“Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” – Jean Piaget
We’re going to focus on what Piaget is telling us here for a bit. When you learn how to do something for the very first time, how deep is your understanding when you learn how to do it yourself vs. someone else teaching you? Most of us (if not all), can agree that when we’re able to teach ourselves how to do something, it sticks with us much quicker than if someone else were to teach us. You know who else that holds true to? Our students’ learning!
Play-Based Learning. What is it exactly?
Play-based learning is a form of education based solely on child-led and open-ended play. If you think of learning centers in a primary classroom, you’re definitely on the right track! By the way, I just created a post on incorporating learning centers into the elementary setting and some of the benefits of them. Feel free to go check it out for a little more insight!
Children are designed to play and I firmly believe it is the best way for them to learn. Children love to play! It’s enjoyable, voluntary, unstructured, imaginative, and has no actual end goal. It’s how they explore the world around them. Play is meaningful to children because it’s driven by their own choices and curiosity. You know when a baby is banging two blocks together and we immediately think it’s trying to annoy the adult around it? 🙂 That baby is also learning about the weight, density, and durability of the blocks. And yes, about the noise it’s producing, too! Check out this post on how learning centers are not just for kindergarten anymore.
I really believe young children should be allowed to play as much as possible. Preschool and Kindergarten programs definitely work best when play-based learning is the focus of the day. I taught Kindergarten for 8 years and found my classroom ran very effectively when play-based learning was the focus of it. I’m so fortunate that as I gradually moved up to first and second grade, I could still use elements of play in the lessons I teach, just with a few modifications.
We all know play in younger children is very self-driven and directed. If you put a young child in the middle of a room with numerous options – blocks, stuffed animals, kitchen set, balls, etc. – you’re not going to have to persuade them very hard to start playing! As students become older, that self-driven play motivation starts to tighten up a bit. However, that doesn’t mean that play can’t or shouldn’t be incorporated into their learning! One way I incorporate play into my second grade classroom is by using math manipulatives. Whenever I introduce a new math manipulative to my class, I always provide a lengthy amount of time for the kids to play with the manipulative with no direction from me.
I will always catch the kids building or making patterns, but sometimes they will actually create characters and act out stories with the manipulatives. The creativity is amazing! I will typically try to pair up each student or place them in a small group to expand their social skills and abilities to work with others.
I also use “math junk” as math manipulatives. These are collectables like bread tags, old keys, pop bottle lids, sequins, buttons, foreign coins etc…The kids use them to work on things like patterning in math. But the first thing I do is give them the “math junk” and let them play. Above are some photos of things that they come up with when I give them no instructions. Below are some photos of a patterning lesson we did. I couldn’t have done the second lesson without spending time on the activities above. Some years I can spend a week of lessons just on free play with the manipulatives. It really depends on the class.
After they have all spent some time playing with the manipulative, I have found that they are much better able to use the manipulatives as an actual tool for our lesson, rather than a distraction. I like to call this just letting the kids, “get their play out!” 🙂 Do any of you have the mini erasers from Target? I have to admit I have a huge collection. You can use them for all sorts of activities, especially Math. But the kids need time to play with them before I can use them to teach concepts. I highly recommend using whatever resources or manipulatives you can to initiate more play in your lessons. It will make the whole experience so much more compelling and informative!
Another way I incorporate play-based learning into my classroom is to start off a unit of inquiry with it. It’s a very engaging way to warm the kids up to the topic you are introducing and can help them uncover some essential questions. How does this work? For example, adults do this all the time while cooking. A recipe usually seems totally easy to complete with no problems before beginning. But once in a while, as you’re in the middle of cooking, a question comes up that you didn’t have prior to starting! What will happen if I substitute something else for this ingredient? How will the flavor change if I double this spice? Play-based learning is used exactly the same way for our students. It doesn’t have to incorporate a ton of supplies – keep it simple! Are you having a lesson about the seasons? Give your students a magnifying glass and take them outside to look in the school garden, playground, forest, or wherever you have access to the outdoors! Let them play around with the magnifying glass and see what other questions come up as they roam around outside.
Language arts is one of my favorite subjects to incorporate play-based learning into. I like to start lots of lessons with a read aloud. There is a children’s story out there for just about any topic you are teaching! You can also give the students finger puppets to color and cut out. Let the students play with them and see if they can act out the story or make up a new story of their own. You can even allow them to present their story in front of the class! I’ve learned in second grade, some students are able to follow the storyline, no problem, while others just soak up all the playtime and won’t have a cohesive story to show. That’s okay, too! No matter how they react, giving your students time to play will allow the information they learned from the story to sink in even deeper than if you had just given them a worksheet to complete.
Play-based learning isn’t chaos. Play-based learning isn’t a lack of instruction by the teacher. Play-based learning comes from actual Early Childhood Education research and is a core component of children’s development. Play-based learning is purposeful, engaging, and is precisely a form of learning that students are naturally drawn to. It’s very effective, and I encourage you to give it a try in your classroom – no matter what age you teach!
How do you incorporate play-based learning in your classroom? What benefits have you and your students reaped from free play in the classroom?