Why I Don’t Like Play Based Learning
The term ‘play based learning’ now evokes in me a much different feeling than it once did. Something like nails on a chalkboard perhaps? Not because I don’t believe in children learning through play, no. But because it appears that the term has been hijacked.
Most times that I scroll through my facebook feed I am confronted with countless new, ‘fun’, ‘amazing’ ideas of what people are calling ‘play based learning’. But I fear we have become a little confused. With the push for kids to be learning more and more at even younger ages, and more real play time being sacrificed in the pursuit of ‘keeping up’ or ‘getting ahead’, it infuriates me to see people calling clearly adult directed activities ‘play’. Why? Because play, real play, is IMPORTANT. I’m not sure how many times we have to say this. Study after study after study has confirmed it. And when we start twisting the word play to mean something adult led, then we lose our understanding of what children truly need. We stop advocating for play because we’re told schools are doing ‘play based learning’ now. And that’s what kids need right? Well, that obviously depends on your definition.
The other day I came across one of these activities, purportedly mixing ‘play’ with learning. A set of cards with actions on them to do while you read. The child picks one like ‘stomp your feet’ or ‘clap your hands’ and does the action while reading. People were loving it! They commented about how ‘fun’ it was for the kids. How great it was to combine play with learning! And of course about how it was a great idea for ‘play based learning’.
Let me unequivocally say, this is not play based learning.
Play is not something you do to a child.
If you have an agenda, if you are requiring them to do it, if you have to make it ‘fun’ to get them to comply, if they are not free to stop at any time, then it is not play.
“Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.” -Kay Redfield Jamison
What is play?
Play is self-chosen. Children were born to play. They love to play. They will play all day if they’re allowed. If you have to coax them into doing something, then it’s not play. Play never feels like work or an obligation.
Play is enjoyable. Play is fun! Play has no agenda. Play is not for the purpose of meeting adult goals.
Play is inherently valuable. All play is learning. No matter what it is. Whether you can clearly see the skills being mastered or not. There is no hierarchy of play.
Play is unstructured. In play, children make the rules. They decide how long they play for and what direction their play takes.
“Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life skills,” but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.”
– Peter Gray, Free to Learn
It seems we have rightly latched onto the idea that play based learning is what is best for children. But, instead of recognising the obvious value in free unstructured play, we have twisted it into a way to get children to learn what we want them to learn. Instead of making more time for play, we’re defeating it’s purpose by pushing adult agendas and requirements. Need 5 year olds to learn their letters? Make a ‘fun’ playful activity and call it ‘play based learning’. But that’s not how it works. We do such a disservice to children by trying to use their natural inclinations for self-education against them, as a way to get them to conform to what we want them to do.
I’m not saying don’t play with your kids, don’t make suggestions, or don’t set up things for them to explore. But, be mindful of your agenda. Children should feel free to play and use what is available however they like, with no expectations. Maybe Johnny paints a picture of a flower with the paints you left out for him. Maybe he experiments with mixing colours. Or maybe he just wants to squirt the paint in his belly button. It doesn’t matter, because it’s his choice. He is learning through play, and that is always surprising and beautiful to watch.
I believe so strongly in the value of free unstructured play for children. This is where true learning is found! Let’s stop confusing the meaning of play based learning. Let’s leave play to the experts, children. It is not ours to control or influence.
Play is not something you do to a child.
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Want to read more? You might also like:
- What if They Spend Their Whole Childhood Playing?
- Why Children Need Real World Learning
- Protecting Childhood
Yes yes and yes! It’s funny though, because when I tell people my kids learn by playing all day, they dismiss what we do as ” neglect ” yet I see so many posts on how they are making their ” learning playful ” all the time….( to me it sounds anything but!)
And by the way, I have two who would be totally squirting that paint in their belly buttons hahahahaha
haha me too!
I really like this. Thank you for the wake up call.
Thank you 🙂
I just love this post! Ive always disliked the term play based learning because it felt to me that I am still making sure that what they “need” to knoe at their age is being disguised with cute little eggs to match up or matching colours cards with the balls in the bag. And I will be honest Ive set up those activities before just for them to be “played” with once, the one time I show them what to do!!!! So Ive left those activities, instead I here them catch animals, and hear being injected with venom cause thats what they learnt from watching Steve Irwin today!
Thank you for finally saying that play based learning is just hidden agenda presented all colourful!
Oh I love hearing what they come up with on their own! That’s how you know what is really meaningful and interesting to THEM.
I am sitting here reading this with my 4 year old on my lap. I love and whole-heartedly agree with you! It drives me batty when I see those posts and articles and I can never convey that is a thoughtful way! My daughter would also like to know, what is that last photo? “Are they doing an experiment? The colors are really mixing with the clear liquid! Maybe we should do that!” I love unschooling! I see the advantages everyday!
Yes, she is doing an experiment! There she was colouring the water with food colouring. Then she added some yeast to see what would happen. She had cold water, warm water, and hot water to see if temperature would make a difference. I won’t tell you what happened because you might like to find out for yourself! If you do, be sure to share a photo with me! xx
This reminds me of a related pet peeve: I hate the overuse of the word “experiment.” They’re all over pinterest, too: science “experiments” for your kids to do. As in “do this, just like this, and this will happen.” That’s not an experiment, it’s following directions. Yours sounds like a true experiment. And play. (Isn’t it all the same thing?)
This is really inspirational. I love play based learning and totally agree with your philosophy here.
Thank you Sara 🙂
well put and i agree!
Thank you 🙂
Language have to ask ourselves why is the language changing is it yet again adults ,adults leading the way ,adults get lost in the language .
As we as we add a adult logic an adult language I think we loose somthing of the innocents of play natural play exploration discovery wonder as educators I see them getting lost in the language trying to keep up I feel it drags us away
Was that intended as poetry, or did it accidentally come out that way?
