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Understanding Play-Based Learning & Its Impact on Students

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A young child plays with wooden blocks in a play-based learning classroom.
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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s... a wooden block?

When kids are engaged in play, there’s no telling what they’ll dream up. But while they’re playing, they’re also developing skills that they’ll use for the rest of their lives. 

Whether in the classroom or at home, play-based learning can help you harness the power of playfulness to build a fun and effective learning environment. 

Keep reading to find out how children’s play can boost their social, mental and physical development!

What is play-based learning?

Play-based learning is an educational approach where students are guided into learning through activities and play of their choice. This method enables the development of crucial academic foundations and social interaction skills, essential for their future scholastic success.

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines play as:

“An activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it is fun and often spontaneous.”

While there are lots of intrinsic benefits for young children when they can play freely, play-based learning harnesses the fun of play to help them learn crucial skills in their early years. 

It can seem a little daunting to connect play to children’s learning, but play-based learning typically follows one of two models:

  1. Free play — Completely child-led, free play lets children pursue their own interests with the teacher or parent as an outside observer. It should be child-directed, internally motivated and, above all, fun!
  2. Guided play — While still focused on the child and their intrinsic interest, guided play has more adult involvement. Your role as parent or teacher is to choose materials and activities that reinforce key concepts and guide play as a demonstrator or co-player.

Both free play and guided play have a valuable role to play at home or at school.

The value of learning through play

Two students work on a play-based learning activity in their classroom.

The effectiveness of play-based learning is backed by extensive research. Prominent researchers in this pace, like Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, have contributed significantly to understanding the importance of play.

One set of researchers defined play as “the work of children.” And while it might not look like work to us, play helps child development in lots of ways. When children are engaged in play, they’re learning:

  • How to stay focused on a task
  • How the world around them works
  • The value of independent learning and inquiry

In another study, researchers from the University of Toronto pointed out that when there’s an over-emphasis on teaching purely academic skills in an early childhood education setting, students are less engaged and more likely to feel stressed.

And when students aren’t engaged in their learning, they’re more likely to miss key academic skills that affect their education down the road. Researchers found that play-based methods can positively impact academic learning, in some cases more than direct instruction

More studies have found that play helps students build on their previous knowledge and interact with the world and people around them. It also helps them build a sense of self by discovering what they are (and aren’t) interested in

Components of play-based learning

Two young girls play with playdough in a play-based learning classroom.

Play-based learning offers meaningful learning experiences that help children develop — when all the right elements are present.

In general, there are six key components:

  1. Process-focused — Play-based learning is about the journey, not the destination. The process of play is the most valuable part, especially since young children are less goal-oriented while they’re playing.
  2. Imaginative — Dramatic play and make-believe is an essential part of play for preschoolers and up. Even if it doesn't make sense to you, your students are creating stories in their head and expressing themselves!
  3. Entertaining — When setting up play-based learning activities, it’s important to emphasize engaging learning experiences. Set up enough ways to play that kids are engaged, but not overwhelmed with options. 
  4. Structured or unstructured — Structured play-based learning is directed by a teacher or facilitator, who acts as a mediator to help children use materials and deepen understanding. Unstructured play gives children time to engage in free play that’s directed by their own interests and natural curiosity.
  5. Exploratory —  Play-based learning should give children a chance to explore the world and gather new information about their place in it. As they play, children can learn about language, new objects, social relationships and more!
  6. Self-directed — The ideal play-based learning experience is child focused and lets them make their own decisions about what to play with and how they want to play. This ensures play is motivating and can help strengthen their problem-solving skills. 
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Top benefits of a play-based curriculum

Two girls play with toys during play-based learning activities.

We’ve covered what a play-based learning program should be, but what about why it should be that way? 

There are lots of ways play can help children thrive in early childhood education settings and throughout the rest of their lives.

1. Language skills and communication

Studies have shown that play-based learning is important when it comes to helping children improve early literacy skills like narrative language and grammar. 

