Being a parent is both a huge responsibility and a wonderful gift – because, from day one, you are there to help them grow up and learn about the world around them. For many of us, we aren’t trained teachers and it’s been a loooong time since we were at preschool ourselves — so a pretty big question on our minds is, “just how should I go about teaching them?”
There is an absolute rabbit hole of information out there, with countless books, Instagram posts and podcasts to consume – but one school of thought is actually quite simple. Play-based learning is an approach that focuses on teaching your child about the world through play. This is because playtime creates a safe space and environment where our kids can try new things, explore new ideas and even fail.
In this article we break down the principles, benefits and pros and cons of play-based learning, so you can decide if it sounds like the right fit for your child.
What is a play-based approach to learning?
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Children are naturally curious from a very young age. Even without your intervention, they are already learning so much about the world around them from listening, watching, touching, feeling, talking and exploring.
A play-based approach to learning recognizes that learning doesn’t just happen in a book, or on a worksheet — but also as we interact with people, objects, animals and nature around us. Furthermore, play is a time where children can dive into their own imaginations, discover their interests, and investigate questions.
In this way, play and learning are a match made in heaven for our children — because it enables them to learn new information — while also having fun and moving their bodies.
What are the benefits to play based learning?
There are many benefits to play-based learning. For one, play is an essential part of childhood and a play-based learning approach allows us to recognize just how important playtime truly is.
Further, research shows that a play-based approach to learning:
- Supports a positive approach to learning – it teaches our kids that learning is fun!
- Provides a good foundation for ongoing success – by teaching our kids early on that it is okay to explore new things, be curious and to try again after we fail, we are creating a resilient foundation for them as they begin school.
- Develops skills for lifelong learning – by teaching our kids important skills like creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.
Play engages all of our children’s core skills – such as their speech & language skills, social skills, motor skills, critical thinking skills and emotional skills as well as creativity. This is because when it comes to play, their imagination really is the limit and as they run around and have fun, they engage multiple different skills.
The pros and cons of play-based learning
Different types of play and learning approaches will suit different situations. Here are some pros and cons of play-based learning, to see if it is the right approach for your family:
Pros of play-based learning
It can be done anywhere
Whether you’re at home, out at the park, in the waiting room or even in the car, play-based learning can be done anywhere. Typically we think of learning as an activity where you have to be seated, with allocated time to learn about something new. With the play-based learning approach, play becomes something you can do on the go, or in as short of a time as 5 minutes.
It can be led by you, or led by your child:
We don’t always have the ability (or stamina!) to keep up with our kids sometimes. Often, while our children are playing, it is a great time for us to get some work, chores or some life admin – or even to take a few minutes for ourselves. Luckily a play-based learning approach recognizes that learning can be led and done independently by our children. Whether it is them playing with their favorite toy by themselves, or you set them up with a self-directed activity like drawing.
Then, when you do have time and energy, you can also engage in play-based learning with them. Like sitting down and playing make-believe together, or asking them questions as they play.
There is no cost of entry:
As parents, we want nothing more than to be able to provide everything our child could ever need to thrive and grow. Luckily, play-based learning is a great equalizer when it comes to education as it has no cost of entry. No extra toys are even required, as long as your child is given time and encouragement, their imagination and curiosity will do the rest.
Plus, parents can also find activities and play resources online for free to support them.
It will help them learn self-directed learning
Learning really is a lifelong skill and process. And while at the beginning we have a lot of support, guidance and dedicated time set aside for learning — as we grow up, we increasingly have to find and direct our own learning. A play-based learning approach can help encourage your child to develop their ability to learn independently. From exploring in the backyard to coming up with their own games — all of these little experiences build their confidence and ability to direct their own learning and interests.
Cons of play-based learning
While there are definitely a significant number of pros to a play-based learning approach, there are also some situations where it is less appropriate.
It can be hard to educate on a specific topic
Rather than a formal lesson, play-based learning is about exploring ideas through play. And kids are definitely not known for staying on topic. What might start as a counting game, may quickly turn into knocking blocks down instead. While this is not a bad thing, as no matter what playtime looks like your child will still be learning, it can make it difficult to educate on a specific topic.
While this is less of an issue when your little one is still not at school age, as they get older there are important concepts that they will need to learn. This is where something like reading together or using a worksheet can come in handy. Or, you can still use play-based approaches by integrating school lessons into their playtime.
You can feel the pressure to make play always a learning experience
When we acknowledge how play can have amazing learning outcomes for our children, many parents can start to feel the pressure to make playtime all about counting, reading or learning new concepts. This can lead to parents and even the child potentially feeling like playtime is a chore — which is definitely not the intention of play based learning.
Play-based learning is about recognizing that all play is good play — whether it appears ‘educational’ on the surface or not. Because as long as our children have our encouragement and space and time to play, they will be learning so many important skills and lessons through their interactions with the world around them.
Emmy is the founder of Kiindred and mother to 3 little ones. Over the last 4 years, she has worked with some of the most credible experts in the parenting space and is a keen contributor to all things parenthood.