What is Play Based Learning?

“What did you do at school today?”


How often have you had this exchange with your child? Or, how often have you left your child’s school wondering, “If my child is playing all day, when are they learning?”

When looking for a child care and education center for your child, it is important to know how the center approaches children’s learning. You may hear lots of different terms, such as “academic based,” “High Scope,” “emergent” and “play based.” We follow the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s recommendations for active and engaging educational activities for children. This involves teachers facilitating and providing direct teaching to help children learn the skills and concepts needed for kindergarten and future school success. We consider our curriculum “play-based” because we seek to engage children in our curriculum.

As teachers, we are very intentional about how we set up the classroom and design the curriculum. To meet our educational goals, we incorporate lots of play, or engaged learning. Research has shown very clearly that children learn through play. They learn through experiencing the world around them, through asking questions, through testing theories and through supportive guidance. Our role as the adults in their world is to guide them through experiences and help them absorb all the information that the universe presents to them. Play does not dominate in our classrooms simply because the children are having fun and it certainly is not present due to any lack of playing- this play is expected, encouraged, planned and closely observed. We know that children will spend the majority of their week here at child care, and we want that time to benefit them to the maximum potential.

In Early Childhood Education over the past 20 years, there has been an on-going conversation over “play-based” versus “academic.” This has been a confusing time for parents. It has been difficult for parents to understand the difference between play-based approaches to curriculum, and a more structured academic program. Which one benefits their children best? However, in the past 10 years, the conversation has come to a place of agreement- it is best for children to engage in early learning through play in order to achieve true understanding of the academics. While children can certainly be trained to remember information; to understand the concepts they learn they must have hands on experience. We are working to help children learn how to learn, and how to make connections. To do this, we plan activities which children can engage with, which are fun for them, and which teach them the developmentally appropriate concepts we want them to learn. For example, instead of simply circling groups of three on a workshop passively, we take children out into the world and ask them to find groups of three in photographs. The photos are printed and displayed, so that children can refer and review groups of three again. Later, this activity can be repeated looking for groups of five. The photos provide a perfect way to help children to then compare amounts and start an exploration of addition and subtraction.