ResearchPDF Available

Learning through play: a review of the evidence

Authors:
  • Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine

Abstract and Figures

This white paper looks at the most recent research on the role and importance of play for children’s life and learning. It concludes that the evidence on learning through play is mounting, that engaging with the world in playful ways is essential for a child and lays a foundation for learning, especially in the early years of life. Beyond infancy and toddlerhood, learning through play shows promise as an effective pedagogical technique in education.
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Content may be subject to copyright.
Jennifer M. Zosh, Emily J. Hopkins, Hanne Jensen, Claire Liu, Dave Neale,
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, S. Lynneth Solis and David Whitebread
November 2017
Learning through play:
a review of the evidence
White paper
ISBN: 978-87-999589-1-7
Table of contents
Executive summary • 3
Thriving in the 21st century • 4
Learning is broad, interconnected and dynamic • 8
Children are born to learn through play • 12
Characteristics of playful learning experiences • 16
Joyful • 18
Meaningful • 20
Actively engaging • 22
Iterative • 24
Socially interactive • 26
Future directions and unanswered questions • 28
Closing thoughts & acknowledgements • 32
About the authors • 33
References • 34
This white paper is published in 2017 and
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.09)
ISBN: 978-87-999589-1-7
Suggested citation
Zosh, J. M., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D.,
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2017).
Learning through play: a review of the evidence (white
paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK.
3
Executive summery
The aim of the LEGO Foundation is to build a future
where learning through play empowers children
to become creative, engaged, lifelong learners.
This ambition is more critical than ever. The world
of today and tomorrow is one of challenges but
also of tremendous opportunity. An increasingly
interconnected and dynamic reality means children
will face continuous re-skilling and a need for lifelong
learning as they grow. Many children also face
hardship in the shape of stress, poverty and conict.
They need positive experiences and coping skills to
counterbalance negative factors in their lives, and
support their condence and opportunity for making a
dierence. We rmly believe that promoting children’s
drive to learn, their ability to imagine alternatives, and
to connect with their surroundings in positive ways, is
absolutely essential.
This white paper summarises current evidence on
the role and importance of children’s learning through
play. We rst consider what it takes to thrive in a 21st
century context, before dening learning in a broad
sense: both as a deep understanding of content and as
learning-to-learn skills that build on children’s natural
Executive summary
anity to learn and engage with their world from birth.
We then draw on the science of eective learning,
rigorous play research and neuroscience to explore
the potential of playful experiences for promoting
deeper learning and a breadth of skills. We outline
what evidence is known, what gaps exist, and propose
future directions for research. The three boxes below
summarise these insights under three headlines: what
we know, what we think and what needs to be done.
Through active engagement with
ideas and knowledge, and also with
the world at large, we see children
as better prepared to deal with
tomorrow’s reality - a reality of their
own making. From this perspective,
learning through play is crucial for
positive, healthy development,
regardless of a child’s situation.
What we know
Learning through play
happens through joyful,
actively engaging,
meaningful, iterative,
and socially interactive
experiences.
Our goal is to develop
creative, engaged, lifelong
learners who thrive in a 21st
century world
What we think
Learning through play
supports overall healthy
development, acquisition of
both content (e.g., math) and
learning-to-learn skills (e.g.,
executive funtion)
The benets and role of
learning through play dier
across contexts and cultures
What needs to
be done
Learning through play
research across cultures
Well-controlled studies
examining play’s role for
higher-level skills
Greater understanding of
how play and its benets
change over time and context
Insights from neuroscience
on play in real-life contexts
Community Home
School
Learning through play is about
continuity; bringing together
children’s spheres of life - home,
school and the wider world, and
doing so over time.