Amen! Thank you for writing this! I feel like I unsuccessfully try to convey this message to friends of mine all the time. The friend who wonders why their child isn’t having fun in preschool, where “playtime” means rotating from station to station every 15 minutes to complete structured (but FUN! 🙂 learning activities. “But it’s so fun,” they say, “they just get to play all day.” Not quite!! Or the friend who wonders why their elementary school child is struggling when they “get” to spend their afternoons having so much “fun” at soccer class or science club or gymnastics. “That’s all play, right?” WRONG! Or the teacher I recently argued with over the value of homework, her saying that a good teacher provide “meaningful and relevant” activities for the students to do for homework, so it’s important to have (“meaningful learning” is what the term “play based” becomes as they get older). UGH! I’m even hard pressed to find homeschool families in my area who will just get together to play with us! A “fun and educational” field trip to the museum, maybe, but to meet at the park at ten in the morning to just play? Sorry but that get’s in the way of learning time. Anyway, sorry for the rant! 🙂 Thanks for another great post!
Ugh! It’s so frustrating. Sometimes I wonder if anyone gets it. But I am happy to see some do!
I love the article and it is such an important message. But is structured learning so bad? I have a four year old who has been at home so far and has an awesome life of free play, with me, by himself, with other kiddies. He’s asking to go to school now! We went to visit a pre-school last week and he loved it. The owner/teacher explained that they are very child-led (as child led as it goes in a pre school i suppose) and do not force them into a routine, say if my son got engrossed in play with another kid and were having a blast, she wouldn’t dream of breaking that to get him into the next activity, so they seemed loving and flexible. I worry about the issues you describe in the article, but 1) do I not follow his lead and say he can’t go to school, i’m not going to do that and 2) i’d love to start working part-time again and in this silly world we can’t bring our children to work with us, so have to leave them somewhere, and also more philosophically, how do you get rid of school without having fifty percent of adults at home with their children, the economy would collapse, certainly there might be something we can do to bridge the gaps, have free schools based on collaborative learning, or something like that? It my belief that children are driven to learn by themselves through play but also from their elders and that they would take a great deal of satisfaction to be involved in meaningful projects led by adults, school could provide that too right in some way? I’m so torn right now but cannot ignore his desire to start school!!
These are thoughts I have too sometimes! I think democratic schools are a pretty good middle ground.. then you could unschool and use the school as another resource
I am SO WITH YOU on this! I mean, I’m with you on most things, but if your blog were a book this is the section I would underline 500 times ;).
My 2,5 year-old niece is in preschool (in the US) and she’s already learning her ABC’s and memorizing the months of the year. She’s not even three yet! It worries me so much that she’s pushed to learn at such an early age, when really she should just run around playing. To be fair, she does like to engage in imaginative play, too. But if she already has to learn and memorize things at age 2, for how long will she be able to enjoy this “much” free play time? Ah, it drives me crazy.
Also, I noticed a lot of kids’ picture books and story books are meant to be didactic (in the US at least…not so much in Europe, where I’m from). If a child is interested in, say, animals and picks a book about animals, then of course there’s no problem there. But if every. single. book. you read has some kind of moral or “teaching moment,” then I’m afraid kids get the message that books are for learning only, not for fun :(. So sad.
Anyway, I was happy to read this…I think when you say “play has no agenda,” that really sums it up.
So frustrating! I have no idea who came up with these crazy things that kids should know at these ages. Kids should know how to play and entertain themselves, that is all.
Thank you for putting into words my thoughts exactly. I work as an early childhood educator in kindergarten where our board has embraced “play-based learning”. This has become a term for teacher-directed, agenda-driven learning centers disguised as fun, playful games. This is not real play. We are robbing our children of meaningful learning that comes from rich, deep, child-led play.
So disappointing x
I agree that play is not something you do to a child. Play should be everything you stated and even more. But, for many play has to be taught. Based on research play is usually learned/molded through older siblings, peers and adults. Adults mainly teachers have taken on the role of teaching children how to play due to the many changes in technology, parents working, not having a safe environment to explore and play. So as a result adults such as teachers need to create these play based learning opportunities for children. Certain vital skills which they would of developed playing with their siblings such as problem solving, sharing, language etc. Teachers/other adults are now having to do teach those concepts. Also, it’s a great time to create these play based learning opportunities to scaffold new skills that they may need support in, language, vocabulary, second language support, or behavioral problems. I think play is the best way to teach.
Play isn’t taught. It’s doing what a child wants to do, be it chasing a bug outside in the summer, stripping the petals off a daisy, running around in the yard with the dog, rolling down a hill like a log, or just sitting and staring into space. Go outside with your child and see where they go first. Let them decide what to do. It’s time to let them use their imagination. Turn off the tv and computer and let them use their brains. I have a grandnephew who will be one in late May. I can’t wait to have some time with him this summer, to let him go outside and discover all the cool things that nature has in our own backyard.
I can’t agree that play needs to be taught either.
You don’t teach children to play because it is natural, but what teachers are trying to do is to teach in fun ways that play is involved instead of being at a structure classroom. The problem is not teachers using the play method to teach, the problems that unfortunately want little genius, otherwise would not be so much demanding on those preschools to have a child reading before kinder.
Children learn certain skills through play. Let’s take pro-social skills such as sharing, turn taking, etc. Without play children would not be able to learn these skills. These skills are learned in social settings and play is usually done in a social setting with others siblings, teachers, parents and other adults. When children are not having these types of learning experiences which play offers then an adult, caregiver and or teacher can facilitate these experiences through their play. If I child is having a challenging time communicating her/his needs with other children during a play experience (asking for a toy) an adult can facilitate the needed skills to have a successful play experience. The strategies which a teacher/adult uses to foster these skills should honor their play. Such as being non-intrusive, respectful, engaging and meaningful so that children can continue on with their play. As mentioned by JT a nature walk is great. Children naturally wonder about the world. As an adult I facilitated that nature walk based on their own interest. That’s why it’s so important to get to know your children first. See what they are interested in and also know what they are struggling with. So when I go out in that nature walk I am prepared to offer a learning experience which allows for explorations and engagement that is unique to every child.
