What is Play-Based Learning?

Discover more about play-based learning and decide if it’s right for your classroom.

What is Play-Based Learning?

Little girl pretending to teach her bear and draw a letter A on her easel

These days, parents are more concerned with preschool curriculum and how it impacts their child’s development. Play-based learning is one such curriculum that all educators should consider. 

Let’s discuss play-based learning, why it is becoming popular, the benefits, and the challenges.

What is play-based learning?

Child playing in an empty box Source

Play-based learning is a system that uses play as a context for learning. As children play, they engage their imagination, take risks, and learn problem-solving to support their development. 

Play-based learning is child-initiated and teacher supported. The teacher's role is to motivate and encourage the children to learn through interactions that expand their thinking. For example, if a child is working in the block area building a structure, try asking open-ended questions/prompts: 

  • Tell me about the structure you’re building.
  • Why did you choose those blocks?
  • What do you think might be your next step?

5 key elements of play-based learning 

For children to benefit from the play-based curriculum, educators must follow all the elements of play-based learning. They include:

1. Self-chosen/self-directed 

A child must determine how to play, when, and for how long. Although there is no definitive guide on a child's preference, you’ll know it when you see it. Educators can suggest some games, but it should be up to the child if they want to take that direction or not. 

Children find the smallest detail fascinating, and it's important to let them explore even when it may seem insignificant. 

2. Enjoyable

Children have to enjoy their activities for play-based learning to work. Therefore, there should be no objectives or end goals for any exercise. For example, instead of offering Legos to children and instructing them to build something specific, just give them the Legos and watch what they do with them. 

3. Unstructured play

Unstructured, or free play, is probably the most crucial element of play-based learning. Unstructured means letting the child play and explore items with no objective. This type of play allows children to learn their interests and dislikes without any external influence. It also allows them to make mistakes and learn from them without the fear of failure.

4. Process oriented 

Again, avoid giving children the procedure they need to mold their clay or arrange their play. The process is part of the journey, allowing children to express their creativity in depth without being concerned about a final product. 

5. Make believe 

This should be part of a child's learning experience as it challenges their imagination. Playing pretend helps in nurturing their empathy and developing their social compass.

What are the benefits of play-based learning?

Language development 

A child's vocabulary significantly improves during preschool years. Play-based learning allows children to explore new vocabulary words in an organic, relevant, and authentic way. 

Play-based learning also allows children to engage in different forms of playful and reciprocal conversations. For example, when children are engaged in pretend play, one child may take on the role of the doctor and the other as the patient. Both children may take a turn asking a question or sharing information relevant to their roles.  

Educators can support the children's language development by introducing new words, participating in games, encouraging conversations, and asking questions. 

Creativity and imagination

Fostering imagination and creativity in young children have endless benefits for their social-emotional and cognitive development. When a child engages in play, they have the opportunity to explore and develop their problem-solving skills and interpersonal skills.  

Play sparks and develops creativity and imagination. Pretend play typically emerges when a child is about 2 years old. You might observe them feeding a doll or rocking them to sleep. Later stages of pretend play become more complex with different settings, roles, props, and achieving a common goal with a peer.  

Social and emotional skills 

Play-based learning has a significant impact on a child's social and emotional development. They learn how to manage and deal with their emotions and the emotions of others. 

Children also learn to communicate their needs with their peers and other essential skills like turn-taking and conflict resolution when playing. As they play, they are figuring out how to patiently wait for their turn to access an area or work with a material, negotiate, cooperate, and solve problems with their peers. All these are indispensable social skills. 

Positive disposition toward learning 

There are so many ways play-based learning improves the child’s attitude toward learning. Children are invested in activities because they're driven by their interests and curiosity.

Giving children autonomy during play is not only fulfilling, but also allows children to confidently explore challenges, make goals, take appropriate risks, and learn to be persistent.   

Motor skills 

Play also enhances a child's motor skills. For example, activities such as painting, drawing, role-playing, and building boost fine motor skills, while jumping, throwing, climbing, and running boost gross motor skills. 

Creating daily lesson plans is a way to ensure you are incorporating play-based learning into your educational program. A tool like brightwheel's lesson plan feature lets you create custom lesson plans and curriculum and log observations to help teachers plan for each child's success.

Parten’s six stages of play

Sociologist and researcher Mildred Parten believed that play has a large impact on children’s development. Her research centered on social play among toddlers and preschoolers from ages two to five and identified different stages of play that children progress through. 

These stages are unoccupied play, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play. Below we elaborate on each stage.

