As an educator, I’ve had rare experience of teaching PreK-12 (and even university and graduate school level). Let’s just say, my professional journey was two parts exploration and experimentation and three parts building on prior knowledge and being open to where and I how I could be of best service. Each assignment was approached with curiosity, intention and an open-mindedness that often looked like play. Yes, play - joyful, self-directed, interactive, collaborative, reflective work. Play, has always been regarded as an important vehicle for learning by early childhood education programs. Today, the value of this play is becoming more prevalent in the primary education system. Yet, when I heard a homeschooler “pooh-pooh” the merits of educational play, I realized that we need to reassess the definition of educational play and build homeschooling programs that incorporate age-responsive play as a means of achieving more effective learning. It is a proven fact that when children are left to their own devices in an open and tolerant atmosphere where they are free to make their own choices, they learn better.
What is ‘play’
Though there isn’t a set definition, ‘play’ has several typical characteristics:
What is play based learning
Educators/facilitators must also be quick to recognize teachable moments and utilize strategies like demonstrations and shared thinking to utilize those.
Why is it important
It has been well researched and proven that play helps in shaping the structure design of the brain. When children are engaged in play, the active exploration involved helps in building and strengthening the neural pathways in the brain. Play enhances the brain’s flexibility and facilitates future learning with a higher potential.
Children who indulge in play learn to explore, identify patterns (social-emotional and academic), take risks, negotiate and understand concepts and specific content better. Their memory skills develop much better along with their language skills. In the long term, they are more adaptive towards instructured learning environment (think, project-based learning, STEM and even internships) as well as structured academic settings (think university, law or med school).
Why does it work
First of all, it’s ‘play’. Children are naturally drawn towards activities that do not indicate explicit learning. So while a child may not be interested in the blackboard or a book filled with words, he will play for hours with the alphabet blocks he finds. The magic occurs when parents/educators help the child make connections between say, building blocks and building words; or at the very least, suggest that connections can be made.
Children are full of intrigue. Given a safe environment to explore, they find their way and learn their lessons without much interference from adults. Children are natural iterators and problem-solvers. And for those older children who are working towards developing these attitudes and skills, age appropriate “play-time” can offer opportunities for this maturation to occur.
Play-based learning builds on holistic best practices and differentiation - a.k.a. personalization. Experiencing helps in longer retention, so if your child is struggling to recall specific information, consider varying how the material is being presented and assessed. This requires you to adopt an open-minded and experimental approach as well.
Play-based learning works as it enhances the child’s sense of well-being and gives them a strong foundation to construct their own meaning and be responsible for their learning. All work and no play makes for a less evolved learner.