Play-based Learning in Preschool: Learning Through Play

ALI Staff | Published  May 03, 2024

Play is a natural part of early childhood development, making play-based learning a perfect fit for preschool education. This approach supports learning across all developmental areas and builds cognitive, emotional, social, and physical skills.

In this blog, we take a closer look at:

  • What play-based learning is and its key benefits
  • Tips for adding play into regular classroom routines
  • How play supports early science learning

Let’s explore how play can be a powerful educational tool in preschool environments. 


An image of preschool students working together on a learning game about colors


What Is Play-Based Learning?

Play-based learning is an educational approach that uses play as the primary mode for teaching and development. This is based on the idea that play is a key way that young learners understand their world. By engaging in play, they can try new things, figure out problems, and get to know new ideas.

Here are the key features of this approach:

  • Learner-Led Exploration: Students are given the freedom to pursue their interests, leading to more engaged learning and better retention. They choose activities that spark their curiosity, driving their own learning process.

  • Flexible Structure: This method is adaptable, moving away from the rigid schedules of traditional classrooms. It shapes the educational experience to fit the pace and learning style of each student, creating a personalized approach.

  • Focus on Process: Emphasis is placed on the learning process rather than the final outcome. Success is measured by the strategies and skills learners develop along the way, celebrating each step of their discovery.

  • Encouraging Creativity: Play encourages learners to experiment and innovate. Without the fear of making mistakes, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills through creative play.

  • Social Skills Development: Through interactive play, students learn vital social skills such as cooperation, sharing, and conflict resolution. This foundation is crucial for effective communication and social understanding.

Traditional educational methods can be more structured, often led by lesson plans that have specific goals and are teacher-directed. While these plans provide order, they may not always allow for the flexibility that young learners need to follow their curiosity.


How Play Helps Preschool Learning

Play is more than just having fun for children; it's a vital part of how they learn and grow. Here’s a closer look at the various benefits that play provides across different areas of development:

  • Cognitive Benefits: Play stimulates the mind. It helps young learners develop decision-making skills and fosters problem-solving abilities. When children play, they experiment with new ideas and use their imagination, which enhances their creativity and ability to think critically.

  • Emotional Benefits: When children play pretend, they explore different roles, learning to express emotions and see from others' perspectives. This helps them develop empathy and emotional regulation, building a foundation for resilience and emotional intelligence in real-life situations.

  • Social Benefits: Playing with others teaches children about cooperation and teamwork. They learn to negotiate roles, follow rules, and understand the give and take of relationships. These experiences are crucial for building social skills and learning how to work in groups.

  • Physical Benefits: Playing often involves physical activity, which is essential for developing motor skills. Running, jumping, and climbing enhance hand-eye coordination, balance, and overall physical health. This kind of active play is important not only for fitness but also for building the motor skills necessary for academic tasks like writing and cutting.

Play brings many benefits to preschool students. Through play, children build crucial skills and social connections that will support their growth and learning well into the future. It's an essential part of their early education, setting them up for success beyond the classroom. 


How to Incorporate Play into Your Classroom

Now that we've seen how important play is to learning in preschool, here are the best ways to weave play into the daily routine:

  • Daily Play Times: Set aside specific times dedicated solely to play each day. This can be free play or guided activities that tie into your lesson plans. Regular play periods help students look forward to learning and experimenting in a structured yet flexible environment.

  • Incorporate Play into Lessons: Use play as a tool within lessons to explore concepts in math, language arts, science, and social studies. For instance, use block building to teach mathematics concepts like counting, shapes, and spatial awareness, or role-playing exercises to explore historical events or scientific phenomena.

  • Play Corners: Designate areas of your classroom for different types of play, such as a reading nook, a puzzle area, or a science lab setup. Rotate materials regularly to keep the play fresh and engaging, always aligning with the current topics of study.

  • Outdoor Play: Whenever possible, take learning outside. Nature play can stimulate observation skills and provide different contexts and materials for learning, like measuring the height of a tree or observing weather patterns.

