parents would agree they value both student autonomy and listening to authority figures, they could disagree about what to prioritize more. Like any other curriculum, play-based learning implicitly ascribes importance to particular aspects, and it’s important to consider whether these values align with your parental beliefs.
- Access and quality of play: While allowing students to have autonomy in choosing their style of play, several factors can help determine how educational the experience will be. After all, not all play is equal. Moreover, trained adults or staff can help children reflect on their learning and skills, which is critical to students getting the most out of their play. Because of this, it’s essential to consider whether your child has not only the freedom to play, but access to experiences that will lead to meaningful interactions, as well as trained mentors who can develop reflective skills that stay with children from early elementary through their adult lives.
How Can You Find a Play-Based Child Education Program?
Ultimately, finding the best preschool for your child comes down to your parenting philosophy. In addition to looking for a place where your child can be safe and happy, you want to find an environment that will help them take advantage of their natural curiosity and grow, and deciding between different curriculum models for early childhood education can be difficult.
Haymarket Children’s Academy specializes in providing a play-based preschool curriculum in Gainesville, VA. If you live in this area and are interested in learning more about play-based preschools near you, please contact us for information.