Play based learning

While there is no one definition of play, there are a number of agreed characteristics that describe play. These include:

  • Pleasurable play. This is an enjoyable activity. Although Play sometimes includes frustrations, challenges and fears; here enjoyment is the key feature.
  • Symbolic play. This is often pretend. It has a ‘what if?’ quality. The play has meaning to the player that is often not seen by adults.
  • Active play. This requires action, either physical, verbal or mental engagement with materials, people, ideas or the environment.
  • Voluntary play. This is freely chosen. However, players can also be invited or prompted to play
  • Process oriented play. The players may not have an end or goal in sight when they embark on this type of play.
  • Self motivating play. This is considered its own reward to the players. (Shipley, 2008).

Research and evidence all point to the role of play in children’s development and learning across cultures (Shipley, 2008). Many believe that it is impossible to disentangle children’s play, learning and development. It is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain. We know that secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways. Play creates a brain that has increased ‘flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life’ (Lester & Russell, 2008, p. 9).

Young children’s play allows them to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks and create meaning. Children who engage in quality play experiences are more likely to have well-developed memory skills, language development, and are able to regulate their behavior, leading to enhanced school adjustment and academic learning. (Bodrova & Leong, 2005).

Play does not happen in a vacuum; it is usually undertaken within a physical and social space (Lester & Russell, 2008). One of the greatest benefits of playing is to assist with the development of social competence. Children can build relationships, learn to resolve conflicts, negotiate and regulate their behaviors. In play, children usually have increased feelings of success and optimism as they act as their own agents and make their own choices. Playing is a known stress release; it is often linked to child well being.

Planning the environment is important in providing quality play experiences. The environment can be intentionally planned in four main ways:

  • The physical environment-the physical layout of space, furniture and resources. Consider how you will construct and present activities and materials so they are arranged in provoking and inviting ways to encourage exploration, learning and inquiry
  • The social and emotional environment-children need secure, warm and trusting relationships so they are confidently supported in their explorations and risk taking. Assist children to make connections with others, develop friendships and regulate their behaviors. Together, children and adults set the emotional and social tone of the environment
  • The intellectual environment-there are times to leave children to play freely and times for intentional conversation, a well-placed question or query that will extend children’s learning. Shared sustained conversations (Siraj-Blatchford, 2008) are the hallmark of effective early childhood educators.
  • The temporal environment-the way that educators decide to use the time available in the program. Children need large blocks of time to develop play themes and ideas.


Article  by: Jennifer Kimani
Head Teacher at Kiota School Kindergarten



Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2005). Uniquely preschool: What research tells us about the ways young children learn. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 44-47.

Shipley, D. (2008). Empowering children. Play based curriculum for lifelong learning. (Fourth edition). USA: Nelson Education.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2008). Understanding the relationship between curriculum, pedagogy and progression in learning in early childhood. Hong Kong Journal of Early Childhood, 7 (2), 6-13.

Steglin, D. A. (2005). Making the case for play policy: Research-based reasons to support play-based environments. Young Children, 60(2), 76-86.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

share this recipe:

Still hungry? Here’s more