Play-Based Learning…It’s More Than Fun and Games (Video #186)

Welcome…I’m Angela Searcy and I’m Antoinette
Taylor. We’re glad you’re joining us today. We’re excited to share our knowledge. I
began as a teacher over 25 years ago. I have a specialization as a neuro-developmental
specialist and currently I’m a college professor and educational consultant. I too began over
25 years ago with a background that spans 6 months in higher ed. My specialization is
creating policies, practices and programming in the field of education. Currently, I provide
consulting to support innovative practices in the field. Enjoy our journey into “Play-Based
Learning…It’s More Than Fun and Games.” (music)
Albert Einstein one of the most influential physicist of the 20th century described play
as the highest form of research. Fast forward to the 21st century and contemporary researchers
have linked play to better cognitive skills, oral language development, self-regulation,
prosocial skills, memory development, and academic performance.
With evidence like that, you would think pretend play would be universally embraced by both
parents and teachers alike, but with so many different theorists, and philosophies teachers
worry that a play-based curriculum might not adequately prepare children for the rigors
of elementary school. Well, a growing body of science has a lot to add to the conversation.
Just like you wouldn’t want to go to a doctor that was using outdated medical practices,
I am going to share some of the most up to date science that should not only ease some
of your concerns, but also the concerns of the families you serve.
One of the reasons that many of us grapple with the importance of play is that we have
outdated images of learning that include students seated at their desks, staring at chalkboards,
and scribbling furiously on worksheets. Play by contrast allows for freedom of movement
that is essential for learning and development. Now I can’t teach about the importance of
play without playing. So we are going to pretend this balloon is a brain and use a permanent
marker to draw the parts of the brain as I describe them because your brain is better
at remembering images than words. First we are going to draw a structure called the cerebellum
is which right behind the brain stem in the back of the brain. Now don’t be afraid of
the word –honey if you can say Beyonce you can say cerebellum. The principal task of
the cerebellum is to coordinate movement and balance –but since it holds half of the
brains neurons-the name actually means “small brain” in Latin- it is massively interconnected
with other areas of the brain that we use for learning. Biologically people are “wired”
to learn through the interaction and involvement that characterizes play.
The movement and enjoyment associated with play stimulates the release of chemicals in
the brain that allow for stronger brain messages, regulate the flow of information into higher
levels of the brain and are associated with attention, processing, motivation, concentration
memory, and an elevated mood which leads to a love of learning.
Teachers always ask me–Angela love play-based learning, but aren’t we setting children
up for failure with play based curriculums when they will need to sit to learn in kindergarten?
As early childhood educators you are not just preparing your students for the next grade;
you are preparing them for life. Play based learning “builds better brains” that are
more capable handling whatever challenges that lay awaiting them in their future.
MRI’s show that the whole brain lights up in play. More specifically, the experience
of play changes the connections of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex. – I am going to
draw a site director or principal to represent this part of the brain which is in frontal
lobe because it “supervises” and “manages” cognitive controls such as goal oriented attention,
working memory, and impulse control. Those changes help “wire up” the brain’s executive
functioning, which helps children to better regulate emotions, make plans and problem
solve. Now I want you to take a minute and write
down all the skills you want the young children you work with to learn from you this year
on small post-it notes. (music) I am sure some of the skills you wrote down were academic
-and both teachers and parents often worry that that allowing children to explore and
discover may leave them unprepared academically. A common myth about play is that it is not
academically rigorous- allowing children “do whatever they want.” On the contrary, it
creates a sounder base of knowledge that is more retainable.
