Video: An Introduction to Playful Learning

  • Playful learning promotes learning and development by relying on children’s play to drive discovery and problem-solving.
  • Playful learning involves free play and guided play.
  • By demonstrating playful learning and incentivizing experimentation with it, programs can support caregivers and educators to incorporate play.
  • Research indicates that playful learning is crucial for supporting children’s social and emotional development and creativity, which supports later academic achievement.

In Practice

Children are naturally curious. They explore their surroundings to learn about how the world works. By capitalizing on this, playful learning promotes development and learning, relying on children’s play to drive discovery and problem-solving.

Playful learning, also referred to as learning through play, consists of free play and guided play, both of which are child-directed. Guided play is designed according to a curriculum goal, with scaffolding by an adult, while free play is usually conducted without a specific learning objective.  Guided play is more effective than free play when trying to reach a particular learning objective.

  • In free play, for example, a child may start independently building a structure with blocks. As the child adds more pieces to the structure, she decides by herself how to assemble them. When she is finished, she may imagine it to be a castle, which may lead to more play and subsequent discovery. Caregivers can support a child’s free play by: following the child’s lead, talking and listening to the child, asking open-ended questions, praising effort and achievements, and letting the child take responsibility.
  • In guided play, for example, a caregiver may set up a scenario to encourage children to build structures to reach a broad objective of learning about different professions. The caregiver may instruct the children to build with blocks and then ask children questions to help guide their play, such as: “What type of building are you making?” or “Who works there?” This type of play is still child-directed, since children decide what to build and what they imagine it to be, but it is scaffolded by the caregiver to reach a particular learning objective. Caregivers can support guided play by: setting up a scenario or situation, posing open-ended questions, encouraging children to communicate what they are thinking, and pointing out how a child’s activity relates back to a specific learning theme.

Playful learning can be used in combination with a variety of early learning curricula across varied settings. In many early learning settings, the curriculum determines what content is taught. However, practitioners can still integrate elements of play into their pedagogy to create a rich learning environment.

Tips

Model learner-centered pedagogy and playful learning for caregivers and educators during pre- and in-service training.

Many teachers or caregivers are unfamiliar with playful learning. Modeling playful learning during training allows educators and caregivers to experience this approach by exposing them to child-centered methods and illustrating ways of learning through play. It is important for educators to understand the differences between free and guided play and in particular, how they can implement guided play to support children’s learning. See also Supporting Early Childhood Practitioners. 

Incentivize, recognize, and reward caregivers and educators who experiment with playful learning.

Many caregivers and educators lack the incentives and support to experiment and continue with playful learning. Examples of ways to provide incentives, recognition, and rewards include: financial compensation, verbal praise, awards, official certificates, community recognition, and more. See also Supporting Early Childhood Practitioners. 

Educate stakeholders and advocate for the value of playful learning.

Parents, administrators, policymakers, and caregivers may view play as leisure rather than as a learning instrument, and may value direct instruction over free and guided play. Practitioners thus need to make a concerted effort to build stakeholders’ understandings of and support for playful learning. This could be done by: 1. Hosting meetings that explain the evidence of playful learning’s benefits; 2. Demonstrating playful methods in a learning setting to show how play helps build academic skills; 3. Identifying successful examples of playful learning in their own communities; 4. Conducting outreach to local preschools, childcare centers, and play groups to support the collective creation of materials that explain playful learning in a locally contextualized way; and 5. Share monitoring & evaluation results that document children’s progress with parents and community members.

Contextualize and adapt playful learning for your environment.

Practitioners should contextualize and adapt playful learning methods so that they are locally appropriate. Such adaptations could include: 1. Incorporating local songs and games into group activities; 2. Linking imaginary play to activities that are valued in the community, including local livelihoods such as farming, fishing, and shop keeping; 3. Creating props, toys, and imaginary scenarios that are familiar to children; and 4. Making routine activities or chores more playful by singing songs, playing pretend, etc.

Support the use of local materials in early learning environments.

Educators and caregivers can use locally available materials by: 1. Collecting leaves, beads, bangles, sticks, stones, boxes, and other objects that are safe for children to manipulate in early learning settings; 2. Holding a local materials and toys workshop for educators and caregivers, with demonstrations on making and using toys and classroom materials; 3. Encouraging children and parents to make or find their own props and explore the materials around them; and 4. Partnering with a local shop or other business that may have excess supplies to donate to early learning programs.

Design learning environments that are supportive of learning through play.

Given large class sizes and limited resources, it can be difficult to find space and reserve time for children’s play. Thoughtfully designing an early learning environment can help. Practitioners could design an early learning space with a number of “corners” or distinct areas based around different types of play, such as fantasy, art, science discovery, books, and building with blocks or other manipulatives. When facilities are small and cramped, a practitioner could use outdoor space by setting up similar play areas with games and materials (balls, sticks, hoops, hopscotch, etc.) and leading group activities. Caregivers should also decide on a schedule that is the same every day, so that children know what to expect, with blocks of time for free play, guided play or group activities, and for routines, such as handwashing and cleaning up.