I’m just going to be the crazy one here but how are you supposed to do all this stuff if you live somewhere where both parents have to work full-time and there isn’t a whole lot of time between 6pm and bedtime to let little Johnny or Susie wander and roam free to do whatever comes to them. Naturally they have to go to a preschool or child care center where often the ratio is going to be something like 1 teacher for 12 kids for four year olds. And unfortunately, with that ratio, no, Johnny can’t use the paint you left out for him to paint his belly button. Other kids need the paint and you can’t take a teacher away from the classroom and the other eleven kids to go clean belly buttons all day, lest he still have paint on his belly button and the parents raise their eye brows with their concern you’re neglecting to pay enough attention to little Johnny. While all of this sounds nice, I think we should think hard about the accessibility of these suggestions, and if the reality is that true “play” is only limited to a small group of children of a certain economic status in this country due to the circumstance of their birth – then that fact is the far bigger fish to fry. At some point it has to stop being “what is best for my child?” And become “what is best for all children” and recognize the structures in place that prevent play from being a reality for so many children (increased cost of living and stagnant wages, lack of paid maternity leave, No Child Left Behind, excessive testing in public schools, excessive need for constant teacher evaluations and assessments, pressure from parents for their child to keep up with the Jones’, etc)
This is an interesting line of thinking. I agree that play is important and that children learn best through creative use of space and materials. I also agree that some children get to “play” learn more than others. However even in the most economically distressed families, even in war torn countries, and refuge camps, even in the darkest slums of America children play anyway. Yes there are studies of this, but I almost think that children in “poor” working families have more free play than those of affluent children. Often affluent children are shuttled from one practice or game to another, by an exhausted mom who thinks she is doing the best for her child. The good news is that children play anyway. They pretend as they do chores, play among the rubish of their homeland, imagine so thing different as they shuttle from game to practice. Children don’t need to learn to play, adults do.
Thank you so much for this post. May I share it with my teachers, I’m an education, disability, mental health manager and teach teachers?
Yes, of corse. And I think you’re right that less affluent children have more unsupervised play because mom is literally too busy to interfere. I recently
moved from teaching at a private preschool to teaching kindergarten at a public school and the lack of time for any play is so alarming. They spend 7:30-3pm with every moment structured, every second something expected of them and not allowed to speak to their friends aside from 15 minutes for lunch and a paltry 15 minutes for recess. If that’s followed up by after-school care, who know what that entails? I worked in after-school care for years before becoming a teacher and it was frequently requested that we spend more time doing structured activities, arts and crafts, an organized game, etc. Otherwise our supervisors and parents would reprimand us for doing “nothing.” I think that’s what happened in schools, it’s a war not only against our children but against the teachers. Lawmakers constantly want data in order to assess and evaluate our teachers. Play doesn’t create data, so they want tangible numbers and play goes out the window because those in authority positions don’t trust the teachers to know what is best for the children and the teachers stop trusting the children to know what’s best for them.
I understand what you are saying, however even in a preschool program with twelve children to one teacher it can be done. I know this because I am a preschool teacher and this is our licensing ratio. We allow the children to use the paint in (most) anyway that they want except for maybe painting on things like furniture. If they discover that they like to paint their bellybutton then they paint their bellybutton and it becomes a learning experience (painting ourselves is messy maybe we should paint on paper). Our philosophy is that if you let them explore it once or twice they probably won’t do it again. Every experience that a young child has is an opportunity for learning. Unstructured play is really important for so many reasons. For instance, they learn to communicate and cooperate with other children; they make decisions on their own and begin to establish problem solving skills; they discover how to build things and which structures work best and so much more. It is very important for them because it helps to develop critical thinking skills; social skills; language; literacy; math and the list goes on. Teachers should just be there as a support and guide. We are not to take over the play but scaffold their development by making suggestions, asking open ended questions and providing materials to help them understand things better. Without this unstructured play they lose out on so much! Any preschool program that a child attends should promote this type of play pretty enthusiastically.
I am very impressed with the article and now even more, the comments. I am a Pre K Coach in a large school district. I have been a preschool teacher for many years. This concept is so challenging to convey, much less practice. I truly hope my colleagues all read these comments so they can see that they are not alone and that the professional development that they have received and are implementing is valuable and supported by their peers. I’m not even half way through these comments! Bedtime reading for a while. 🙂
These are my thoughts exactly. When the reality is often day care and preschool which by deed of sheer numbers, and pressures from both parents and administration to perform to certain expectations.
This is why it is so important to look for quality childcare programs. A 1:12 ratio wouldn’t even pass licensing standards in the state of VA. I teach a class of 2.5 to 5 year olds and we have a ratio of 2:12, so that you do have a teacher ready at the helm to help clean out belly buttons when the exploration is over. Plus having a sink the classroom helps. We also warn are parents at the beginning of the year not to send them in their Sunday best and bring a change of clothes because our children explore and that means digging in the dirt, splashing in the water table, mixing paint that sometimes goes beyond the smock. We have a few that have to adjust but they usually get it. Just today, I told a parent she would find a little surprise when she took off her daughter’s shoes, because after a small group of water colors she decided to explore watercolors with her toes. I wanted to be mad because of course your first reaction is “we paint with brushes” then I realized how much fun she was having and how much body control it took to carefully dip her toe in water, paint and then paper. How could I be mad at that. We really need to ask ourselves how can we make “what is best for my child” accessible to all children because every child deserves quality early childhood education. We serve a diverse population because we are an inclusion classroom and also offer a sliding-scale for low income families, so it is doable. Is early childhood education a complex beast mixed with private, public, various curriculum and patchwork funding? yes, but never give up the fight for what you know is best. Don’t let the hurdles in the way stop you from striving for the best that can be.
Thank you for don’t let the hurdles stop you. I get so depressed this time of year when parents turn tiger.
Thank you! Well said.
This is exactly what I have been feeling recently. I’m teaching a Free Play workshop for the local R&R agency and would love to use this as a handout. May I?
If it’s just for a small group 🙂 Just also include the link please.
What a great read. At first my back went up at the title and I was ready to read it and defend play-based learning. I am a strong advocate for play based learning and with all day everyday kindergarten appearing in my area, with the hopes of schools getting children younger during the important 0- 5 years. it has broke my heart the play based learning for real is not the main learning tool in the classrooms. Also the importance of unstructured play and quality early learning and care centres. Governments would be better off putting more money into early learning and supporting the Early Childhood Educators that have been facilitating play based play for years over getting kids into school sooner.
thank you for your post!!