For example when children are engaged in rewarding purposeful play these interactions release
a chemical in the brain called “dopamine” When dopamine is present during an event or
experience, we remember it. The release of dopamine activates the reward centers which
are actually in the midbrain. These help children to stay focused on activities long enough
to learn. So here is a simple loop that represents the brain’s reward centers – this surge
of dopamine prompts those reward structures to pay particular attention to the features
of that experience, so it can be repeated. This memory turns into motivation driving
children to repeat the experience. This repetition in turn triggers neurons to fire together
and honey neurons that “fire together wire together” establishing a secure neural network
so that the brain can reliably access the information over time. In other words whatever
children learn through play has more potential to become a permanent pathway. Unlike basic
skills instruction, play is not limited to skills like literacy or math alone, instead
skills are infused and learned within context through interactions. In other words neuroscience
confirms that play is the vehicle from which skills are developed and the adhesive that
makes them stick. So look back at those skills you wrote on those post-it notes and stick
them to your brains. What does research say about children that
don’t of play? Well studies of rats– who have the same neurotransmitters and similar
brain structure-who were deprived of play had more immature patterns of neuronal connections
prefrontal cortex. So if you’re still not convinced go ahead let the air out of your
balloon- because that is what happens to brains without play. Is the Tooth Fairy real? How about the garbage
man? Those questions may seem trivial, but how young children answer them is an important
indicator of cognitive development. Let parents know play is a cognitive mechanism because
if a child can’t imagine a banana is a phone, how will they imagine another person’s perspective,
the plans for the next big sky scraper or solutions to abstract math problems? The ability
to think abstractly is a huge mental leap forward, and play can make it happen.
How should we teach parents when they won’t even read your newsletters! I wrote down research
and what children were learning in my interest areas –create a bulletin board with bits
of research letting them know bit by bit the serious business of play.
I am going to end with another quote by the most gifted minds Albert Einstein, “Imagination
is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand,
while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
(Music) So how do you as an educator in an early learning
environment create the culture, climate and conditions for transferring playing to learning…you
plan. In real estate, it has been said that success comes down to location, location,
location. In education, success comes down to planning, planning, planning. This includes
planning for play. NAEYC has defined curriculum as “The curriculum consists of the knowledge,
skills, abilities, and understandings children are to acquire and the plans for learning
experiences through which those gains will occur.” For children to experience learning
through play you must put in a lot of effort behind the scenes, before the curtain on the
stage of your classroom goes up. If you consider yourself as a playwright you
would think of writing a script. As an educator your script is your lesson plan. Most playwrights
start with an idea or image of a finished product. They have a goal in mind, this is
their guiding vision. The goal that guides you can be found in the Illinois Early Learning
and Development Standards (IELDS). These standards were created to give educators a roadmap to
plan and implement learning opportunities for their young learners. As previously stated,
researchers have linked cognitive skills, oral language development, self-regulation,
pro-social skills, memory development and academic performance to play. Each of these
areas are represented in the goals, standards, benchmarks and performance descriptors found
in the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards. Using them as you plan for implementation
should be your first point of reference when thinking about your students learning through
play. Your lesson plans will ensure that there is purpose in playing. The standards alone however, aren’t enough
to provide meaningful play-based learning experiences for your learners. For children’s
play to lead to learning, a scientifically-researched play based curriculum is necessary. Scientifically-researched
is defined as research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures
to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs. This
leads us back to our previous discussion about the science of play. It might seem as the
terminology science when it comes to play is somehow mis-matched. However, the science
of play is the belief that learning experiences should be easily replicated or generalized
far beyond the walls of our classrooms. THAT is science…outcomes that are transferrable.
Once you’ve determined your areas of focus within the standards you are in a better position
to know how to use your curriculum to transition your plan into practice. The curriculum is
what you will use to bring the standards to life. So as you are creating your lesson plan,
you have your learning standards and curriculum with you from the beginning to the end. Finally, as you think of the learning opportunities
you want to provide for each of your students when planning for play, it is important to
remember the individual abilities, skills, interests and learning styles of each child.