Susan MacKay,
Director of Teaching and Learning
at Portland Children’s Museum
Thriving in the 21st century:
challenges and opportunities
5
Thriving in the 21st century
The LEGO Foundation aims to build a future where
learning through play empowers children to become
creative, engaged and lifelong learners. UNESCO uses
the term global citizenship to highlight this need for
empowering children to take active roles in the face of
global challenges and to become contributors towards
a world characterised by greater peace, tolerance
and inclusion (UNESCO, 2015). Their call to action
also reminds us of a dicult reality; all over the world,
children face hardship. Neglect, loss, poverty and
conict are just some of the situations where they are
at risk. They need protective experiences and coping
skills to counterbalance negative factors in their lives
(NSCDC, 2015). In this white paper, we focus on three
specic potentials for learning through play: during
children’s development in the rst years of life, through
entering school age and laying the foundation for
lifelong learning.
Play in early development
Neuroscience presents us with strong evidence for
the profound inuence of early experiences. In order
to build healthy brain connections from the outset,
young children need responsive and rich social
interactions with caregivers, combined with sucient
nutrients and an environment free of toxins (CDC
at Harvard University, 2016). Playful experiences
oer a unique context for these supportive and rich
learning experiences in early childhood (see also the
forthcoming white paper titled Learning through Play in
the First 1000 Days by J. Robinson, in progress).
Today’s children (tomorrow’s adults) grow up facing rapid change, global
challenges, and connectivity, all of which aect their prospects of life and work.
Connecting play and education
As children grow, preparing them for the demands of
school and the wider society is key. However, content
only serves children as far as they can apply and build
on it: a child who has not grasped the concepts of
plus and minus stands little chance of understanding
equations. Attaining key content and facts is important
for school and life, but children also need a deep,
conceptual understanding that allows them to connect
concepts and skills, apply their knowledge to dierent
situations, and spark new ideas (Winthrop & McGivney,
2016; Frey, Fisher, & Hattie, 2016). We see playful
experiences as optimal for engaging in this type of
deeper learning (see the section on ‘Characteristics of
playful experiences’ in this white paper).
Play and lifelong learning
Finally, today’s world is uncertain and constantly
changing – from shifting career and political
landscapes to increasingly digital economies and social
life. New technologies mean we live and work in ways
that did not exist twenty years earlier. Children need
skills and mindsets allowing them to step into this
uncertainty, create opportunities for themselves and
their communities, and learn throughout life. Using the
simple, yet compelling words by researchers Golinko
& Hirsh-Pasek (2016), realising children’s potential in
the face of this uncertainty means supporting them to
be “happy, healthy, thinking, caring, and social children
who will become collaborative, creative, competent,
and responsible citizens tomorrow”.
We don’t teach uncertainty in
schools. It should be the absolute
bedrock of what we teach children
– how we come to know and how we
describe reality. In fact, we teach
the exact opposite.
Adam Rutherford, science writer,
& Rufus Hound, comedian
6
What global citizenship, coping and thriving look
like for children may dier dramatically across time,
culture, and context, but the deep understanding that
comes from eective learning experiences will no
doubt be an important step. In playful experiences,
children tap a breadth of skills at any one time. When
playing together, children are not just having fun but
are building skills of communication and collaboration.
A game of hide-and-seek helps them to manage
feelings about the unknown while also helping them to
think about what other people know and see. Beyond
enjoyment, playful experiences have the potential to
give children the skills they will need in the future that
go beyond facts. As we discuss more fully below, playful
experiences appear to be a powerful mechanism
that help children not only to be happy and healthy in
their lives today but also develop the skills to be the
creative, engaged, lifelong learners of tomorrow.
In the following sections, we present insights from
diverse scientic literatures to describe the nature of
children’s learning and the role of play and agency in
their development. This leads to ve characteristics
that describe the interface between play and learning:
joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative and
socially interactive. This evidence base oers a broad,
yet compelling picture of how playful experiences
support children’s development and learning,
particularly in the early years of life. Yet, we also
recognise that more work is needed to discover the
mechanisms by which child play engages with learning
outcomes, and what happens as children grow older.