I do think we must define what we mean by play-based learning. I use that term as a bridge: a means of supporting parents during their transition from believing in early academics to believing in their child’s own competence. That is, I show parents what their children are gathering and gaining by playing. I show parents, through documentation, how observing their children play or talk or read or anything is a means of unpacking their children’s thinking and hypotheses about the world. When parents do this consistently, on their own they discover their children’s competence and they move slowly away from the idiocy of early academic. I always try to remember that change is baby steps and if the term play-based learning gets us one step closer to allowing children to have an authentic childhood, then I’m okay with it. But, then again, I am one that always questions, inquires, digs deeply into concepts.
So frustrating that we have convinced parents that academics is what young children need in the first place, isn’t it!
I don’t agree that play has to be completely on children’s terms. I do believe in adult led play but it has to play to their interests and their current cognitive concerns. It has to be child focused and it has to be well balanced with child initiated play. Adult led play can be something they know the child will probably be interested in which could extend an interest or introduce something new. but if you want to see what children have learned it can only be observed in child initiated play. that’s when you know learning is embedded because its how children communicate their knowledge and their interests.
I also do not agree that games that help children learn is not play. it stops being play when the child as an individual is forgotten, when its not matched to their development but is aimed to meet adult goals. Adults can start games and introduce rules, this doesn’t mean it stops being play. play is a way that children interact with the world and there is nothing wrong with them learning to play to someone elses rules – even an adult’s rules. Its important for children to learn and its through adults giving rules that children learn to play with them – keeping to them; breaking them; and their consequences. If we left children to their own devices we risk leaving some of them behind in terms of development for living in this world. Its important that we introduce them to new things and its not like the children don’t enjoy them.
Child initiated play is amazing and I completely agree its a powerful way for children to learn. just don’t take the adults out of the picture – they are part of children’s development.
I do agree that many adults can get too focused on learning opportunities and can have their own agenda, but just arguing that when done right with the child at the centre adult led play is possible
I agree with you, I teach Preschool and while I fully support child initiated play and 1 quarter of my day is fully dedicated to that (1 hour 25 min), The rest of the day is a mixed of special classes such as PE and Music, transitions and free choice centers. I absolutely agree with the person that criticized the 15 min rotation, I rather let the children choose and decide what they want to do or what centers they want to join but these centers time is led by adults with children’s interest in mind. When I present a game or a learning experience to the children I do it in such way that it is interesting for them and they join happily. During this adult-led time there is still a chance for free play as not all the children can play a game at once. Once a group has finished I invite another group to play, but many times the children that are not playing enjoy observing the game, learning the rules and how the game is played. Adults need to have a role in learning, at school teachers have to think carefully how they introduce skills and concepts in ways that are natural and meaningful. Now, if you ask me about home time, I would say that I fully support free play. Children need to experience play in a setting where no adults are involved ( but present, if you are not comfortable with leaving your child alone).
I agree that unstructured play is most beneficial for early childhood education . Taking into consideration the developmental needs and interest of the child is regarded as a crucial factor for effective teacher pedagogy . It has been argued by many early childhood theorist that a mix of both child initiated and adult led play is beneficial in promoting a knowledge base for children learning – Vygotsky’s key concept of scaffolding further emphasises the benefits of teacher guidance while children explore meaningful environments and activities .
Freedom of choice in play has its benefits when the learning meaterials and environment are effectively designed to meet the needs of children .
As an unschooler I think children are perfectly capable of educating themselves and don’t see a need for adult-led ‘play’ or learning unless it is requested. Adults play an important role of course but to me it’s more of a support/help/facilitator role, not teacher or leader.
I agree. I am preschool teacher and we use the High Scope curriculum. I love the plan-do-review model and teachers are there for support. We do have teacher initiated activities but only two (small group and large group) and even still these are geared to the children’s interests and the children have a lot of control over the activities.
I teach High Scope too and can’t speak more highly about it. When you are truly a play partner with children not leading and directing you are able to provide all the supports and scaffolding they need to learn new concepts. Children learn academic concepts for the sheer function and necessity of implementing their play scenarios. I have 5 friends who need seats for our pretend bus ride but only 3 chairs, now I’m counting and adding and problem solving and no teacher directed me to do it. That is what is also great about a mixed age group. They learn from their peers. The older students teach the younger ones by being models.
I guess is the word choice that I used that got misinterpreted 🙂 Facilitating would have been the right word to describe my idea. I agree with the overuse or misuse of the term play-based learning and play-based learning experiences, however I strongly believe that while children are capable as you said, of educating themselves, Facilitators ( teachers, parents, ) can’t be completely erased from the picture. Early childhood educators who truly love their jobs know that children are great investigators who can figure things by themselves, but we need to be there to support, scaffold and celebrate their success or reassure, encourage and help them gain confidence when necessary. As they grow of course they can figure how to play more and more sophisticated games and as a teacher/ facilitator/ supporter I will be there to provoke encourage or make them reflect upon their actions. Now if you asked me to fully stay out of their play and learning, I would say this is not fair to us, who love seeing the great discovery moments, or seeing how my children become more and more capable of doing things, I became an EC educator because I want to be part of those wonderful moments and I want to be there to challenge them, to hold their hands when they are trying to get a grip of a skill and to make a happy dance with them when accomplish something. In a way reading what you responded to me, and then reading what I wrote helped me reflect about my comment. Thanks for that:) and thanks for stating that you also believe adults still play an important role in the children upbringing and education, I think any extreme is harmful (complete lack of support or strict old school teaching).
my philosophy too. I am an early childhood educator, who runs a small family care/preschool business. Different children have different needs at different ages. I have had children who are able to thrive on completely child-led play. Unfortunately, I have also witnessed the behavior of many children who have fallen apart with a lack of adult direction and structure. It is my opinion that so long as an activity is child focused and based on a child’s interest and developmental level, successful learning best takes place with a well-maintained balance of child-initiated and teacher-directed activities. A child does need structure, rules, and consistency to evolve to the next level of development: learning manners, social etiquette, respect, consequences, new subject matter matched to a child’s interest and encouraging to try new things can all result from teacher-directed moments. Free play is a wonderful ideal, but a teacher or parent can inspire a child’s imagination to grow and blossom when the right mix of materials and ideas are available for a child to fully and successfully engage in his environment with his peers in a peaceful setting. That means an adult being observant to the needs as each situation arises.
