The Value of Play Based Learning

Play Based Learning - A Group of children play on a grassy area.

Written by Danielle Winkel

Danielle is a lifelong learner in the field of education. She completed her Montessori teacher training in 2001 and graduated with an AMS diploma in Early Childhood. Since then she has gained many years of practical experience in a variety of teaching and administrative roles for schools in Mississauga, Oakville, Brampton and Kitchener. Danielle is a mom to 2 amazing boys who have been her greatest teachers.

May 17, 2022

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, what is one thing every family can give their child that is fundamentally important for learning 21st-century skills such as problem-solving, collaboration and creativity?

Time in free play.

Did the answer surprise you? What might surprise you, even more, is how much free play is recommended.

According to Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of Balanced and Barefoot, grade school children (ages 5-13) should get at least 4-5 hours of physical activity and outdoor free play daily. The number is even higher for preschool children (ages 1-5).

In the last 20-30 years, researchers from around the world have made important developments in their understanding of how learning happens. They’ve gone from viewing school as the principal place where learning happens to understanding that learning happens all the time and children are biologically wired to learn.

Not only is free play an excellent setting for learning to take place, but there are also skills that can only be learned through play. As author Lenore Skenazy said in her book Free Range Kids, “All the latest research shows that play itself turns out to be the most important developmental booster of all. If it were a class, there would be waiting lists to get in.”

What is it about free play that makes it so critical to children’s development? One important factor is motivation. Play is a highly motivating experience for children. We all know that when we’re engaging in things that interest and motivate us, that’s when our learning really takes off. During play, the motivation and reward feedback area of childrens’ brains are highly active. When it comes time to participate in problem solving, skills such as flexibility, creativity and collaboration tend to be learned very quickly through the process of trial and error.

Play Based Learning In Real Life

Educators trained in the value of play based learning see examples of this every day in free play settings. It might be in a group of children who are trying to dig out a toy that’s stuck in the ice. One child gets a stick. Another child gets a metal shovel. Soon there’s a crowd gathered and everyone is offering suggestions. “Try hitting it here …. push over there ….can you get me some water?” They’re all fully engaged in the problem solving process. They’re collaborating with each other and they are considering which solutions work and which don’t. Trying to teach these skills in isolation, without the context of play, usually only results in limited success and doesn’t offer children the opportunity to practice what they’re learning.

Children are also highly motivated to try new things in order to join in others’ play. In a role playing game, for example, if the game is about cowboys and you want to be a superhero, how do you join the game? Having a fixed mindset and rigid expectations, only wanting to play one thing, will not get you included in the game. Becoming more flexible and trying new things will.

Benefits of Play Based Learning

A growth seeking mindset is rewarded through play based learning and this mindset is a critical foundation for all other types of learning. Through play, children learn persistence and grit. If a goal is self-chosen and thus meaningful to the child, such as the above example of children working together to get a toy out of the ice, children will show remarkable determination in order to reach their goal. They’ll come up with unique and creative ways to reach their goal and show persistence in sticking with a difficult task, often longer than any adult in the same situation.

Play is also critical for children’s physical, mental and emotional development. Active play, particularly in a natural setting, where children are running, jumping, spinning, crawling, balancing etc. provides challenges both for their brain and their body. The vestibular and sensory systems are engaged as they navigate in and around objects and they’re also learning how to handle emotions such as fear and how to assess risk.

One study found that play can generate a “fight or flight” response without raising cortisol so it may be one way that children learn how to handle danger and in turn become more confident in their ability to work through other fears.

Children also develop critical social skills during free play, particularly empathy. Children who are playing get lots of practice with what it feels like to be included verses left out, what it feels like to win and what it feels like to lose. Through this practice, they feel the full range of emotions and they start to notice what’s happening with their friends’ emotions and begin to take on another child’s perspective.

Play Based Learning at IGNITE

With all the evidence pointing to the benefits of free play, many progressive schools are seeing the value of including extended outdoor play into their daily routine. At IGNITE: An Acton Academy we offer daily, intentional outdoor play experiences for all ages. Our play spaces are designed to offer children the opportunity to engage with the outdoor world in new and creative ways.

Inspired by the Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Forest School philosophies, our play spaces are equipped with loose parts, including logs, tires, sand, stones and play equipment made of natural materials. We offer child-sized tools for children to create their own pretend worlds full of endless possibilities. Our guides prepare the outdoor space each week with new and engaging outdoor play invitations. There’s a gentle rhythm that guides our outdoor play and it’s a balance between teacher-designed activities and child-led, inquiry based play and learning.

If your child would thrive in an environment where learning through play was a part of each day, we invite you to book a meeting or tour with us and learn more about our unique school.

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