In the closing remarks of this white paper, we point
to future directions and unanswered questions on
learning through play.
Thriving in the 21st century
Learning is sometimes thought of in the strictly cognitive or academic sense,
yet research in child development has shown us that learning is much broader
and interconnected.
Learning is broad,
interconnected and dynamic
A holistic view on learning
Newer approaches to theory and practice have done
an excellent job of extending the view of learning to
include areas such as physical (e.g., ne and gross
motor skills), social (e.g., empathy and theory of mind),
emotional (e.g., development self-regulation and even
self-conscious emotions), and creative development
(e.g., divergent thinking, making and expressing). This
broad view of learning is a tremendous step forward
in our understanding. However, some still view these
dierent domains as separate from each other. Such
a view fails to capture the real nature of learning-to-
learn and particularly the skills required in learning to
learn that truly allow children to be prepared for 21st
century opportunities (Golinko & Hirsh-Pasek, 2016).
We see the shortcomings of this domain-based
model in two ways.
Child development is interconnected
First, research in the last few decades has repeatedly
shown that the dierent domains of development are
not silos as much as they are interconnected gears:
development in one area can inuence development
in another. For example, physical development lays
the foundation for later cognitive and social skills. A
whole new world opens to a toddler who learns to walk
instead of crawling. Now, he can hold a toy with ease
and go in search of his caregiver, gaining access to
new interactions, language and play (Karaski, Tamis-
LeMonda, & Adolph, 2014).
Social competence and emotion regulation in turn
underpin children’s cognitive skills (McClelland, Acock
& Morrison, 2006), and language helps children interact
with peers in positive ways (Vallotton & Ayoub, 2011).
Studies looking across the span of childhood nd that
infants who are more physically active and explore
more at the age of 5 months show more success in
school at age 14 (Bornstein, Hahn, & Suwalsky, 2013).
These examples highlight that children’s growth and
development is beautifully complex and not easily
broken down into neat divisions. Importantly, lessons
from neuroscience also tell us that learning is dynamic
and not easily divisible into separate and independent
mental processes (e.g., Bassett et al., 2004; Dahaene,
2009; Sporns et al. 2004; Wandell, Rauschecker, &
Yeatman, 2012).
Learning-to-learn skills
Second, if we think about development as tting into
neat domain-based divisions, we lose sight of the
crucial learning-to-learn skills that cut across domain
boundaries (Golinko & Hirsh-Pasek, 2016). Truly
learning information and new skills requires a dynamic,
deep, conceptual understanding that often relies upon
all of those domains. For example, executive function
- a suite of abilities that includes working memory,
the ability to inhibit impulses, and switch attention
between tasks or rule sets - has been shown to relate
to a variety of academic skills including math and
literacy. Some studies have even found that children’s
impulse control in preschool predicts a wide range of
outcomes in adolescence and adulthood, including
higher SAT scores, better health, and lower rates of
substance abuse (Mischel et al., 2011).
8
Learning is broad, interconnected and dynamic
Deeper learning
allows us to connect
factual knowledge
with real-world
experiences and
really grasp their
implications
Surface learning
means we
memorise key
facts and principles
A hexagon has
six straight sides
and six angles
A triangle has three
straight sides and
three angles – the sum
of its angles is 180º
If you make a triangle out of
three sticks with hinges in the
corners, it stays rigid. That’s why
triangles are used in bridges,
cranes, houses and so on.
Notice how snowakes are
symmetrical hexagons?
This shape reects
how the crystal’s water
molecules are connected.
Hexagons are useful shapes,
for example in beehives.
They use the least amount
of wax to hold to most
weight of honey.
Learning-to-learn skills encompass a wide variety of
abilities that help children learn information, acquire
skills, and deal with new situations (e.g. Care, Kim,
Anderson, & Gustafsson-Wright, 2017; Deci & Ryan,
2000; 2012; Dignath, Buettner, & Langfeldt, 2008;
Harvard CDC, 2011). They include the ability for
children to be motivated drivers of own experiences.
