Benefits of Play Based Learning

Have you heard the term 'play based learning'? Are you familiar with the concept? Do you know the difference between play based learning and academic based learning? In this post about the benefits of play based learning, I'll be answering some common questions about learning through play such as what it is and it's benefits as well as listing some examples of play based learning activities. 

Benefits of play based learning

Play based learning is one of our FAVOURITE ways to learn! There are so many benefits to small children and by learning through play they really get to enjoy the process of learning new things. (Plus, academic learning can get really stressful sometimes!) 

When I say small children this isn't limited to toddlers and preschoolers, children up to the age of about 8 learn best through play. 

You may have come across the term 'play based learning' as you decide on what school will look like next year, or maybe as you browse homeschooling options.

I hope this article helps to explain what play based learning is as well as giving you some examples of play based learning activities.  

Related: Sensory play recipes 

play based learning

Related - Messy Play

What is play based learning?

First things first, what does play based learning actually mean? In short, it's a process of helping children learn without the use of worksheets and assignments. Instead, you incorporate play as much as you can!

The best part of this philosophy is that it is completely open-ended and child-led. There is no end goal or outcome, you create an environment that allows children to take control and go deep into play. The world around us is an endless array of learning - you'd be surprised just how much kids learn by choosing to play!

Play based learning usually includes:

  • The child choosing their play: adults are there to fascinate and supervise, but the child chooses what to play, how to play it, how long it lasts, etc. We are there to accompany them or possibly suggest ideas, but leave the rest up to the child.
  • Having lots of fun: avoid attempting to "force" a certain activity, it's important they are enjoying themselves with what they're doing.
  • Being unstructured: allow your child to explore for themselves and select things based on their own interests. Create an environment with lots of options, but it is ultimately left up to them.
  • Focusing on the process: take the goal or outcome out of the equation, and focus on the PROCESS of play - that's the most important part.

This way of learning is very common within Montessori, Waldorf, unschooling, and preschools that put lots of emphasis on play. But if you're wondering how on Earth kids learn anything this way, you wouldn't be alone.

Don't worry - I'll explain.

learning through play

Benefits of learning through play

On the surface, spending all day playing may seem like something that would set kids up for failure. But contrary to popular belief, kids are INCREDIBLE at finding ways to learn using the environment around them. I mean, just baking cupcakes at the request of a child can result in a math and science lesson!

Children learn to LOVE learning: The single greatest gift we can give children is helping them LOVE to learn. They will carry this throughout their entire life and see ways to learn in the world around them. By letting them choose based on their interests, we allow them to be more deeply invested into what they learn.

They grasp concepts easier: It's no secret that we learn better when we are actually INTERESTED in it. Kids work the same way too. By letting them choose what they play, they will learn information so much easier! They can even teach themselves to read if you support them in doing so.

Encourages independence: By THEM leading the way instead of following your lead, they are learning to be independent. They aren't relying on someone else to tell them what to do - they are diving head first to decide for themselves!

They learn at their own pace: Since there is no pressure on the end-result, they get to learn through the environment around them at a pace that feels good to them. There is no "pressure" to meet academic standards and they can relax since you're relaxed too!

Emotion regulation: The more a child plays, the more chances they have to regulate emotions. They find the activities that not only make them happy, but keep them the most centred. They learn to identify how they're feeling, interact with others etc, by getting out and playing vs sitting down doing academic work.

Enhances cognitive development: By playing, children learn how to express themselves, develop their  use of language, solve problems, use their imagination, and all kinds of other cognitive skills.

Develop gross and fine motor skills: As they play hopscotch or use a pair of scissors to cut an art project, they are developing physical skills too. This will help them all throughout their life.

play based learning activities

Examples of play based learning

This all sounds great in theory right, but how do kids actually learn this way? It's a very valid question that can sometimes be hard to answer. But to get the wheels turning, I'll list out a few examples:

Baking cupcakes: When you bake and involve small children, they get the benefits of exploring the world through different textures, learning about fractions, weighing or counting as you measure ingredients and understand the science of adding different ingredients together.  They follow instructions as they look at a recipe or they are told what ingredients to add and they explore their sense of taste and smell as they try new foods. There's a lot of learning that happens here! 

Exploring nature: By getting outside, kids are developing their muscles and learning to balance themselves. They are learning about different plants and animals. They test gravity as they jump in the air. They see cause and effect as they throw a rock into a creek that makes a big splash. They learn about weather as they see the rainbow in the sky left from a big rainstorm and the sun coming out. 

Reading books: Kids are little sponges with books! You can introduce everything from letter recognition to bodily autonomy, to being kind to other people, to fire safety, by just reading a lot.  By creating an inviting reading area children will learn the importance of books. They can ask for books to be read to them or they can read (or pretend to read) to their teddies, involving puppets can be fun too! Learning to read doesn’t have to just involve books, looking at posters, reading game instructions or adding words to a pretend play area are all great activities for learning to read and for finding out new information. 

Sensory Play: Sensory play can take many forms. A sensory bin, tray or a table filled with a variety of resources that stimulate the senses is fantastic for play based learning. You can make sensory bins based on your child's interest or a current topic, or throw together a selection of different items for your child to explore. The amount of learning taking place might surprise you. There will be problem solving, language skill and fine motor skills all being developed amongst other skills like counting and communication. 

Playing in the sand: Dry sand can be used to practice handwriting with a stick, for testing science by adding different amounts of water and for practicing fine motor skills as they scoop, dig, and pour. Add in some treasure or a selection of shells to dig for, sort or count. Watch them problem solve as they build a sand castle that falls down or watch them use their imagination as they create their own small world.

Water play: Water is always fun! As children play in water they learn about floating and sinking, they experiment with what happens when things get wet and they learn to problem solve. Add some foam letters to the water and they can go fishing for letters to make words or add some gems for them to collect, count or sort. 

Dramatic Play: Whether you set up a dramatic play area, provide a dressing up box or put together a collection of small world toys a lots of learning takes place with pretend play. Through dramatic play children can take on new roles and identities which help them figure out and explore the world around them. They can act out and problem solve everyday situations using figures in a dolls house or find out about other countries as they fly off in a pretend aeroplane. Adding pens and paper to dramatic play areas can encourage mark making and writing.

Children learn through play

Related: Sensory bins

You can also tweak this concept a bit to give more direction, too! Build a themed sensory bin around learning about apples, use playdough cupcakes with candles to practice counting, learn art history through more structured projects. Just make sure children are interested so it's not a forced activity! The options are endless and there are so many different ways children can choose to play with the same resources. 

Don't be afraid to join children in their play. They will love you getting involved and as you play alongside them you will be able to scaffold their learning and help them take it to the next level. Just make sure you don't take over! 

Children learn through play

Final thoughts

Play-based learning is GREAT for young children as they are leading the fun and doing what they enjoy. They see the world around them as an endless opportunity for learning.

When you focus on play, you help kids learn to enjoy learning, regulate emotions, become independent, enhance cognitive development, and so much more. There is so much to gain by focusing on learning through play. 

There are so many ways to implement this too - reading books, getting outside, or even just playing in the sand or baking together. The world around us provides so many chances to learn and kids will soak it all up!

I hope this helped you better understand what play based learning is, how it helps, and even how you can start implementing it at home. 

Benefits of learning through play

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