Home » The Benefits of Play-Based Instruction for Preschoolers

The Benefits of Play-Based Instruction for Preschoolers

by Angelina

Play-based learning, in particular for the development of early learners’ arithmetic and spatial skills, has been shown to be more successful than direct instruction.

Some parents of young children may be alarmed by the term “play-based learning,” which describes an approach to education that emphasizes active participation from the student.

Everyone of our students, including the smallest ones, should be “playing” at home. That’s why they’re there, they might say.

Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator and author, argues that drawing such a line between “learning” and “play” is misleading. Play is the “defining feature” of all mammalian development, and its “signature” is evident in the bodies and lives of little kids who experience it, yet it is often devalued in kindergarten and elementary classrooms in favor of direct instruction or seat time. “Their life expectancies are longer and their social-emotional capabilities are more robust when they are given the chance to learn through play and deep relationships, and when their developing brains are given the chanc”

Kids aren’t little grown-ups. Nevertheless, as Christakis elaborates, a predisposition toward adult conceptions of childhood, with its associated schedules and routines, has progressively placed a stranglehold on our educational system, locking young children in educational spaces that too frequently feel dismal, joyless, and alienating. It seems to have fallen out of favor that “there is something of value in being a tiny kid” (with little kid desires and, above all else, needs).


Setting aside time for even the youngest pupils to play can seem at odds with the academic demands of the school day, despite the obvious benefits of play. There is a lot of pressure on early childhood educators to adhere to stringent seat-time standards, and many of them believe that direct instruction is the most effective way to cover all of the curriculum’s topics.

A recent study suggests a compromise is possible. Guided play, also known as play-based learning, has been studied extensively over the past few decades, and researchers at the University of Cambridge have concluded that it can have a “greater positive effect” on the acquisition of skills like mathematics, shape knowledge, and task switching than more conventional approaches that prioritize sitting still and receiving explicit instruction.

Guided play has been positioned as a “middle-ground” between free play and direct instruction, according to the study’s authors, who recast play as a spectrum with varied degrees of child autonomy and adult assistance. Play “naturally cultivates their delight, drive, and agency; while the provision of direction by a supporting adult widens the scope of learning beyond what the kid might do on his or her own,” thus the learning is intrinsically rich and meaningful.

The researchers concluded that the “best” method for pupils was incorporating components of play like wonder, discovery, and student agency within loosely structured classes that were gently supported by teachers. Christakis argues that in order for children to learn well through play, they need a “constant diet of free, unstructured time and access to open-ended resources,” which will give them the freedom to engage in “rambling” storytelling and “mess around and invent their own rules.”


According to the Cambridge research, one of the keys to a successful play-based learning classroom is for teachers to have a predetermined “learning aim” for the play they allow their pupils to engage in. A teacher should keep this end in mind during the child’s play and gently steer them in that direction.

Avoid squeezing too hard: Primary school educator Maggie Sabin argues that teachers shouldn’t always require particular results from their children. Avoid giving kids directions to mix certain colors and instead model one example before letting them develop their own color combinations to teach them how colors can be mixed to form new hues. Sabin urges his readers to “be well prepared and intentional in preparing, but allow for flexibility and creativity.”

Structure your classroom with centers that feature materials, games, or objects carefully selected for students to engage with and make sense of, and you can ensure that children are playing with purpose.

For instance, Sabin uses direct instruction to assist her pupils through lessons and units, and in one part of her classroom is a “tinker tray” with seemingly unrelated items that are actually relevant to those lessons and units. Items like as pebbles, leaves, and sticks are placed on the tray so that kids can learn to identify them and exercise their fine motor skills during a lesson on nature and natural materials. Just asking youngsters how many pebbles they have or how many pebbles they have left after giving some to a buddy can be used to practice early math concepts while playing with the materials.


Children should be given “freedom and choice over their behaviors and play behavior” and play-based learning should be child-led wherever possible, according to the researchers. Yet, their research suggests that students are often not allowed as much freedom as is necessary to “cultivate children’s agency, motivation, and curiosity” in play-based learning settings.

New Hampshire kindergarten teacher Jessica Arrow gives her pupils 30 to 45 minutes of “choice time” each day to begin the school day by exploring the classroom’s numerous centers (such as the block area, math area, science area, art area, reading nook, or dramatic play area).

These experiences are tailored to her pupils’ needs and the topics they’ve already covered in class. Arrow mentioned that her students were interested in the author’s creative process after reading the children’s book Miss Maple’s Seeds. As a result, Arrow’s art center featured resources for pupils to write, draw, and perform other creative acts in order to practice language arts skills.

According to Arrow, their curiosity with books led them to investigate related fields. A number book was made by one pupil. Number grids and the subsequent creation of individual number books by Arrow’s students were popular tools for recognizing and counting huge numbers after Arrow introduced them to the class.

As my pupils tried play-based learning, they became more attentive, enthusiastic, and goal-oriented, as Arrow describes. Most significantly, they had a better mood. Play-based learning helped establish order in my classroom, boosted student engagement, and solidified the group’s identity as lifelong learners.


Teachers should keep a careful eye on their students while they play in order to understand more about how their students are learning and then utilize this information to ask more open-ended questions, provide clues, and urge them to think more deeply. For example, “when a youngster appears to find an activity too challenging or too easy,” you might step in to “assist them learn beyond what might be achievable in solo play,” as the researchers put it.

Winnie O’Leary, a senior educator and the curriculum manager at Edmentum, suggests that open-ended questions be asked of children while they are playing with blocks in order to promote problem-solving, prediction, and hypothesizing. Low-stakes queries such, “I wonder how tall this tower can become,” can help a teacher raise kids’ arithmetic standards knowledge. or “I’m curious how many bricks it would take to build a skyscraper as big as the one my friend built.”

O’Leary argues that even the simplest of queries can help with memory retention and the ability to recognize things, colors, and forms. For instance, “Hey, who had the number 4 in the last round?” is a perfectly reasonable question to ask during a game of Go Fish. Instead, “Well, what color card do you need to add to the center deck?” could be posed during a round of Uno. Games that require strategy, such as checkers or tic-tac-toe, are excellent ways to get children thinking critically about their goals and how to alter them throughout play. Is there anything you could have done differently to win the game?

However, the researchers urge care when employing these methods. Finally, you shouldn’t take hints and queries as orders.

Christakis agrees, saying that she frequently advises educators not to ask “checking questions” such “What color is the apple?” alternatively, “What are you sketching?” The teacher should instead ask, “Tell me about your drawing,” according to her argument.

Christakis argues that the scope for deep, impromptu learning is greatly expanded by the free-form response.Play in elementary school education has several benefits. So, kids will like school more. Educational games and interactive exercises boost students’ attention, memory, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Cooperative play helps students collaborate and communicate. It reduces stress and anxiety, creating a calmer, more supportive classroom. The blog “The Most Popular Cruises” explores a different area of leisure and recreation that stresses the importance of play in multiple situations, demonstrating how play may enhance classroom and extracurricular experiences. Check it out here on Slingo.com

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