Doing so will help you to intentionally plan for ALL of your learners regardless of ability,
disability or advanced ability. This seems like quite a bit to manage on any given day. The phrase, so many children-so little time
might be coming to mind right now. You might be in complete agreement with the procedural
aspect of planning. But you’re wondering about managing the process of implementing
what you have planned. This can be a dilemma. The answer to this dilemma can be found by
including differentiation in your planning. Differentiation offers a framework for addressing
learner variance as a critical component of instructional planning. Here are some of the
characteristics of a classroom when differentiation is practiced:
The teacher is clear about what matters in the content or areas of learning.
The teacher understands, appreciates and builds upon student differences.
Assessment and instruction are inseparable. All students participate in respectful work.
Students and teachers are collaborators in learning.
The goals for the classroom maximum growth and individual success for every student.
Flexibility is the hallmark of a differentiated classroom.
Flexibility…this is our reminder to have a plan for the plan. Intentionally thinking
about “what ifs” and “if – then” scenarios. You will have some children who
require this type of thinking for their success and yours. In addition to thinking of differentiation
strategies when planning for play, you will also need to include accommodations and modifications.
Accommodations are tools or strategies used to provide maximum access to curriculum, classrooms
and activities that include but are not limited to adjusting instructional strategies, adjusting
classroom environment and adjusting across educational settings. Modifications are significant
alterations of scope or content of the curriculum or activity when a reasonable accommodation
will not be effective for the student. It compensates for intellectual, behavioral or
physical disabilities. Modifications also allow students to use existing skills while
promoting the development and acquisition or improvement of new skills. As you create your lesson plans, embed differentiation,
accommodation and modification strategies right into the planning process. This will
inform everything that you do as you prepare to implement your specified play-based curriculum
across the entire learning environment for all young learners. And yes, planning for
everything means everything, including activities, materials and set-up of your classroom. Remember,
the lesson plan is the script and your classroom is the stage. That is the platform where your
students will learn through play and demonstrate what they know and are able to do. So Donely and Joanna, you know we’ve be
spending time here today talking about play-based learning and really getting our thinking around
the fact that what is play-based learning for children is actually a lot of work for
us as educators. So what I’ve really been looking at is the planning that goes into
letting play be play but also purposeful for our children – the outcomes that we want
for them when they’re playing in their interest areas or having their choice activities. Or
even in small group there’s really purpose in their play. So we know in order to have
play lead to learning we need a curriculum, right? Yes. We need a scientifically-based
curriculum and we need a great assessment that’s going to allow us to measure the
impact of our teaching on children’s learning. But what are we really measuring? We’re
measuring their growth on the standards. So obviously, we all know the common core state
standards in our country are for grades K-12. But what we’ve done in Illinois is had an
opportunity to look at our early learning standards and make them rigorous and robust
as well. Hence the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards, which is what we’re
looking at right now. So we’re just going to spend a little bit of time about planning
for play using these standards as our foundation for the interest areas and our activities
and even our interaction and assessment that we’re using with children. So just to kind
of put you on the spot there Donely when you think about play and the outcomes children
get when they’re quote-unquote playing; what do you think about their physical development
and health when it comes to the standards? How you might be able to use the standards
to plan for play in the area of developing children’s physical development and health?
Well, in physical I can say that…um….most of the standards are based on what things
they can do. So, I look at the lesson plans and I look what things need to be done so
the kids need to be learning how to be moving, balancing. Well, I make that fun for them
to play along and even myself…it’s hard for me but I learn from them too. And you
just said the right thing there right? This should be a mutual process. True learning,
true play, true interactions – they are learning from us but we are also learning
from them. We’re learning them about them, we’re learning them about our own practices,
and we’re learning how to constantly reference the Illinois Early Learning and Development
Standards as well as the curriculum that we’re using to make sure that our ultimate objective
is going to be used, is going to be met for children. So to that end Joanna, thinking
about social-emotional development, which we know for children our age, that’s just
key to everything. It’s the foundation for language, math, everything. So how do you
think about using the social and emotional development standards for helping children
or planning for their play? Sure. I think…um…with children a lot of times with social-emotional
a lot of pre-teaching and modeling happens in the classroom, so that when those social
situations come up they’ve already had those learning points. We’ve already modeled those
behaviors, different solutions, so that you can really get in with the students and problem-solve
and think through how to get over those social problems or social-emotional situations that
are occurring and they already have those tools in place to know how to deal with them.
