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Why play-based learning?

'...for the EYLF to be implemented properly, all early childhood educators need to know what play is, why it is important, how to implement and assess a play based program and their role in it.'

One of the practices most commonly used in the early childhood sector is 'learning through play'.  Play-based learning is described in the EYLF as 'a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they actively engage with people, objects and representations' (EYLF, 2009, p. 46).  But what is play?  Play is hard to define as there are a number of theories and types of play.

Defining 'play'

While there is no one definition of play, there are a number of agreed characteristics that describe play.  Play can be described as:

  • pleasurable-play is an enjoyable and pleasurable activity.  Play sometimes includes frustrations, challenges and fears; however enjoyment is a key feature
  • symbolic-play is often pretend, it has a 'what if?' quality.  The play has meaning to the player that is often not evident to the educator
  • active-play requires action, either physical, verbal or mental engagement with materials, people, ideas or the environment
  • voluntary-play is freely chosen.  However, players can also be invited or prompted to play
  • process oriented-play is a means unto itself and players may not have an end or goal in sight
  • self motivating-play is considered its own reward to player (Shipley, 2008).
Research and evidence all point to the role of play in children's development and learning across cultures (Shipley, 2008).  Many believe that it is impossible to disentangle children's play, learning and development.

Brain development

While research on brain development is in its infancy, it is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain.  We know that secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assist in building and strengthening brain pathways.  Play creates a brain that has increased 'flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life' (Lester & Russell, 2008, p. 9).

Young children's play allows them to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks and create meaning.  Children who engage in quality play experiences are more likely to have well-developed memory skills, language development, and are able to regulate their behaviour, leading to enhanced school adjustment and academic learning (Bodrova & Leong, 2005).

Play-based learning

Fostering play-based programs

Physically active play allows children to test and develop all types of motor skills.  It promotes significant health and well-being benefits.

The dispositions for learning, such as curiosity, openness, optimism, resilience, concentration and creativity (SACSA, 2009), are developed in play.  Playing is linked to the development of resilience and the beginnings of empathy as children begin to understand other points-of-view.  However, not all play is kind or inclusive, so educators have to act accordingly to ensure that play is not harmful.

What educators can do...

How can quality play-based learning take place effectively?  Early childhood educators should know the children and families in their centre; they assess, document children's learning and know their interests.  Then, together with families, they plan carefully how to use play-based activities as one tool to promote the learning that will achieve the EYLF outcomes.

The EYLF (2009) is based on sound, proven early childhood pedagogy and practice principles.

Lennie Barblett

Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Education and the Arts

Edith Cowan University