I totally agree with you! In pediatric physical therapy we facilitate structured play depending on the needs of the child. The child has to learn to follow directions, play by the rules, and work harmoniously with other children (skills that they may also need in the future in sports and in life per se). Also, as you have mentioned, it will always depend on the child’s cognitive level, interests, and skills. Adult intervention does not always mean not taking the interest of the child into consideration. I think the let-the-children-do-what-they-want approach nowadays fail to consider the huge role of adults in honing competent adults in the future.
So what you really mean is that people who mis-use the term “play-based learning” to push age-inappropriate academic curricula on young children, are doing something wrong. That statement is correct. However, when you want to teach a lesson to a child and you can either do dry, boring, worksheet-based drills, or play a game, then there is nothing wrong with incorporating play into a school activity.
When I’m homeschooling with my almost-10-year-old, and we study spelling words by having him jump up a step for every word he spells correctly, and jump down a step for every word he spells incorrectly, arriving at top eventually to get a big hug from me, well that’s a completely age-appropriate play-based spelling game for us to play. When a parent teaches their 5 year old to finger-knit or how to tie a fly and the child picks up the activity and chooses to do it for fun, that child is developing pre-writing skills (fine-motor control). This play-based and art-based learning activity, which the child can either choose to do or not do, and can either do alone or with a parent, is far superior to drilling kids in K4 on writing their letters.
It’s perfectly possible to teach your child skills and games that allow them to learn gross- and fine-motor skills. It’s perfectly possible to include games in age-appropriate learning activities. That doesn’t mean they don’t also get free-play time; there are enough hours in the day for both.
I don’t think it’s a case of ‘well it’s better than worksheets so it’s ok’. I’d rather toss both concepts aside. We unschool so I don’t believe education has to mean forced learning. Children are capable of educating themselves.
Nice straw-man. That’s completely not what I said.
I’m thinking perhaps we coin a new phrase. Game based learning. Many people seem to
have different ideas on what play actually means.
The way I see it, there are extremes on both sides. Not teaching your child anything because they ‘capable of educating themselves’ is just as bad as trying to force a child to learn what they are not developmentally ready or not interested in learning. I agree that free play is ESSENTIAL to the well being and development of children. How do you learn self-confidence, your strengths and limitations if you’re never free to explore on your own? However, I think children also need — indeed, crave — opportunities to learn from the adults and older children in their lives. In my opinion, a child is truly blessed when he/she has free time to explore the world around him/her and his/her place in it, as well as time to interact with & learn from those who’ve traveled the road before them. Why does it have to be one or the other?
On the flip side of things, letting 11-14 children do what ever they want all day long with no instruction is also not play based learning. I find that to be wreckless at the expense of children. We make all these judgements based on ideal situations. A child that has 2 loving parents that are involved in the childs daily activities are giving their child a sincere play based learning experience. I have worked in a room that thought play based learning meant that the children played all day with not direction, interaction from adults or instruction all day long. That is even less than babysitting when you have a class room of early learners.
I don’t think children’s play NEEDS direction or instruction?
Kids can in fact learn valuable skills from their parents. We aren’t irrelevant. My DH is a fantastic artist, and an avid fly-fisherman (i.e. studies bugs), and an electrical engineer. He teaches amazing things to our kids, in play. I speak French and am a former computer programmer – also skills I teach our kids in play. There isn’t only one answer to parenting. It’s possible for parents to be involved in teaching our kids through play, and still be good parents.
What I’m saying is play-based learning isn’t ‘teaching kids through play’. It’s recognising that play alone IS learning, we don’t have to do anything to it. Yes, kids can learn through teaching too. So just call it that, teaching.
You said that “Play is unstructured. In play, children make the rules.” If the children make rules then they are structuring the situation, therefore it is not unstructured. What do you mean when you say “unstructured”?
Not structured by adults.
OK, the problem is that the situation is structured in a variety of ways by adults, too. There are a variety of ways that the time and spaces were structured plus there are a variety of social structures, too. I am a psychologist and this is one of those things that bothers me about the popular usage of the term “structure.”
There is no such thing as unstructured interactions between humans. Making an unstructured interaction between humans would be like trying to write a word without using symbols. Written words are inherently symbolic, therefore it makes no sense to even say that you might be able to write a word without using symbols.
The real question is what kind of structures will you use to achieve your purpose, not having any structure is impossible. The problem of “play-based learning” is when adults use something they consider to be “playful” as a crude mechanism to manipulate children into doing something they would not otherwise do.
The problem is how the adults are manipulating the children. There is nothing wrong with adults manipulating children to some degree, because that is their job when it comes to meeting their primary human needs. The problem is when they use techniques of manipulation that then undermine some of the needs they are supposed to be supporting. Specifically, autonomy is a primary human need just like sleep is a primary human need. So any adult that causes a child to be consistently deprived of sleep is recognized to be doing harm to that child. The symptoms of harm will include increases in anxiety, depression, and/or other signs of psychological distress. In that same way adults that consistently deprive a child of experiences of autonomy, by controlling the child’s behavior such that the child feels controlled, then the adult is harming the child. The symptoms of harm will include increases in anxiety, depression, and/or other signs of psychological distress. The challenge is in structuring the environment of the child in a manner that will support their autonomy.
IMHO all forms of progressive, democratic, homeschool, unschool, and other forms of education that aspire to child-centereed practices do themselves a disservice by using the term “unstructured” without a specific qualification as to what aspect of a situation is not being structured. It is perfectly reasonable to say that unschooling families or some democratic schools do not provide academic structure, but it is not reasonable to say that they are “unstructured.” Research shows that supporting autonomy requires structure. (The intuitive notion that they are opposites is mistaken.)
I am not replying as the author, but as a parent who also unschools ( which is the reference point for this article ). Self imposed rules are very different to externally imposed rules. The framework by which a child or children decide upon in their play is often done joyful, with freedom to change on a whim, flexibly, honouring themselves. Rules employed by an adult will not have the same flexibility, sense of autonomy or honouring of personhood.