So I heard you say three significant things: modeling right? Because everything we want
children to know we must plan to teach them, even planning to play. Problem-solving – because
ultimately we want them to have the autonomy and independency to problem solve when there’s
a conflict between themselves or even within themselves. And then again, just that piece
of interacting and learning from them so that these social skills take them far beyond our
classrooms to where they’re really kindergarten ready. So I think you guys are really right
on your way for using our standards with your curriculum for assessment to really making
play a purposeful, meaningful experience for your children. So I think we got it! (laughter)
(music) Mr Rogers the much-loved host of the revered
television show said “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious
learning. But for children play IS serious learning” so let’s strive for these five
practical strategies that elevate play beyond just fun and games to serious analysis and
academics. Strategy #1 Knowing and Loving Leads to Learning
– Get to know each child and personalize your interactions to match their needs and
interests. For example, if they love Thomas the engine put items from the show into a
play area. Frequent conversations with family members and observations help you match who
you to teach to what you teach. Neuroscience research confirms loving is the springboard
to learning. So now I want you to reflect on the child that walks through the door and
you can’t help but grimace. Write down on a post-it note all your negative emotions
associated with this child and then throw them away because if you can’t manage your
negative emotions how do we expect children to? It is important to remember you can’t
dwell on the negative and get a positive academic outcome. Strategy #2 is Keep it Real! When we teach
skills separately from their application we force children to tackle problems that are
unrelated to real things in the environment and real experiences, unintentionally leaving
gaps in the development of conceptual knowledge. Conceptual knowledge is knowing how and when
to apply a basic skill. So based on what we learned earlier about the brain sitting down
at a table and writing you name at a table based on a teacher goal is not going to stick,
it also decontextualizes the skill of writing leaving children at a loss for reasons they
need to write or why or when we need to use numbers. Instead embed academic experiences
like writing into writing your name on a receipt in a pretend hair salon, or art work or counting
into counting how many blocks will keep their tower from falling. Remember to relate concepts
to students’ actual lives. For example, when I linked the cerebellum to Beyonce- this
was my attempt to bridge something new with something familiar. In the book “Powerful
Interactions: How to connect with children to extend Their Leaning” it suggests we
build links by asking connection questions “what does this remind you of” “where
else have your seen or heard this?” Has something like this ever happened to you before?”
Who does that person remind you of?” Why?” Strategy #3 is Extend when you Pretend
Play is just play until you get involved! It is only with your guidance that you can
help children extend their thinking in more sophisticated ways asking questions like “How
did you figure that out” “What is another reason that could have happened” “How
would you describe that?” “I wonder what we can do with this blue block” “Number
what patterns do you notice?” “what could we use to measure that?”
Call attention to what other children are doing, adds inspiration and expands their
knowledge base. The academic rigor of play increases as you have conversations and make
suggestions “How will we remember what we need at the grocery store?” Can you write
a prescription for me? Will you write that speeding car a ticket? What can you do to
keep the tower from falling?” Strategy #4 Laugh it up with Language
Add new and interesting words to your play interactions. I suggest teachers make a list
of common words that say in their classroom and go to a thesaurus in order to add a more
sophisticated vocabulary. Try to move from a lower word to a more advanced word. You
are correct that is the color red – it’s crimson. I also suggest putting a few new
words up in your interest areas each week to support your use of a variety of words.
I have to admit I might forget to say a word like crimson without reminding myself! Teachers
always ask me –how do I have a conversation with a child that doesn’t talk? Well first
talk about topics that are interesting to the child “what would you like to talk about?