When children engage in learning as play, they’re actively building language and communication skills — talking with their peers, describing what they’re doing and learning to tell stories. In particular, dramatic play helps children:

  • Work with other children
  • Express their emotions verbally
  • Find ways to talk about new things and experiences

Including a reading or writing center in your play-based learning setup can help children develop an appreciation for world and literature at a young age!

2. Build imagination

A young female kindergarten student plays dress up during play based learning activities.

Creativity isn’t just being able to draw or sing or make things. It’s understanding that problems can be solved in different ways and that the world isn’t as simple as you think. 

That wooden block in their hand isn’t just a block — it’s a piece of their castle, a meteorite from outer space or a plane flying through the sky. When children use their imagination as part of play, they’re finding learning opportunities and building creativity skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives. 

3. Problem-solving skills

Play-based learning helps promote critical thinking and independence, two key factors when it comes to building problem-solving skills. 

If a child builds a tower of blocks and it falls over, that’s a problem. To solve the problem, they have to build a tower that doesn’t fall over. As they play, children are constantly reacting to new knowledge, getting concrete experiences about how the world works and creating a sense of self-achievement.

When students build problems-solving skills, they’re better equipped to tackle academic skills like numeracy and early literacy development.

4. Cognitive development

The American Academy of Pediatrics Journal points out that play based-learning isn’t just fun, it’s essential for children:

“Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.”

Play helps children make connections between objects and build an understanding of the world around them. They’re learning how to make a plan and stick to it (playing board games) or when to deviate (dramatic play), and that both options are equally important.

5. Physical development

A young girl plays outside with bubbles to promote physical development through play-based learning activities.

Beyond cognitive development, play-based learning helps children develop fine motor skills while they:

  • Grab pencils and drawing
  • Touch new textures and objects
  • Build a masterpiece out of play dough
  • Balance building blocks on top of each other

These activities help develop control and coordination. Additionally, active learning and outdoor play helps them develop gross motor skills while they’re:

  • Throwing a ball
  • Jumping across obstacles
  • Running through a playground

Children are constantly growing and developing muscles, big and small, and play is one of the best ways for them to practice!

6. Build sensation ability

Similar to fine motor skills, sensation ability refers to how children interpret and interact with characteristics in their environment. 

This is where sensory play like sand and water tables, play dough or calm-down jars are really important. They can help children develop their five senses, which is linked to brain and motor development. 

Mindfulness activities and guided exploration can also help children build sensation ability.

7. Encourage curiosity and motivation

A young child plays with a toy camera in a classroom using play-based learning activities.

The world is a big place, filled with interesting things to explore and experience. But what can a child imagine with a handful of simple materials — a cardboard box, some crayons and construction paper, or a pile of rocks?

Kids are naturally curious and motivated to play with anything they find interesting. Incorporating play-based learning into your classroom or child care setting helps them become motivated to try new things and build a sense of self-achievement during new learning opportunities.

8. Social and emotional development

Play-based learning is not simply about letting children play on their own or just about learning hard skills. Creating a conducive play-based learning environment helps foster cognitive and emotional development. It involves providing a variety of materials and activities that promote exploration, problem-solving, and social interactions.

One study found that when children play, they’re practicing responding to danger without triggering an unpleasant stress response — instead, play activates reward circuitry in the brain. 

Play-based learning has a whole host of benefits for children’s social and emotional learning, including:

  • Rule-following
  • Communication
  • Self-awareness
  • Conflict resolution
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Emotional self-regulation

According to another study, “Sociodramatic play enhances children’s capacity for reflecting before acting, role-taking, perspective-taking, empathy, altruism, and emotional understanding and regulation.”

Best ways to use play for early childhood education

Overhead picture of a young child reading a book in a play-based learning classroom.

Many teachers and parents often feel a tension between meeting academic standards and incorporating play-based learning into their routines. 

But there are lots of ways to harness the power of play for your classroom or home! 

Set up learning centers related to classroom concepts

Play-based learning activities don’t always have a 1:1 correlation with academic skills, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them to reinforce foundational concepts and get students curious about new concepts.