Any time ( play, learning, eating, dressing, sleeping Etc ) an adult IMPOSES a rule on a child, it will bring about a structure that impinges on free will and autonomy. Not to say that life should be without boundaries!!! But play rules devised ( and indeed life rules ) by the child will feel unlike structure. Imposed rules do feel structuring. Try it in your own life. Set yourself some rules around something you enjoy. Then get someone else to set some rules for you on that same thing…
“Any time … an adult IMPOSES a rule on a child, it will bring about a structure that impinges on free will and autonomy”
This statement is factually incorrect. In 2010 three of the world’s leading researchers in the field conducted experiments to discern he relationship between autonomy and structure and found that supporting autonomy requires structure.
This is a wonderful article. I am a kindergarten teacher as well as an Early Childhood Educator. I have been learning to navigate both the curriculum (what children are supposed to know after a 2 year program so that they are ready for grade 1) and play.
I really wish there was a magical guide out there…I believe I am learning every year how to do this with the children.
I see the value in play but I am also very sensitive to how hard the transition from senior kindergarten to grade 1 can be. This is why I do feel there is value in some TEACHER led activities. I DO NOT support teacher led activities all day long…I listen to all the wonderful conversations and ideas that come out of play. I do hear my students who ask for writing , reading, and math games.
Its a tough one.
That does sound like a very hard balance!
This is AWESOME!!! I shared it on my Facebook page, Play Counts! I will also be Shri g it at every single “Defender of Play Boot Camp” I lead as well!
So beautifully written! (Confession: I USED to be the teacher you are referring to, which is why, now that I GET IT, I am so passionate about helping other ear,y childhood professionals and parents “get it” as well!!!
YES!!!!!! That’s awesome. Thanks 🙂
One of my favorite lines: “Let’s leave play to the experts, children.” I laugh when I hear adults attempt to redirect behavior, in a warning voice, “That’s not how we play.”
Hah. What do “we” know about how to play?
I wholeheartedly disagree. I am 40+ and I most definitely know how to play. If you have forgotten how to play I am sincerely sorry for you and I hope you are not an educator, or for that matter a parent.
I am a kindergarten teacher and while play is not something I do to children (this statement really doesn’t make any sense) it is most definitely I do with children all the time. I’m pretty good at it too.
Highly, highly disagree. You pretty much leave parenting out of the equation altogether. So children can’t have fun playing a game with rules? I guess kids just play soccer or baseball because it’s pushed on them and not because they enjoy it. This is silliness.
Depends on your view of parenting I guess. Of course they can have fun playing a game with rules if THEY choose to.
I started writing a comment on this and ended up with over 1000 words!! I might have to turn it into a blog post instead of comment. lol. Here is my greatly condensed version. (which, is far too long! haha) From what I could gather from your post, the true title of what you were trying to get across would be, “Why I don’t like how the term Play-based-learning is seemingly attached to every single adult let activity that isn’t a worksheet” lol. Because that is the overall vibe I got and one that I understand your position on.
At the end of the day, I believe that it’s the child that really determines, in their own mind, as to whether they are “playing” or not. Not us.
Whether their “play” was led or influenced 100% by themselves, or had external influence from their peers/siblings/teachers/facilitators/parents etc., I believe that it can still be called “play.” So long as they have a choice in it, that they can control the direction and they are enjoying themselves, then I think it is fine for us to call it “play.” (And realistically, any time a child is playing, they are learning something).
I don’t know about your children but when my two children play together, one almost always ends up making up rules for the other to follow and structuring the game. Does that mean one of them isn’t playing, because their older sister had the idea of what they were playing and what role the other is undertaking? No. Does it mean the time they are spending together in their imaginary role play land is not valuable? No. So, if a teacher or parent has the idea of how to play or what materials to put out and the child is willingly engaged in that, does that mean that they are not playing? No. Playing with others and learning from others is incredibly important for children’s development, but the difference is the choice they have in it.
Should my son not want to follow the instructions or suggestions by his sister, she can’t force him. This is where engaging in the play is his own choice. If children have that same choice with an activity/idea facilitated by an adult, then we can hardly say that they are not playing in this situation.
In the school system however, this is going to look different to those not confined within a system. Overall, children are going to have less choice and there are very few real “play-based” school systems. And even within those “play-based” systems, there are limitations. (Which there may or may not be in a home-schooling or unschooling situation as well depending on the individual responsible for the children’s welfare). In these school systems are fun activities, but generally the children still have to participate in something, so that is not all free will and is much harder to define as “play” or “play-based-learning.” Schools must exist though as not all parents are willing or able to do what you do (kudos and respect to you for your choices) and there has to be somewhere for all these other children to go. It’s not a perfect system, I doubt it ever will be, but I am glad that within these systems, things are at least starting to change and that in many they are at least bringing in more elements for children to have choice and control over how they learn and play, whilst still meeting the needs of bureaucracy. (which will always exist)
Children MUST play. Free and unstructured and self-directed and self-motivated. I will never disagree with that and we do have to keep fighting for more of this. As for “play-based-learning” that is something that people’s definitions are no doubt going to differ on and sometimes I feel like it’s just adults quibbling about wording or definitions. For me, I try to simplify it in my head as, if the child believes they are playing, having fun and are willingly engaged (and can stop when they want to) then this is a form of play-based-learning (because they will always be learning something!). Regardless of who’s idea it originally was or who provided the materials.
PS: Thank you for writing articles like this that challenge me and make me reflect and continually reevaluate my position and beliefs. x
Thanks Debs 🙂
Yes, that is what I meant at the end there. Set out something for them if you want but then leave them to take it in their own direction instead of telling them how to play or getting them to meet your goals.
As an unschooler obviously my ideas are different from the majority in that I don’t believe children ever need adult led learning (unless they request it). I appreciate that some people don’t share that view. I just wish that when they were doing clearly adult directed learning activities designed to get children to learn something, they would just label them as that. No need to label it play-based learning when it is not. Then we’re just confusing people!
I totally agree with you! Let children be children and play as a lot of learning is derived through play on their own.
Exactly my thoughts! In the name of play, we tend to play with child’s innocense!! When its play time, let them Play, let them choose what they want to play, let them be on their own! My child play for an 1 to 1.5 hrs with her friends everyday, and that is without any adult’s interference.
