We have all heard that ‘play’ is a child’s work. And, many early childhood programs use play as a basis for their curriculum. But is ‘play’ enough to support a child’s success?

In early childhood education, supporting a child’s development in all of the development domains is crucial for school and life success. It is also well understood that ‘play’ is an essential part of a child’s day. The dilemma then becomes, how to use play to support all areas of development. Or, is it a balance of play and engaging learning activities that are directed?

First we must define what ‘play-based learning’ is, and is not. True play-based learning does not have a pre-conceived agenda. Activities are fluid and open-ended. Play-based learning is child driven, open-ended, and conducted for the purpose of enjoyment. There is value in playing to discover, experiment, and learn. Through play, children are developing social skills, language and vocabulary skills, problem solving skills, and acquiring cognitive knowledge. According to NAEYC, “The impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world.”

Play-based learning can be identified by:

  • Child’s choice – children decide what to play, how to play, and how long to play; adults can make suggestions but the choice is the child’s
  • Fun and enjoyable – an emotional response of pleasure is important
  • Unstructured – the activity is hands-on, experiential discovery, is child-directed with no preplanned outcome or rules
  • Process not product oriented – no determined end goal
  • Imaginative – play activities are often pretend or make-believe

Non play-based programs use a more academic approach where learning opportunities are implemented through structure and routine. Teacher directed activities are planned and taught based on a child’s developmental level and individual need. Activities that are directed or prescribed by a teacher are not ‘play’ even though they may be offered as a learning song or game. These fun activities may later on be integrated into play activities by the child. Learning that is fun and engaging is more likely to have positive outcomes.

Critical to all types of early childhood programs is the use of observations and assessments to identify a child’s strengths and areas of growth. Observation and assessment can help the educator be purposeful and intentional in what is offered to the children. This is true whether the program uses play-based activities or more structured academic activities.

It may be easier to observe and assess a child’s knowledge and development level in structured learning programs. Activities are planned with specific outcomes, and it is obvious if a child has mastered the skill or not. Once this information is examined, specific activities can be developed and offered to help a child learn or master a skill.

Early childhood educators that offer a play-based curriculum need to be very thoughtful when providing play materials and opportunities. Play-based programming does not mean a total free for all with no limits on materials or activities. Rather, play activities should be provided that will help a child’s on-going development. This is why observation and assessment are so crucial. Understanding and assessing the learning in play-based programs assures that the materials offered are age and developmentally appropriate.

Early childhood educators offering play-based curriculum also need to use their state’s kindergarten standards in order to make sure that the children in their program are experiencing the play activities that will help them meet the standards. Materials are rotated and changed in order to help facilitate learning.

As with many things in our world and daily lives, a balance of play and teacher-directed activities offers the best of both programming styles. Play activities allow for creative thinking, expanded learning, and social interactions. Teacher-directed activities allow for more prescriptive learning opportunities that children can incorporate into their growing knowledge base. So, plan for your best!

Resources available online:

Play-Based Learning: What It Is and Why It Should Be a Part of Every Classroom | Edmentum Blog

What is a play-based curriculum? (kids-konnect.com)

Unstructured Play: 13 Pros & Cons for Learning (2021) (helpfulprofessor.com)  

What is play-based learning? | Wonderschool Resources Hub