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Intro to Play-Based Learning: What is it? Why is it important? How does it work?

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Learning through play is a term used in education and psychology to describe how a child can learn to make sense of the world around them. Through play, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.

Play-based learning in the Early Years: What is it?

A key characteristic of effective learning is the ability to play and explore, so play-based learning is a valuable teaching method in the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF). Learning is best achieved when children have a sense of responsibility and autonomy in their own learning. Children learn through play in a safe environment, where they can make mistakes, make choices/decisions, and form their own opinions without fear of repercussion.

The Importance of Play

The EYFS is built on play and underpins learning and all aspects of children’s development. Children learn language skills, emotions, and creativity through play. Most children play naturally and spontaneously, although some may need assistance from adults. During play, children explore and discover the world around them both indoors and outdoors. Here they learn new skills and ideas, take risks, show imagination, and solve problems independently or with others. Adults play an important role by providing time, space, and the appropriate resources to inspire play and spark children’s imaginations. Play is observed and adults should join in when invited, watching, and listening before getting involved. Play is valued and learning is extended and supported in a safe yet challenging environment.

Why it’s important to include play in the classroom

Play is a universal and an entitlement of childhood. Play is unprompted, natural, gratifying, and fun and boasts many benefits:

  • It enables children to learn and build skills that lay the foundation for learning to read, write and do maths. 

  • It gives children the chance to socialize with peers of the same age, to learn to understand other children, and to communicate and negotiate with them. 

  • It inspires children to learn, imagine, categorize and problem-solve. 

  • It provides children with the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings.

How does play-based learning work?

The essence of play-based learning is combining a form of child-led play, such as imaginative play with a specific learning objective determined by the Early Year's Outcomes. A child's skills can then be developed through play in the chosen area(s).

EYFS children developing various key skills by learning through play using a double sided A3 magnetic, dry wipe folding wedge board.
EYFS Children learning through play using an A3 portrait Folding Wedge Whiteboard.

Within the context of education, there are two forms namely free play and guided or structured play.

Free play is pupil-centered play, guided by the children themselves. The pupils choose how they are going to play and what to play with. There is room for much imagination and creativity in this type of play. There are several benefits to this type of play including conflict negotiation, collaboration skills, problem-solving skills, and social-emotional growth.

Structured play is guided by the teacher. The teacher provides instructions based on learning objectives which can be written on the A2 Wedge British Made Magnetic White Boards. The teacher will take control of the play environment by structuring it in such a way that guides pupils to learn specific content. There are several benefits to this type of play including following directions, strategizing and cooperative skills.

How to incorporate play-based learning in early years settings:

The most effective way to promote a variety of learning activities is by providing plenty of child-led play activities. Classrooms or nurseries with play-based learning areas might include the following:

  • Sensory Play Area

  • Role-play Area

  • Writing Tables

  • Reading Area

  • Art & Collage Area

Free-play sessions and break times should allow children to have access to a wide range of areas to extend play-based learning as much as possible and cover different topics and concepts. Children should be allowed to explore these different areas at their own pace to learn from them as they wish.

How to plan a play-based approach to learning for Early Years:

Play-based learning for young children should be child-led and open-ended where possible, but adult-led play is highly beneficial when it comes to planning and targeting specific learning outcomes. Defining a clear set of outcomes and goals is crucial to preparing effective play-based learning for early years. A detailed plan describing how and what play-based learning will look like and accomplish can help achieve this.

Play-based learning plans should include the following information:

  • A theme or topic

  • A specific learning objective

  • Organization Specifics (this should include where and when the activity will take place, as well as the suggested group size)

  • Questions you will ask and vocabulary you will use to explain the activity

  • Specifics about the adult role, such as when you will ask questions and what you will explain before and after the activity

  • Resources required

  • Extension Ideas into continuous provision – what can be provided after the activity to extend learning around the topic through child-led play?

  • Additional challenges

  • Observation & Assessment – how does the activity link to the Early Years framework?

Play contributes towards developing the whole child. Through play, a child's imagination, and physical and cognitive abilities are improved and strengthened. Using play as a tool to teach in the early childhood classroom will bring a holistic approach to the content and will help develop every part of each child.


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