I love this. When my boys are truly playing, I know – because the volume goes up a level! I would also be the first to admit that we do tonnes of activites together that are more structured, eg. card games, craft activities etc… however I don’t call it play, and I definitely don’t replace true play with those activities. It’s like when they are in play mode they are accessing totally different parts of their brain, it is beautiful!
I run a pre-school. And I strongly agree with you say. I have put the article on the school fb page as a message to parents. I also have a toddler program and initially parents were a little concerned that all the 2 hours they are here is not structured. Your article should re-enforce what I’ve been trying to tell them Let them play as long as they want to… Lalitha
I hope so!! 🙂
But surely the explanation is in the words “play based” ! Obviously we would all love to offer a totally free play environment for all children…I once worked with an educator who carried out this to a ‘t’ ! Resources were freely available for children’s self selection. Children took jars full of glitter, sequins, patty pans , beads etc. all out to the sandpit ; two boys mixed our supply of clay with water so the clay was no longer available for other children; children tipped glue and paint into containers willy nilly and soon there was no paint to use ; children were allowed to take glue pots anywhere they chose and often spilled glue onto the floor, at one time resulting in my injuring my knee when hurrying to prevent one child using a block as a missile (I slipped in some invisible cell mix glue dripped from a glue pot in the block area). We had an indoor outdoor program which was fine but the Teacher would sit for two hours trying to get a ‘rich learning story’ from one child while I plodded to and fro, indoors and outdoors, trying to prevent injury between two special needs children and to maintain a degree of calm among the chaos of children left to ‘play’ but who in fact mostly took everything available off shelves and out of containers and spread them around the room willy- nilly. When another Teacher took over the room there was very little left in the way of unbroken toys or art resources! Play BASED is what it says..learning based on play..but I do not believe it should be all free play. Choice is fine too but why not a limited choice rather than open slather! I have returned to Family Day Care whereby with a Bachelor of Teaching under my belt , I run a mini Kindergarten …’BASED’ but not adhering to Claire Warden’s Forest Garden Kindergarten ethos. Children are usually outdoors in the paddocks and bush playing, exploring, creating , discovering , climbing and so on. I take the children’s interests as a ‘base’ for learning and we discuss their findings at length at the time of discovery then I follow this up by providing resources that facilitate extended interest and learning! Adult led? Not really. Adult guided? yes…but child led!
I don’t know. That actually sounds pretty great to me (apart from the injury!) I think the answer is helping children learn how to take care of things, and setting respectful boundaries about how to treat the materials, rather than limiting and controlling their choices. They are playing and experimenting!
If the ideal thing to do is too inconvenient then that’s not a place I’d send my child really.
Because a teacher doesn’t want 1 child to ruin what might be a years worth of clay, that is a place ” I might not send my child really “?? To me, that’s a pretty strong statement based on a very limited amount of information.
But what I really wanted to say was the term to differentiate true play based play from learning activities might be HANDS ON LEARNING. Our public school kindergartens had to get rid of play kitchens and anything that might look like dramatic play. But the superintendent still believed they got play time because they were allowed 20 minutes per day to use the math manipulatives ” in any way they wanted”!
I’m slightly confused by this… If I let my 4 and 2 year old to “play” on their own, they would either sit and watch tv, play with iPad or run around the house destroying things! I work 3 days a week so when I get days off with my kids I try to make time to play with them (as well as washing, cleaning and everything else that needs doing). To me, asking my son if he wants to learn some letters with me or asking my daughter if she wants to do some threading or painting with me is play based learning. At least I spend time with my kids, they’re just happy that mummy is interacting with them! Frankly if I left paint out for them to explore- it wouldn’t end up in their belly buttons, it would end up all round my house and all over the walls because they have no direction! My opinion
Playing on their own is a valuable skill and very necessary.
They do play on their own too, I never said I didn’t let them play on their own. They go to the park, they play around the house, we go for walks and climb trees. I just don’t get the issue, to make life fun at home we do structured activities, I will get the craft box out and we will sit and create together or I will show them how to thread conkers for example on a string and we will sit and do it together. How is this not fun or not learning! They’ve got mummy’s attention- I my eyes that’s invaluable also!
While I agree that plenty of time for child-led, unstructured play is important (and that children certainly need hours more of it daily than they could get if sent to school), I do not think that it is the only thing worth valuing. I sort of have a strange homeschooling philosophy. I’ve heard of radical unschoolers, many of whom I admire for various reasons (such as Dayna Martin and Sandra Dodd), but I just don’t jive with everything they say. I’ve heard of educational unschoolers, who unschool for learning but don’t unschool in every sense the way radical unschoolers do (ie they have no curriculum, but have set bedtimes, etc), but that’s not me either. What I haven’t really heard of is what I feel I mostly am in favor of: what I call lifestyle unschooling, in which one embraces attachment parenting (natural childbirth, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, compassion and respect for children as complete, individual human beings); modeling behavior and explaining why certain behaviors (like hitting, stealing) aren’t right, without being condescending, and without using punishment, esp but not limited to spanking; allowing time for the children to play and pursue their passions; not setting a strict bedtime; and allowing the kids to choose what foods they eat (though I wouldn’t support my child eating meat, dairy, or eggs, as I view them not as food, but as disease-producing poison, environmental pollution, and animal cruelty/murder–why you would discourage your child from smoking cigarettes, littering, and choking a kitten to death, but not from eating meat, dairy, and eggs, baffles me)–but at the same time do not eschew the idea of an adult-designed yearly academic learning outline/guideline altogether. This does not mean sending your child to school, or even having a strict homeschool curriculum, thusly dictating your child’s education and simply allowing your child freedom in other areas of life. I’m all about my children having a say in their education–like traditional unschoolers, I simply do not believe that you learn most efficiently when forced. I simply want to help inspire a love of, though not necessarily an expertise in, as many things as possible. I think that if not encouraged to learn different academic subjects, art forms, and sports, nor to develop literacy, the child is often (not always, but usually) bound to never get a chance to discover all of their passions and develop all life skills that, upon reaching 18 and seeking a career, he/she may need to already possess. I recognize that just about every unschooled child learns to read just fine, albeit usually at a much later age than most kids, and that most go on to pursue crafts they happened to discover and become versed in, however the majority of unschool “graduates” are not pursuing careers like doctor or lawyer–which is fine, because artists and artisans and entrepreneurs are in demand, and not everybody has to have a high power career to live a fulfilling life (I am not a doctor or lawyer myself), in fact if everyone was a doctor or lawyer, who would grow our food? Make our music? Repair our toilets? However we must consider the flip side of the coin–if no one was a doctor, where would we be? If unschooling advocates envision a future in which every child is unschooled, then we need to make some adjustments–because how many kids, when not encouraged to learn calculus, will decide to learn it? What about Ancient Greece (which is crucial to fully comprehending the origins of our own modern nation’s government)? Shakespeare, in its original versions? The more we encourage our children to learn, even go so far as to teach them, the wider their horizons will be. Also, is preparing for a career the only worthwhile reason to learn something? Is not being a well- rounded intellectual a noble pursuit, for the sake of exercising one’s brain just as one exercises one’s body? It’s sort of like wanting your child to not be a picky eater, not for your convenience, but because you know that so many more things than just french fries and chocolate cupcakes taste delicious and are necessary to a balanced diet, and your child would be greatly missing out, both on nutrition/optimal health and on pleasure/optimal happiness, if he were only encouraged to follow his whims and never try new, sometimes at first unappealing but often later satisfying, options. That is why I believe in setting a guideline each year, and discussing it with your child so that he gets excited about it and the learning is not forced. I therefore see the usefulness in adult-directed play alongside the usefulness of child-led play. Adults have more knowledge, and can find ways to share their knowledge with their kids in ways each specific child would enjoy, if they are not constantly told that stepping out of their comfort zone is always unnecessary. As long as your child spends much time doing unstructured play, why is a healthy dose of educational play such a tragedy?