Tools

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A resource for monitoring and measuring the impact of childcare centers.
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This tool offers suggestions of activities which adults can carry out with children using Lego Duplo bricks.
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Integrated Learning - Teacher Manual

This manual is designed to support teachers in creating a child-centered, participatory environment for learning which integrates games into daily practice.
Right To Play, 2011.
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A Guide to Parents to Help Their Child Develop Through Play

This document provides guidance to parents on supporting children at different ages to develop through the provision of playful activities.
Right To Play
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Holistic Child Development through the Early Years: A Resource for Trainers delivering Early Child Play Workshops

This resource is composed of a reference guide for teacher trainers and a self-assessment tool for teachers working with young children to determine the effectiveness of playful activities.
Right To Play, 2007.
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Play at the Core Educator

This manual is a resource for pre-kindergarten educators and paraprofessionals to plan, prepare, implement, and assess playful learning in classrooms.
Right To Play
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The Madrasa Early Childhood Programme: 25 Years of Experience

This publication provides a case study of the Madrasa Early Childhood Program which utilizes innovative practices to cultivate playful learning and in supporting practitioners.
Aga Khan Development Network, 2008.
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Parental/Primary Caregiver Capacity Building Training Package

In this document prepared by the Department of Social Development in South Africa in collaboration with UNICEF, Session 4 on Creativity and Play provides information that can be used in sessions with caregivers on incorporating play into day to day parenting to support children's development.
UNICEF, 2008
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Learning and Developing Through Play

This document outlines the different types of plays and offers scenarios for practitioners to review in order to think about how they can best support children's development through this approach.
Aistear
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Chapter 5: Developing in the Curriculum

This chapter provides guidance to practitioners on curriculum design and pedagogical approaches based on sound theories and principles.
Wood, E. and Attfield, J.
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Using Play to Grow Smart Children: Things You Can Do and Toys You Can Make

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Catholic Relief Services
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Lesotho Guide for Strengthening Teacher Capacity

This guide offers includes nine training modules for preschool teachers including around topics such as how to create an appropriate learning environment and how to support play activities.
Catholic Relief Services Lesotho
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This blog post provides more information about Kidogo's approach to incorporate play-based learning.
Kidogo
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Using LEGO bricks as an instrument in Early Childhood Development

This video shows how children can use LEGO bricks to play and learn.
LEGO Foundation
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LEGO Foundation
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Six Bricks Tutorials

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LEGO Foundation
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LEGO Foundation
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This toolkit provides information for caregivers working with young children in emergency situations to organize activities and make play materials with locally available resources.
UNICEF
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The Family Protection Project
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UNHCR and the LEGO Foundation collaborate to provide playful learning opportunities

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LEGO Foundation
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LEGO Foundation
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Parenting Cards

These are sample child development cards from Save the Children's early childhood program in Bangladesh.
Save the Children Bangladesh
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Featured Case Studies

These case studies provide examples of how programs can incorporate playful learning.

Kidogo Early Years

Kidogo is a social enterprise that provides high-quality, affordable early childhood care and education for families living in urban informal settlements of Kenya.

Kidogo Kenya

Training & Resources in Early Education (TREE)

Training & Resources in Early Education (TREE) is a non-profit organization which provides training and resources for ECD service providers with a focus on supporting families and children from birth through age four.

Training & Resources in Early Education (TREE) South Africa

Additional Programs

Click the links below to view profiles of programs incorporating playful learning.

Lively Minds Play Schemes

Lively Minds trains Kindergarten teachers and volunteer mothers to lead play-based learning schemes for young children in government schools located in rural communities of Ghana.
Lively Minds Ghana
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PUPA Early Childhood Development

PUPA creates teacher training information, courses, and workshops for low-income caregivers, educators, and parents to incorporate play into their work with children 0-6.
PUPA Empreendimentos Educacionais (PUPA Educational Enterprises) Brazil
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Fabretto Children's Foundation's Early Education Program

In Nicaragua, poverty is overwhelming rural, with 80% of the extreme poor living in rural communities. Rural children have no access to resources to stimulate development and often enter primary school unprepared, thus perpetuating the cycle of rural poverty. Fabretto seeks to respond to these challenges through quality ECD and teacher training.
Fabretto Children's Foundation Nicaragua
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Play helps children to develop the skills, knowledge, and values that lay the foundation for later learning and development. For example, play helps children learn to listen, work with others, and use language to express themselves. Evidence shows that developing these foundational skills is more important for young children than is knowledge related to particular subjects like language arts, science, and math, which children develop as they advance into formal schooling.

Research on playful learning, particularly guided play, indicates that this approach is equally effective to direct instruction in delivering academic content, and leads to better academic and non-academic outcomes for young children. The balance between freedom and structure in guided play encourages children to become active and engaged partners in the learning process. Outcomes supported by playful learning include motivation, executive function and self-regulation skills , cooperation, social skills, creativity, reading, writing, speaking, and math, among others. Furthermore, play helps to build the idea that learning is fun and meaningful. By promoting active engagement and opportunities for new and creative experiences, learning through play empowers a child to be an active and confident learner.

In summary, playful learning is crucial for supporting children’s social and emotional development and creativity, which, in turn, eases their transition to formal schooling and later academic achievement.

 

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This brief outlines the evidence around what matters in early childhood curricula including the importance of play and child initiated learning.
OECD
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This study presented the perceptions of teachers and parents in Bangladesh of the importance of play.
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LEGO Foundation
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Lall, M., 2010.
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Transforming pedagogies in early childhood education through the Early Childhood Development Project, Balochistan. In Search of Relevance and Sustainability of Educational Change : An International Conference at Aga Khan University Institute for Education

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Child Centered Approach: How is it perceived by preschool educators in Mongolia?

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"Chapter 13: Curricula in Early Childhood Care and Education," in Investing Against Evidence: The Global State of Early Childhood Care and Education

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Curriculum and play in early child development

This paper discusses how an open interpretation of play and curricula can impact the beliefs of early childhood practitioners and classroom practices.
Bodrova, E., & Leong, D., 2010.
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Alarming Disappearance of Play from Early Childhood Education

This article discusses the current focus on the delivery of academic content in preschool to the detriment of incorporating playful learning.
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LEGO Foundation
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Systematic Creativity in the Digital Realm

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LEGO Foundation
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Building children’s writing skills through learning through play

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University of Cambridge; LEGO Foundation
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Whitebread, D., Kuvalja, M., & O'Connor, A.
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