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Learning Through Play is a term widely used in education and psychology to describe how a child can learn to make sense of the world around them. Through play, children develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain self-confidence required to try new experiences and engage with new environments.[1]



Play enables children to make sense of their world. Children have a natural curiosity to explore, and play acts as a medium to do so.

There are five elements in children’s play:[2]

  1. Play must be pleasurable and enjoyable.
  2. Play must have no extrinsic goals; there is no prescribed learning that must occur.
  3. Play is spontaneous and voluntary.
  4. Play involves active engagement on the part of the player.
  5. Play involves an element of make-believe.

There are seven common characteristics of play: It is active, child-initiated, process oriented, intrinsic, episodic, rule governed, and symbolic.[3]

There are critical differences between work and play. Play is a self-chosen activity by the child rather than prescribed by a parent or teacher. Play is a process rather than a predicted outcome or product. Work, on the other hand, has a definite intent and a prescribed outcome.[4]

“In order for an activity to be considered play, the experience must include a measure of inner control, ability to bend or invent reality, and a strong internally based motivation for playing. If parents and educators try to label experiences as play, but in reality have specific requirements for the activity, then it becomes work not play. For example, it is really impossible to play with flash cards whose purpose is to have a child memorize something on each card. This is not playing and children quickly differentiate between pure play and work being disguised as play”.[5]

Play is not wasted time but rather time spent building new knowledge from previous experience.[6]

Overview of classical, modern and contemporary perspectives

There are three major groups of play theories[7]:

  • Classical theories focus on play from the aspect of burning off excess energy, recreation/relaxation or replenishing the energy after hard work, practicing future roles and recapitulation theory(passing through successive stages by past ancestors). Herbert Spencer suggest that play is a mechanism to allow humans to burn off the excess energy that is not required for survival. Children need to expend the energy. This can be achieved through active play experiences.
  • Modern theories examine play from the perspective of the consequences of play for the child and how it impacts a child’s development. “The learner is no longer regarded as a passive receiver of knowledge, but as an active constructor of meaning”[8] This perspective is especially emphasized within the constructionist theory through experiential learning. The theorist John Dewey suggests that children learn best by doing both physical and intellectual activities. In other words, children need to take an active role in the play.
  • Contemporary theories focus on the relationship of play to diversity and social justice relative to daily living and knowledge. Children learn social and cultural contexts through their daily living experiences. The Zone of Promimal Development concept, developed by Lev Vygotsky, suggests that children require activities that support past learning and encourage new learning at slightly more difficult levels. Vygotsky believed that social engagement and collaboration with others is the powerful force that transforms children's thinking. The theorist Urie Bronfenbrenner indicates that a child's development is influenced by both the person and the environment, which includes family, commuity,culture and the broader society.


Play is so important that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children.[9] Children need the freedom to explore and play.

Play contributes to brain development. Evidence from neuroscience shows that the early years of a child’s development from birth to age six, set the base for learning, behaviour, and health throughout life.[10] The child’s brain neural pathways are influenced and advanced in their development as exploration, thinking skills, problem solving, and language expression occur during play episodes.[11]

"Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development – it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Play “paves the way for learning”.[12]

Learning occurs while children play with blocks, paint a picture, and play make believe. During the experiences of play children are learning to try new things, problem solve, invent, create, test ideas and explore. Children need unstructured and creative playtime. In other words, children need time to learn through their play.[13]

“Play is serious business for the development of young learners. This is such an important understanding. A deliberate and effective play-based approach supports young children’s cognitive development. When well designed, such an approach taps into children’s individual interests, draws out their emerging capacities, and responds to their sense of inquiry and exploration of the world around them. It generates highly motivated children enjoying an environment where the learning outcomes of a curriculum are more likely to be achieved”.[14]

Children and learning through play

File:Our Community Place Sandbox.jpg

Children playing in community place sandbox

It has long been acknowledged that there is a strong link between play and learning for young children, especially in the areas of problem solving, language acquisition, literacy, numeracy, and social, physical, and emotional skills. Young children actively explore their environment and the world around them through a process of learning-based play.[15] Play is a vital part of a child’s life for optimal development, socially, cognitively, physically, and emotionally.[16]

Researchers are in universal agreement that play provides a strong foundation for intellectual growth, creativity, and problem solving.[17]

Researcher Dorothy Singer says, “Through make-believe games children can be anyone they wish and go anywhere they want. When they engage in sociodramatic play, they learn how to cope with feelings, how to bring the large, confusing world into a small, manageable size; and how to become socially adept as they share, take turns and cooperate with each other. When children play, they are learning new words, how to problem solve, and how to be flexible.”[18]

As children learn through purposeful, high quality play experiences, they are building critical foundational skills for cognitive development and academic achievement. These include verbalization, language comprehension, increased vocabulary, imagination, questioning, problem solving, observation, empathy, co-operation skills, and learning another’s perspective.[19]

