Play: nature’s default mechanism for learning and it’s role in schooling

photo of child s hand playing clay

Photo by Kate Romeo on

If you work in a primary school or have children attending one you may be aware of a growth in popularity in recent years of play-based approaches. It is not just a grass-roots teacher-led movement, teachers can undertake professional development courses concerning play (link) and Cambridge University even has a research unit devoted to it and a professorship sponsored by Lego (link).  This blog is my attempt to examine the justifications for these approaches and the nature of the evidence supporting them.

There are three reasons I see that might be used for including play in the primary curriculum, above and beyond what students experience at interval and lunchtime. The first stems from recognition of the important role that play has in neurological and social development of children and the fear that perhaps they are not receiving enough play to adequately facilitate this. Both these are supported by evidence. Research documents the importance of play in the development of mammals and children eg. Burghardt Bekoff Ginsburg. and also evidence that the amount of outdoor play children experience has decreased significantly over the last decades in favour of indoor activities such as screen-time that often do not involve other children Twenge.

A second reason, related to the first, is that academic learning is best delayed  till the age of 7, based on the idea that the child’s brain is not developmentally ready for such learning till then. This seems to be based in part on Piaget’s stages of development in which children do not develop the ability to think logically until they enter the ‘concrete operational stage.’ However, despite the dogged persistence in educational circles of Piaget’s theories, significant and valid criticism casting doubt on them has been made in the light of more modern research (link).

Arguments about school starting age are also made based on the success of the Finnish education system in which children don’t start school till age 7. However, in our more diverse society here in NZ, delaying the acquisition of vocabulary, decoding text and maths skills till age 7 may miss an important opportunity to close the gap between the children that gain this knowledge from their parents before they even start school and those from less privileged backgrounds who do not.

The third reason play-based approaches are advocated relates to the romantic meta-belief underpinning progressive educational thought – that children learn better through play or the most ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ method possible. In essence, play has become the ‘new’ discovery learning which seems to find adherents in every generation of teachers despite overwhelming evidence showing explicit instruction of a structured curriculum by a teacher is more effective Rosenshine Mayer Kirschner. Let’s not forget also that the very successful Direct Instruction model of Englemann in Project Follow  Through involved teaching primary children.

Some might argue that surely a play-based approach would still be great for students to learn oracy, motor-coordination and important social skills like self-regulation. However, I would argue that in the environment of a school we have the opportunity to deliver structured programs such as music, drama, and PE which would deliver these outcomes much more effectively. There are still arguments to be made for free-play as an intrinsically unique activity of benefit to children eg Gray. but perhaps lunchtime and interval are enough?

So there are many questions to be answered around the inclusion of play-based learning in primary schools. Is free-play or structured play valuable in the first years but not in later years? Is there an opportunity cost relating to the closing of knowledge gaps between more and less privileged children? How sound is the underpinning reasoning for including play-based approaches? And lastly, but most importantly, where are the quantitative longitudinal studies demonstrating its efficacy over other approaches?

Footnote: If you thought the science of why mammals play was settled read this

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