Make sure you give enough response time. While I wait for a reply I might say “it looks
like you are thinking” If a child responds with one word child says one word like “blue”
it is your job to extend by adding more words “ you mean the bright blue truck with four
wheels? Sometimes a child may respond with actions instead of words—then I might describe
what the child is doing “ it looks like you are cooking some delicious foods!” Open-ended
questions are great – but too many questions back to back are a good way to end a conversation
and can disrupt play. Strategy #5 Pull Play into Positive Directions
Pretend play allows a child to process what is happening in their real lives and can be
influenced by what they see in the media. Children’s real lives can include situations
that can make other children and even us feel uncomfortable. Instead of stopping the play,
laughing at it or judging the child, their family or “this new generation” pull that
play in new direction. When children make guns it is often because they are limited
to know what else to make so instead of saying “no guns” show the child what to do with
the blocks. When children want to engage in superhero play I might redirect the play from
fighting to a discussion about the good things superheroes do. Did you know that superheroes
also help people? And then direct the play towards the community helpers in our neighborhood.
If children’s play moves in to drug use redirect the play into a discussion about
medicine and doctors. If the play is becoming overly aggressive you might add some indoor
gross motor activities that let children express themselves physically. (music)
The last but certainly not least aspect of our discussion is Assessment. Curriculum & instruction
are incomplete without assessment. For we must pause, and take the opportunity to determine
the impact our teaching has had on each student’s learning. To do so, we should assess students
during their naturalistic play experiences to the fullest extent possible. The open-ended
questions discussed earlier aren’t just questions to extend language and promote interactions
with young learners. They also serve as ways to authentically assess children while they
are involved in experiences that are natural to them throughout the learning environment.
This is what makes your assessment authentic. When you dissect the word authentic, you find
that it equates to words such as genuine, valid, credible and legitimate. That’s what
you want to know about your student’s learning outcomes. So as you are interacting with children in
interest areas, small and whole group activities, you are simultaneously observing students
in the process of learning and documenting your findings. Assessment is the feedback
you need to determine what, how much and how well children are individually and collectively
learning. Shakespeare said: “To be or not to be; That is the question.” However, for
educators we say “What do they really know and what can they really do; THAT is the question.”
The answers to these questions are within the characteristics of play-based assessment. Play-based assessment is student centered.
The primary observations and collection process occurs during student-directed, choice-related
activities throughout the learning environment. Play-based assessment is also teacher-directed
in that the teacher is very clear on what skills, knowledge or behavior they need or
want to assess for each student. Play-based assessment is content & domain
specific. The information you are seeking when assessing students should initially span
across a variety of developmental domains and content areas. As you narrow down what
students need based off of your initial assessments, you can then use this information to inform
specific domains and/or content areas on which to focus.
These next set of play-based assessment characteristics are universal across all ages, classrooms
and teachers from early childhood through higher-education. Nevertheless, they are very
worthy of our time and consideration. Play-based assessment is formative in nature. As you
observe, collect and analyze the data you have about the impact of your teaching on
your students’ academic achievement, you become empowered to respond and make adjustments
as needed for students individually or collectively. Just as teaching and learning are on-going,
so is play-based assessment. It is an on-going process. Remember, play-based assessment is
student-centered, not check-point or collection- period centered. Curriculum, instruction and
assessment are simultaneously interrelated, interdependent and independent. Therefore,
play-based assessment is rooted in instruction. It is routinely, systematically and seamlessly
embedded throughout the day and throughout the learning environment. The final, and you
could say most relevant characteristic of play-based assessment, is that it is mutually
beneficial. Play-based assessment provides you with many opportunities to authentically
interact with your young learners, which gives you an up-close and personal view of the outcomes
of your hard work. Thereby, you gain insight to your teaching practices and further knowledge
of exactly what your students need to be successful learners. Recognizing the characteristics
of play-based assessment provides focus on the true goal of assessment but determining
the process of play-based assessment, will help you reach your assessment goals. So let’s
go back to the conversation about routinely, systematically and seamlessly embedded assessment.