Ready to tap into student imaginations? Story-based tools like Kide Science use playful inquiry to connect students to science, math, literacy, and social-emotional concepts in an engaging way. Captivate learners with ready-made lesson plans for your classroom!


The Role of the Teacher in Play-Based Learning 

  • Observation and Facilitation: Watch how children play and interact, stepping in with open-ended questions or new materials to extend their play and thinking.

  • Empowering Autonomy: Support students in leading their own play. Provide tools and guidance that help them solve problems and navigate their play experiences independently.

  • Planning for Learning Opportunities: Have a loose plan for potential learning opportunities that can be facilitated during play. This isn't about forcing lessons but about being prepared to guide discovery when the moment arises naturally.

By embedding these strategies into your classroom routine, play turns into a powerful tool that supports all areas of child development.


The Role of Play in Learning: A Research Study

Many educators agree that play is a critical aspect of learning.

However, there remain many gaps and questions about how to incorporate play into learning in the most effective way and how play actually helps children learn more.

A Finnish study co-led by cofounder and lead researcher of Kide Science, Dr. Jenni Vartiainen, explored how to best integrate play into science education. Here are some key insights from this research.


Active Learning through Play: Using Imagination

The study found that imagination was crucial for children being able to learn through play.

For example, preschoolers would take regular items like blocks and pretend they were molecules in a science experiment.

This creative play helped them understand complex science ideas by making them real and easier to grasp.

As the activities evolved, children also used accessories like goggles and lab coats to extend and sustain their play scenarios.

This not only deepened their engagement in the science activities but also solidified their understanding of scientific roles and concepts.

The study shows that using imagination helps children learn better, encouraging them to explore and really understand the world. It proves that play is a great way to get kids excited about learning, making difficult concepts simpler and more fun.


Emotional Connections in Play-Based Learning

To maximize learning for preschoolers, including an aspect of emotional engagement was important. This was done by introducing a relatable character during play-based activities.

For example, when the character needed help to inflate balloons as part of a science experiment, the children were eager to assist.

This situation sparked their curiosity and motivated them to engage in problem-solving, using baking soda and vinegar to generate gas for the balloons.

An emotional connection not only made the activities more compelling but also helped the children grasp the scientific concept of chemical reactions effectively.

Engaging children emotionally through characters they care about enhances their motivation and deepens their involvement in the educational process. 


Open-Ended Experiments in Play-Based Learning

Open-ended experiments are essential for sparking curiosity and fostering self-guided exploration in young learners.

In these activities, children are presented with a scenario and a set of materials but no fixed instructions on how to use them.

This method encourages them to explore, experiment, and discover outcomes on their own, promoting critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

For example, in this study, children were given materials like baking soda and vinegar and asked to explore what happens when these substances mix.

They investigated how the reaction could inflate balloons, learning about chemical reactions through hands-on experimentation.

This approach empowers children to take ownership of their learning process and effectively meets inquiry goals in early childhood science education, helping them grasp complex ideas and build confidence.


Future Directions in Play-Based Learning Research

Although this study uncovered many intriguing aspects of play-based learning, there's still more to explore.

Here are some areas for future research: understanding how scientific play develops as children grow and assessing the role of digital tools in enhancing or disrupting this learning process.


Embracing Play: A Path Forward in Early Education

Play-based learning is essential for nurturing curious and creative minds. It blends discovery with fun, preparing children for future challenges through imaginative play and practical experiments.

Let’s keep pushing for play as a core part of early education, encouraging young learners to explore and grow.


Teach science, math, SEL, literacy, and critical thinking through play! Nurture curiosity with our research-backed, child-led activities!

CTA Image


Which STEM subjects are of interest to you?

Ensuring your privacy is our priority. By submitting this form, you confirm that you are over the age of 18 and agree to abide by our terms and conditions and privacy notice, and consent to allow Accelerate Learning to store and process the submitted personal information. Accelerate Learning uses the information provided to contact you about our relevant content, products, and services and is committed to your privacy. You can opt-out at any time.