  • Writing — Help kids develop fine motor skills and a love of words! Set up a station filled with markers, crayons, fun papers and anything else they need to get writing. Don’t forget to give them space to share their creations and ideas.
  • Math — Pattern blocks, manipulatives like base ten blocks or coins, and other materials like geoboards are a great way to make math class hands-on. Students can practice using money in a play store, or you can set up pictures and charts about new topics next to math activities. 
  • Reading  — Researchers found that including relevant literacy materials in play-based settings can increase engagement and practice in kindergarten classrooms! Age-appropriate books, comfy seats and props for dramatic play can also encourage kids to read and express their ideas. 
  • Science — Help kids embrace their inner scientist with natural materials like rocks, shells, sticks and plants. It’s only science if you write it down, so encourage kids to record their observations while exploring new materials and using scientific objects like magnets, lenses or simple machines.

Embrace choice time

Activity station in a play-based learning classroom.

Similar to the concept of Genius Hour for elementary school kids and older, choice time is play-based learning that’s entirely child-directed: you put out the materials, and they choose the activity.

Set aside a certain amount of time in your schedule for students to explore and get creative. Different stations can include:

  • Drama area with dress-up clothes and props
  • Water tables, sand tables or play dough for sensory play
  • Art supplies like paint, paper, rocks, markers and crayons
  • Building blocks and wooden puzzles for fine motor skill development
  • Science activities like testing liquid’s viscosity or using simple levers and pulleys
  • Computer station with digital game-based learning activities like Prodigy Math!

Students can be as self-directed as possible, while you intervene as necessary.

Don’t forget about development

Instead of exclusively focusing on learning-related activities, be sure to also put out materials that support physical development, social skills and mental development during early learning years. This includes:

  • Matching games
  • Building blocks or Duplo
  • Age-appropriate puzzles with various shapes and sizes
  • Sensory activities like calm-down jars and sensory bags
  • Play dough or clay with tools for spatial reasoning and perception
  • Board games that require two or more players for social interaction

This helps little kiddos practice fine motor skills, develop emotional skills and boost development.

Some play-based learning activities include pretend play, problem-solving games, and creative exercises.

For instance, building with Lego allows children to express their creativity and improve their motor skills. It involves problem-solving, decision-making and hand-eye coordination, fostering a host of skills through a single activity.

Get outside to play

Young child plays outside on a playground while carrying a long stick.

Now more than ever, children are spending more time on screens and less time playing outside. Using play-based learning techniques to promote outdoor play can help children stay happy and healthy while they develop gross motor skills.

With a child’s imagination, the school playground can turn into almost anything — a castle, an obstacle course or a bridge over a moat of boiling lava. Activity panels give children more ways to interact, while slides and stairs teach them about gravity and control. 

Outside of the playground, there are lots of easy ways to get children playing, like:

  • Hula hoops
  • Skipping rope
  • Balls and nets
  • Chalk for hopscotch

Get kids playing outside to reap all the benefits of fresh air and fun!

Watch and listen

Early childhood educators and parents, this one's for you. While students are playing and learning, observe their learning preferences and social dynamics to find insights that help you teach or parent better. Ask yourself:

  • What activities are kids the most drawn to?
  • What do they spend the longest time doing?
  • Are there any positive social dynamics to encourage? 
  • Are there negative social dynamics you need to address now?

If you want to get involved in play experiences, play with children and not at them. This is known as teacher-directed play. Stay interested and engaged, and ask guiding questions that let the child do most of the imagining and directing. Repeat their language back to them and add one extra word to help them build their language as they play.

Remember, you’re there as a facilitator — but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun!

How can teachers and educators promote play-based learning?

Two teachers and a classroom full of students use play-based learning activities.

In the pedagogy of play-based learning, there are lots of ways for educators and parents to take an active role.

Above all, remember:

  • Model different learning activities and rules for using resources
  • Make it exciting for students, with a variety of open-ended activities and resources
  • Pay attention to what children are drawn to and find more ways to incorporate it into your routine
  • Keep the material simple and multi-purpose for best results and high-quality opportunities
  • Let students direct play and learning as much as possible, asking clarifying and guiding questions as necessary for children’s learning

And don't forget to have fun!

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