1. Unoccupied play

The unoccupied play stage is the first stage of Parten’s six stages. Children mainly move their feet, legs, arms, and hands as they begin to discover their various body parts. Unoccupied play usually occurs from birth to around three months old. Children's body movements during the unoccupied play stage are often involuntary, erratic, and uncoordinated. This stage is important since it promotes sensory experiences, prepares children for solitary play, and promotes motor skills development and body awareness. 

2. Solitary play

Solitary play, also known as independent play, is the stage where children play independently. This stage is typically common in children between the ages of three months and two years old. Children in this stage play with toys but aren’t interested in interacting with other children or adults. Examples of this type of play include children flipping through picture books or stacking blocks alone. Solitary play supports self discovery and encourages independence as children learn what they like and dislike and helps them solve problems on their own.

3. Onlooker play

According to Parten's theory, the onlooker play stage typically happens between two and a half and three and a half years old. It’s also known as the spectator stage since children in this stage usually only observe and watch other children play without necessarily joining them. During the onlooker play stage, children learn primarily through observation. Children will watch everything their peers are doing and take mental notes but won’t engage with them just yet. 

4. Parallel play

Parallel play involves children playing side by side independently. This stage commonly starts around 18 months to two years old. In this stage, children will play alongside each other without interacting, however they are still aware of what is going on around them and are observing and mimicking their peers.

5. Associative play

The associative play stage starts when children are ready to interact with their peers during playtime, usually around three or four years old. Children may participate in similar play activities, talk with each other, or share play materials. Associative play is the beginning of active social interaction among children while playing. It’s critical for children’s development as it promotes social and communication skills.

6. Cooperative play

According to Parten’s six stages of play theory, cooperative play is the last stage of play. This stage involves children playing together to solve a problem or work on a project to achieve shared results. Most children exhibit cooperative play behavior at around age four or five. A child is ready for this stage when they can understand how to accept roles during play, exchange ideas, and share toys. Cooperative play is essential for children’s development as it promotes collaboration, sharing, conflict resolution, and communication skills.

Potential challenges with play-based learning 

Play-based learning is a strong contender for one of the best approaches to early learning, however, it may not be for everyone. 

Here are some of the challenges of play-based learning that educators have observed:

  • Children have different personalities, social needs, and strengths, and some may not feel comfortable in a play-based learning environment with less structure. 
  • There is the possibility of resistance from educators and parents who favor a strong kindergarten readiness program focused on academics with a more traditional approach to teaching, learning, and assessing skills.
  • Some children who have participated in a play-based program may have a challenging time acclimating to a traditional elementary school program when they transition to kindergarten. 

Examples of providers with play-based learning 

Here are some preschools that are embracing play-based learning:

Frequently asked questions on play-based learning 

Here are common questions people ask about the play-based curriculum:

How do I know my child is learning?

You should notice an improvement in their problem-solving skills, learning behaviors, attitude towards school, and approach to other situations. In addition, teachers can share observations and portfolios to demonstrate a child’s progress over time.  

Will my child be ready for kindergarten?

Children who have experienced a play-based curriculum have a positive disposition for learning and have advanced social-emotional skills. They are also confident, curious, and problem-solvers. They have all skills necessary to be ready to learn and take on new challenges that come with starting kindergarten.

Examples of play learning activities  

Here are some examples of play-learning activities:

Water play 


Children playing at a water table Source

As children play with water, they may learn concepts such as sinking and floating. This activity improves a child’s physical strength and hand coordination. 

Dress up and role play


Little girl pretending to teacher her bear and drawing an A on an easelSource

Pretend play supports social-emotional development as children learn perspective-taking through role play. They also benefit from learning how to play cooperatively and practice empathy by assuming caretaking roles. 

Drawing and painting


Child sitting on the floor on a piece of paper painting Source

Drawing and painting allow children to express themselves creatively and support their fine motor development necessary for emerging writing skills. Specifically, painting can offer a sensory experience when using your fingers and hands to paint as well as an impromptu science lesson in color mixing. 

Music, singing, and dancing


Boy shouting into a microphone Source

The benefits of music and movement in early childhood development are well established. Music and dancing can help develop, social-emotional skills, cognitive skills, motor skills, and sensory skills.

Pretend cooking 


Little girl pretending to cookSource

Pretend cooking, serving, and shopping are good scenarios for preschoolers to role-play as they teach them how to interact with others. It also teaches basic mathematical concepts, home safety, and sensory play.

Children can do play-based learning anywhere 

Play-based learning has become very popular over the years. Educators and parents are realizing that children learn best when they’re exploring and engaged in open-ended play. This curriculum allows children to learn by exploring their curiosity without rules or end goals. The freedom allows them to try new things without the fear of failure or disappointing their educators.

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