What is play-based learning in preschool?

If you have a child in childcare or looking at starting your child in early education, you have undoubtedly come across the phrase ‘play-based learning’. Many parents who hear this are initially concerned it means there’s no structure in their child’s learning environment. However, kids thrive in a play-based learning environment, and skilled educators provide a curriculum that allows children to explore and have fun!

What is play-based learning?

Children are naturally motivated to play. Children are also individuals with very different interests. A play-based program builds on these two things, using play as a context for learning and exploration. Children can experiment, discover and solve problems in fun and hands-on ways.

Drawing on a child’s natural sense of enquiry, play-based experiences are led by the child and supported by an educator. While immersed in the activity, an educator encourages a child’s learning and inquiry through interactions that aim to stretch their thinking to higher levels.

For example, a child is playing with coloured blocks may be guided by their educator to stack them into piles of certain colours, or group certain shapes together, or count how many red ones there are. Or an education may describe the texture of the sand to a child digging in the sand pit — adding vocabulary such as ‘grainy’. Children may learn cause and effect by pouring the sand, using it as a weight or burying and uncovering items.

Research shows play-based learning programs for younger children can provide a strong basis for later success at school. Furthermore, children’s learning outcomes are shown to be higher in a play-based program, compared to children following a direct instruction approach.

As play supports positive attitudes to learning, such as persistence, enthusiasm, curiosity and imagination, a well-executed play-based program can create socially competent learners. These children are better able to face challenges and create solutions… Skills that cannot be replicated by direct instruction.

Play-based learning is central to the Australian Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), the national framework for early education.

Why is play-based learning important?

Though it might look like ‘just play’, children learn an array of different skills through the process of play. Innovations manager at Sanctuary Early Learning Adventure, Emeliah Kolinac, says that as children explore, discover, negotiate, take risks, create meaning and solve problems — each step develops social, literacy, numeracy and communication skills. They also develop fine and gross motor skills.

“At Sanctuary Early Learning Adventure, we truly believe every child has the ability to be and do whatever they desire,” Ms Kolinac says. “We see children as capable and competent learners who have the ability to judge their own skill level and capabilities.”

She says the Centre’s learning spaces and educators support children to take safe risks. Creating an environment where they can practise skills such as perseverance, cooperation and relationship building.

“Our focus is on children’s emerging autonomy, allows them to have a strong sense of agency. Agency provides them with the opportunity to have some control over what occurs in their everyday world,” Ms Kolinac says.

“By offering children open-ended resources, we encourage them to use their imagination and create things we would never have imagined. When we trust children’s abilities and see them as capable learners, they come to life before our eyes.‍”

What this looks like in the classroom

Play-based learning may look simple on the surface, but there’s a lot of work that goes on in the background to ensure the learning outcomes are interesting and engaging to each child. By achieving these outcomes, children are developing the skills they’ll need school and life.

“At Sanctuary, our educators have an in-depth understating of child development and can introduce concepts such as pre-math, pre-reading, pre-writing – the list goes on,” Ms Kolinac says. “By following each individual child’s interests and strengths, we offer experiences and environments where children thrive. Our belief is that children truly interested in a topic learn more.”

As an example, she says there is often a small group of children who love playing in the mud pit.

“They would stay there all day if they could,” Ms Kolinac says. “They are not interested in learning to write their name or sitting at the writing table. Our educators acknowledge their interest of the mud pit and invite them to help with planting and digging in the garden. The educator introduces concepts that include hypothesising, measuring, writing, sharing, turn taking, mathematics, sustainability and a long-term project that may go on for months, which promotes sustained shared thinking.”

How do educators support children’s play?

Children require extended periods of uninterrupted play. Therefore, educators make decisions throughout the day and adjust their routines to enable children to either continue with their play or allow them to return to their play later in the day.

Ms Kolinac says when interrupting children’s play, Sanctuary demonstrates respect.

“For example, a child’s ‘work in progress’ is left out or stored safely so they can return to their play after lunch or rest time,” Ms Kolinac says.

Benefits of play-based learning

  • Encourages language skills
  • Supports pre-literacy skills
  • Develops social and emotional skills
  • Fosters creativity and imagination
  • Encourages a love for learning.

What you can do to support play-based learning

  • Read to your child daily
  • Ask your child lots of questions to engage their curious mind
  • Give your child extended periods of uninterrupted play both indoors and outdoors
  • Where possible, limit screen time
  • Encourage conversations about your child’s interests
  • Talk regularly with your child’s early learning centre. Ensure a synergy between your child’s life at home and at preschool.

You might also like…

Why child-led play is the BEST!
The secret to creating a successful Early Learning Centre
Why your early childhood teacher is so important

Written by Angela Sutherland

After spending many years hustling stories on busy editorial desks around the world, Angela is now mum of two little ones and owner/editor at Kids on the Coast / Kids in the City. She is an atrocious cook and loves cutting shapes to 90s dance music.

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