These three words become your outline for assessment planning. Yes, there’s that word
again; planning. If you are planning for play, then you must plan for assessment. When planning
for instruction and interactions you should intentionally plan for assessment. You should
plan your assessment routine, systems you will put in place to support your routine
and all the things you will do to make the process seamless. You want your assessment
process to catch children in the moment of learning. So you are weaving and flowing in
and out of their play experiences for the purpose of observing and collecting data.
While establishing an assessment process you are simultaneously developing your own strategies
and techniques for implementing assessment. We often have conversations about implementing
instruction but we don’t always have the same conversations about implementing assessment.
But if you plan for implementing instruction and plan for implementing assessment at the
same time, then you are actually working smarter not harder.
So the strategies and techniques used for implementing instruction should be easily
transferrable to implementing assessment. Remember that a play-based assessment is student-centered.
Therefore, you will want to include applicable accommodations, modifications, adaptations
and differentiation when planning the routines and systems you will use to implement assessment
just as you do when planning for instruction. For children with a documented disability
refer often to their Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan as you are planning.
These documents will clearly specify the accommodations, modifications and/or adaptations these young
learners will need to be successful. Although the law does not require you to do the same
for students without a document disability, best practice dictates that you should. In
order to implement an assessment process that is authentic, genuine, valid, credible and
legitimate, you should consider supplementing differentiation with accommodations, modifications
and adaptations. This can be achieved by factoring in age, maturity, culture, life experiences,
interests, gender, learning styles, learning interests, English language acquisition and
development and varying degrees of ability. That is a tall order but if you consider all
of these factors in your thinking during the planning stage, it becomes more and more manageable.
Therefore, your play-based assessment process WILL be mutually beneficial. That is truly
a win-win situation. As we close out our discussion on play let’s
circle back to Angela’s beginning statement where she drew on the expertise of Albert
Einstein and bring the conversation full circle, by drawing on the expertise of Swiss Psychologist
Piaget. He believed and advocated that play has multiple purposes and benefits for young
learners. During play-based learning children’s knowledge grows, they make discoveries, integrate
new information with previous information, develop conflict resolution skills and develop
an overall positive approach to learning. The important work that you are doing each
and every day as you plan, interact, instruct and assess young learners is a part of this
process. So you know that play-based learning truly is more than fun and games…it’s
life changing. (music) (end of program)

About the author


  1. I teach 4 year olds. Most schools/ centers do have the space these videos have nor probably the staff. You can send newsletters and bulletin boards made beautiful with information and if not read it just looks attractive and informational. Most parents tell us over and over they did not see the information even though they pass right by it. Rather than continually trying to push play based learning on the teachers realize it takes parent evolvement also and maybe a course on what is expected of parents as co teachers of their child. Unless you have 3 or more teachers in a classroom most classes have children who need individualized attention as well as 1 of the 3 as a traveling teacher consistently around the room to see each area is running smoothly. Parent volunteers, good luck. Children need to play but they also need to focus and very few of ours can for more than 2 minutes.

  2. Let's talk! What are your ideas about play-based learning for young children? Do you have questions or comments about this video? Is there a topic you'd like to see covered by a future Apples Video Magazine? Let us know your thoughts!

  3. Thank you for this comprehensive video on the importance of play in early childhood. I spend much of my time explaining to parents and sometimes colleagues and administrators, why play is actually a crucial element of a rigorous preschool program. I will certainly refer your video for those who want a more in-depth answer. You both have such a pleasant manner in front of the camera, making this video enjoyable to watch as well. A wise college professor of mine told us that we will spend most of our careers explaining to parents, colleagues, and administrators WHY we do what we do; so we should have a good grasp at answering those questions. She was right! So, thanks again for providing another resource to share.

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