Play-Based Learning

Children have a natural desire to explore and learn about the world around them. Playing with a child opens us up to see the world from a completely different perspective, and it can be magical.

What we might not realize is when our kids are taking us on adventures through the backyard, making us pretend meals in their kitchen, or finger painting, they are learning skills that will help them now and later on in life. Kids thrive when they have adults encouraging and inspiring them to use their imagination and creativity.


What is Play-Based Learning?

Play-based learning is child-led and child-focused. There is never an end goal.  Most types of learning with children are fun, like singing clean-up songs or learning the alphabet.  However, with those types of learning games, there is a parent or teacher goal established from the beginning, and they are adult-led activities. This type of play also focuses on remembering facts and information to be repeated back at a later date.

Play-based learning is about encouraging our preschool kids to explore the world around them and their creativity and imagination within their world. When playing with other children, they bring their own language, customs, and experiences into play. It is a fantastic way for preschool kids to learn about their peers while practicing social skills that are instrumental in the preschool years, like sharing and taking turns.


Components of Play-Based Learning

Play-based learning can be practiced at home or in preschool. It can be done solo, with an adult, or with friends. So, what are the elements involved in play-based learning that set it apart from academic learning?

  • Fun
  • Child-Led
  • Unstructured
  • Imaginative


Fun Times: The most essential aspect of play-based learning is it should be fun for the child.  Preschool-age children might have disagreements with each other or experience frustrations, but overall, they should enjoy the activity they are doing. If they are not having fun, encouraging them to switch their activity or focus can help promote fun play-based learning.


Who Runs the World? Girls…and Boys! Adults can provide input, but the child should have complete control over what activity is played, how they play, and for how long. It should be voluntary and not forced play by an adult.


Not all adults are natural at pretend-play, and that’s ok. Play-based learning with your preschool kid is perfect if this is something you struggle with. They are in control, so you can ask them what they want you to do and just follow their instructions.  We all know that preschoolers will get a kick out of telling mom and dad what to do!


Unstructured Playtime: Play-based learning doesn’t have limits, within reason.  Children have full reign of their playing space, and the direction of play is guided solely by their interests.


Standard rules, plans, or guidelines for learning or play don’t apply here. Is their bike a rocket ship one moment and then a canoe the next? Perfect! Do the weeds in your backyard make the perfect cover from the unicorn aliens? Excellent, you don’t have time to mow the grass this weekend anyways. This time with your preschool kid should be open-ended regarding duration and direction.


Sparks Fly: When curiosity sparks the imagination of a preschooler, there’s no stopping them. There’s a reason why there is a whole social media genre dedicated to adorable and hilarious things that kids say and do.


When left to their own devices and provided with encouragement instead of restrictions, children really show us how wonderfully fantastic their minds are. Ask a lot of open-ended questions to keep the momentum of their imagination going.


Play-Based Learning Activities

We know play-based learning for preschool kids is based on their desires and creativity. So how do you set your home and child up to feel free to explore play-based learning activities? Encouraging and participating with your child when they are playing is a great start. Ask them questions about what they are doing and follow their lead.

It can be tempting to lead your preschool-aged child in the direction of what is “proper.”  For example, if they are playing house, you might be tempted to tell them that forks don’t belong on the inside of a sandwich. Instead, happily pretend to eat your utensil sandwich and comment on how you have never thought to do that before.  Let them explain their thought process to you if they want and revel in their creativity.

Other great activities that encourage play-based learning around the house and in preschool:

  • Finger Painting
  • Playing House/Farm/Grocery Store
  • Exploring Outside – climbing, digging, running.
  • Sensory Tables
  • Make Believe
  • Dress-up
  • Reading Books


From Preschool and Beyond!

Play-based learning in preschool and in the home fosters a love of learning that can’t be beat—a love that goes beyond play-based and transitions to academic learning as well. As children learn about themselves while guiding their own learning, they discover what methods work best for them to stay engaged while growing in other necessary skill sets.


Necessary Skill Sets for Your Child

  • Language Development
  • Numeracy Skills
  • Social Skills
  • Cognitive Skills
  • Motivation to Learn
  • Curiosity


As they get older and tackle heartier assignments in life and school, like homework and studying for tests, knowing their best learning style is what will enable them to be the best student they can be. As their parent or teacher, you have a front-row seat in observing what makes them tick, what their interests are, and what motivates them. That is an amazing set of information to have access to!

The skills, imagination, persistence, and overall enthusiasm exhibited in play-based learning cannot be replicated in traditional learning. Traditional and academic learning has many benefits and is necessary, but they are not the only way to foster growth in a child. Since traditional learning involves goals and structure dictated by an observing adult, it cannot foster the creativity and curiosity that preschool-led play-based learning does. So, get dirty, get silly and get on your kids’ level; it’s time to enter the magical realm of play-based learning!