IMO ‘educational play’ that’s adult directed is not necessary, but I know not everyone agrees with me there. But labeling things ‘play based’ when they’re really not is what frustrates me. People should go ahead and do what they think is best, but let’s just call it what it is!
Different strokes for different folks, I suppose… Though I don’t understand why just because something is adult-initiated, if the child is engaged and happy and doing the activity by choice, why it can’t be considered play. Most unschoolers I know are always insisting that it is hands-on parenting, but I don’t see how it can be. Buying toys, games, and craft supplies for your kid and leaving them to their own devices 100% of the time just doesn’t seem like good real world preparation. One thing I admire about unschooling, and incorporate myself, is the freedom to make choices, because how are kids going to learn decision-making, problem-solving, compromise, and self-expression if everything is decided for them? Habits like balanced eating, daily exercise, proper hygiene, getting enough sleep, and reading for pleasure stick better with kids when discovered not forced. I also like that they learn to interact with people of all ages, and develop conflict resolution skills. At the same time, while being prepared for the real world in those ways, many unschooled kids are sheltered from ever having to take on any responsibilities, and are never told “no”. In France, parents make a point to say no (or, often, wait) to things even if they would be acceptable in the moment, to teach their children how to cope with frustrations. If the child is given everything on a silver platter without earning it, the second he wants it, how is he going to cope when he’s older? We must teach our kids to delay gratification, for their own sake. Kids don’t throw tantrums because their needs aren’t being met. They throw tantrums because their wants aren’t being instantly satisfied, and they weren’t trained from toddlers to preoccupy themselves while waiting patiently, or to accept that you can’t realistically always get what you want. Kids also need to learn that sometimes in order to achieve something you want (ie, become a video game designer) you also have to develop skills that may not be so fun (advanced mathematics). Just my opinion though..
Children grow up and at that point they are capable of self directing their learning towards being a doctor or a lawyer if that’s what interests them. If someone truly WANTS to learn something they will and they will actually work hard at it, because they’ve chosen it themselves and it is their passion. People would still grow up with a passion for healing the sick and wanting to know all about how to do it, or a passion for advocating and seeing justice done.
My daughter is 14 now, she has sadly not been home schooled. At a certain point she was hating school so much that I offered her that option but she turned it down in favour of going to a highly academic international school. That was her choice, because she knew she needed to be stretched more (her IQ is problematically high) and in the meantime while at the standard school she had been teaching herself to play various instruments during the night, and going on various political bloggers websites and learning about feminism and politics. Then more or less sleeping through her day at school!
Now she’s at the academic school the teachers are way more encouraging of letting the students direct their own learning. Of course they teach the curriculum but most of the kids are smart enough so it only takes about a fifth of the time it would in a normal school so they let them direct the lesson off on interesting tangents.
She finally LOVES school which is amazing and a blessing.
If I ran the education system children would only spend the amount of time in school that they individually needed to learn how to read and write and do basic maths. If a child could get through the curriculum by the age of 10 or 12 they would not have to stay in school but would be allowed out into the world. School should not be a prison or a child minding service. Once they have these keys to learning they are equipped to learn everything else they want to. If a 10 year old went out into the world and decided she wanted to be a carpenter or an engineer then the amount of maths needed might be more and she would go and learn it, it would have context and would be easy. If someone wanted to be a journalist they might decide they needed to learn how to write and form an argument, they might decide it was necessary to learn some history.
I appreciate the sentiment here.
Play-based learning is learning through play… but it’s not supposed to take anything away from children’s day to day, free playtime, nor set restrictions or close windows of exploration or creativity.
A proper play-based, or “Developmental Play” session in the classroom consists of activity centres, such as, sensory (natural materials,) construction (blocks, recyclables,) roleplay (puppets, dress-ups,) writing or emergent writing (paint, crayons, chalk, whiteboards, etc) and a rules-based game (like Connect Four, Barrel of Monkeys, Pick up Sticks, cards, Twister or Guess Who, or Jenga, for example.) A science experiment or exploration table is good to include too.
This structure was originally formed to encourage children’s oral language skills and bridge those experiences to their first writing experiences.
Children can go to any station, for as long as they wish, and play and explore freely and without confines. If one table is too full, they are shown examples and then encouraged to be social and communicative to solve a problem. School is, after all, their first glimpse of society. As they reach Prep, Grade One and Two, they will be slowly introduced to more structure for this session (not at all for their free play time, but within a lesson/activity time) where they will be encouraged to write down ideas and observations about their play. The