Through play children learn a set of skills such as social skills, creativity, hand-to-eye coordination, problem solving, and imagination. It is argued that these skills are better learned through play rather than through flashcards or academic drills.[20]

Additionally, the Slovak researchers Gmitrova and Gmitrov have found evidence that makes clear the importance of pretend play as a medium, through which children can progress in areas beyond the knowledge curriculum.[21]

Adults and learning through play

“Research has proven another interesting fact about play: The level of children’s play rises when adults play with them. The variety of play children engage in also increases when adults join in. The joining in is different from controlling. Controlling makes chidren follow their parents' agenda and does not lead to as much cognitive development as when parents follow their children's lead.”[22]

There are four key roles adults have in promoting children’s play:[23]

1. Adults role-model positive attitudes towards play. Adults can encourage play and provide a balance of indoor and outdoor play throughout the year. When adults join in on the play it is important that they are guiding, shaping, engaging in, and extending play but are not dictating or dominating the play.

2. Adults prepare appropriate environments. It is important to offer a variety of materials and experiences at varying levels of difficulty. The choice of materials is critical and provides the motivation for children’s exploration and discovery. Both the indoor and outdoor experiences should provide exploratory centres and spaces. The play environment should allow children to make choices and to explore the play possibilities. The play environment should be reflective of the child’s daily living experiences.

3. Adults observe children in their play. Observation is an ongoing process which provides information about the child’s interests, abilities, strengths and opportunities for further learning and development. Observation helps identify ways the adults can build on and guide the learning.

4. Adults promote play and opportunities for expansive discoveries. Adults can enhance or facilitate play by encouraging children to bring their interests and experiences into the play. The adults ask questions to expand and enhance play.

Play-based learning programs

High/Scope is an example of a teacher-led approach. The philosophy is that children should be involved actively in their own learning. The adults working with the children see themselves more as involved facilitators of play rather than directly managing the play itself.[24]

The Montessori method emphasizes self-directed activity on the part of the child, and clinical observation on the part of the teacher. The objective is to adapt the child's learning environment to his or her development level. These broad approaches encourage children to learn through play.[25]

Ontario Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program[26] – For 4 and 5 years old, a school program that consists of a balance of exploration, or investigation, guided instruction, and explicit instruction.

Ontario Early Years Centres[27]-is a parent child interactive program with the focus on play-based learning. Parents/caregivers stay with the child and can also obtain information about programs and services that are available for young children and their families. There is no cost for this program and everyone is welcome.

The Reggio Emilio approach has a vision of the child as a competent learner and has produced a strong child-directed curriculum model. The curriculum has purposive progression but not scope and sequence. Teachers follow the children's interests and do not provide focused instruction in reading and writing. Reggio approach has a strong belief that children learn through interaction with others, including parents, staff and peers in a friendly learning environment.[28]


  1. Human growth and the development of personality, Jack Kahn, S usan Elinor Wright, Pergamon Press, ISBN 9781594860683
  2. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Rodale Inc., ISBN 9780080233833
  3. Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin, page 46,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  4. Wiltz & Fein, 2006 as cited in Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011, page 3,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  5. Bergen, 2009 as cited in Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011, page 5,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  6. Isenberg and Quisenberry,2002 as sited in Thinking It Through: Teaching and Learingng in the Kindergarten Classroom Playing is Learning, page 12, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, 2010
  7. Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  8. Katzeff, 2003 as cited in Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011, page 36,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  9. “Fact Sheet: A Summary of the Rights Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child”, Article 31,, accessed February 11, 2010
  10. Mustard, Fraser The Early Years Study.
  11. Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  12. Canadian Council on Learning (Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre), “Let the Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning”, Lessons in Learning (Ottawa: CCL, 2006), p. 2
  13. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Rodale Inc., ISBN 9780080233833
  14. With Our Best Future in Mind.
  15. Early Learning For Every Child Today.
  16. Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  17. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Rodale Inc., ISBN 9780080233833
  18. Dorothy Singer, as cited in Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, page 213 Rodale Inc.
  19. Thinking It Through: Teaching and Learingng in the Kindergarten Classroom Playing is Learning, page 28, Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, 2010
  21. Gmitrova, V. and Gmitrov, G. The impact of teacher-directed and child-directed pretend play on cognitive competence in kindergarten children. Early Childhood Education Journal (2003) Vol. 30, No. 4, pp. 241-246
  22. Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, page 208 Rodale Inc., ISBN 9780080233833
  23. Playing and Learning, Beverlie Dietze, Diane Kashin,2011,Pearson Prentice Hall, ISBN 978013512546
  26. Ontario Full Day Kindergarten Program.
  27. Ontario Early Years Centres.
  28. Ontario Reggio Association.
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