What Is Play-Based Learning?

For decades, musicians have written nostalgic lyrics about the beauty of childhood. Twenty-One Pilots wish they could turn back time “to the sweet old days” and Ed Sheeran reminisces about the “sweet perfume of the mountain grass” of his youth. 

There’s a central theme to all these songs: play. As adults, we often watch with envy as our kids play. They just have a knack for it! Truth is, all that fun is also educational. 

Play is a natural, organic way for children to make sense of their world. It has a big part in their growth and development. The idea of play-based learning takes this innate behaviour and makes it a central part of a child’s early education. 

What is play-based learning?

Play-based learning is a type of educational approach for early childhood that’s based on natural play. That means it’s child-led and open-ended. There’s no forcing it and no defined end goal.

Two boys playing with water with the quote: Child based play is fun, spontaneous, imaginative, child-led, and all about the process.

The elements of play-based learning

A whole bunch of things go into play-based learning but some of the key elements are that the play is:

  • Child-led
  • Fun
  • Spontaneous
  • Imaginative
  • All about the process

Child-led

This means your youngsters choose to play, all on their own. It’s voluntary. They choose HOW they’ll play and for how long. The adult might invite play but that’s about it.

Fun

The whole point of play-based learning is that it’s learning without being deliberate. There’s no restlessness or dissatisfaction. Just good, wholesome enjoyment (sure, there might be a tussle over toys but nothing that gets in the way of the fun experience). 

Spontaneous

There’s no structure to the playtime. There are no rules on how to play (except for those your children might make up!). 

Your little ones have all the time in the world to explore, discover, experiment… All on their own time and with their own interests. And because they’re leading the charge, they’re more engaged and engrossed in it.

Imaginative

Play-based learning is about calling on the imagination and immersing in a world of make believe. It’s inventive, demanding creativity and innovation. 

All about the process

There’s no learning outcome to tick off at the end of play-based learning. We don’t have an end goal. The important thing is the process—how your children are taking in the world around them. 

Why is learning through play important?

At Sounds Like This, we love to get behind play-based learning because so many studies have proven it’s good for kids. 

Play has a special part in almost every area of a child’s development.

A venn diagram showing how children learn, with one circle representing play, another representing observation, and valuable learning experience in the cross section.

It gives them important information about the material world around them. As they explore, they’re exposed to different tactile experiences like wet paint, soft and squeezable teddy bears, or hard and pointy wooden blocks. 

And because kids just WANT to play, it’s one of the easiest ways to get them to learn.

When children are doing what they love, when it doesn’t feel like a chore, they’re more receptive to the experience and they learn better. 

A lot of child development psychologists have also emphasised the importance of play. One of the most famous of them all, Piaget (1969), said play provides a way for children to bring together their knowledge, understanding, and experiences of the world. 

Through play, children have opportunities to build their linguistic and social skills. Role-playing helps them build empathy and understand others. 

Play helps them learn to focus their attention, take initiative, and solve problems. And it massively promotes creativity and flexible thinking. 

How to encourage learning through play

Play-based learning sounds like the easiest thing in the world: You just leave them to it, right? WRONG! It can be helpful to engage with your children during their playtime so they can further process what they’re learning. 

Two boys tussling in the grass with an Einstein quote that says "life is a like a piano: what you get out of it depends on how you play it"

Why not try:

  • Sitting down, picking up their toys, and joining them in the fun. It can be a lot more enriching for the child (and it’s actually kind of fun for adults too!). 
  • Practice imitation. Model a play activity—throw a ball, bang on some blocks, this is a chance to let your inner child out!—and wait for your children to imitate you. 
  • Rotate through toys or expose your children to new environments and people so they get a diversity of experiences.
  • Create challenges. Make an object just out of reach or give them a problem-solving puzzle to promote early critical thinking. If they get stuck, you can model the solution. 
  • Place different tools and instruments throughout your early learning setting and encourage your children to explore the sounds these materials make when they’re used in different ways. 

Ready to bring play-based musical learning into your early learning setting?

Look, there’s no two ways about it, encouraging play-based musical learning anywhere is going to be NOISY! But what might sound like pandemonium to you could actually be a true musical journey for your children as they discover different textures, feelings, and sounds and a sense of freedom and pride over their own musical creations.

Find some new musical activities to play with your children with our 5-minute Guide to Effective Music-Making in Your Early Learning Setting and start making joyful music in your classroom today.

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