This involves focus and attention to avoid distractions
that pop up, the curiosity and motivation to seek out
new opportunities and information, the willingness to
take risks, have condence, and have a love of learning.
Additionally, children benet from having the skills
necessary to be a self-starter - namely autonomy,
persistence, and goal setting - and the ability to rise
to meet new challenges. This requires imagining
innovative and creative solutions to problems and
adapting those solutions if the rst try fails.
When children develop the ability to explore their
environment, be resourceful about the materials,
people, and skills that they engage with, and think
exibly about dierent approaches to a situation,
they are better equipped for whatever challenge next
confronts them. Many problems will also require the
ability to isolate important aspects of a situation, test
How do we build these important skills for the future?
Research suggests that playful learning experiences appear to be a particularly eective
mechanism for the development of these broad, dynamic, and interconnected skills (termed “the
6 C’s” by Golinko & Hirsh-Pasek, 2016). Imagine a group of neighbourhood children playing on
a playground. These children are pretending to be part of a family, with dierent children taking
on dierent roles in the family - the parents, the siblings, even the family pet! At rst glance, this
appears to be a simple game of pretend. But when viewed through the lens of playful learning,
we see that children are actually building much more than a pretend family. As they negotiate
roles, they are building the skills of communication and collaboration. As they look around for new
materials to incorporate into their pretend reality, the are exhibiting creative innovation (e.g., a
bicycle turned upside down becomes an ice cream truck). As the younger ones begin to question
the ‘rules’ imposed by the older children, they are practicing their critical thinking skills. As they all
begin to act out things outside of their comfort zones, they are building condence in themselves
and their ability to face new challenges. Finally, even content knowledge is being strengthened
through increased exposure to language and even math as they pay the ice cream seller with their
“currency” (e.g., sticks). These are the same skills that will help children to become successful
adults and are reviewed in the rest of this piece.
out hypotheses, and reason critically and scientically
about evidence. We must also think about how best
to prepare children to think in this critical, scientic
way. Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that we live in a
social world, and to succeed in life children must have
the ability to interact and work with other people.
Young children need to not only understand and
regulate their own emotions but also express those
emotions eectively and to understand and empathise
with others. Beyond communication, the ability to
eectively work with other people to accomplish goals
is critical. Children and adults are more successful
when they can communicate their ideas to others,
collaborate to accomplish joint goals, negotiate when
partners disagree, and take leadership when necessary
to help move a team forward (Jones, Greenberg, &
Crowley, 2015).
Importantly, these kinds of skills not only build upon
themselves, but also upon one another in a dynamic
cycle of development. Let’s imagine two children
building with blocks, and one decides to knock the
other’s tower down. In this situation, the tower-builder
must try to control the negative emotions this action
causes. In building this emotional regulation, the child
10
Learning is broad, interconnected and dynamic
is now better prepared to interact more eectively
with others in similar circumstances; equally, she is
building the skills that will help her to control her fear
during a doctor’s visit or her sadness when a parent
leaves for the evening. In this way, play experiences
can help children to exercise those same skills in
safe contexts and extend them to more challenging
situations.
By highlighting a breadth of skills, the idea is not to
lose sight of content. In fact, the two are sides of the
same coin. For example, critical thinking and reasoning
is easier when one has knowledge of the context of
a problem (see Willingham, 2006) or can think of the
problem in terms of information that is personally
familiar. Ingenuity often depends on knowing how
something is currently done and looking for ways
to make it better (DeHaan, 2009). In short, learning
content is critical because the more you know, the
more you are able to learn. Children can learn content
directly, for example when taught about scientic
discoveries in school or reading a picture book about
animals with a caregiver. In these cases, the content is
presented directly to them. The point is, however:
New information is learned better
when it connects to and expands
what we already know.
See Willingham (2009) for a discussion and the
section on meaningfulness in this paper. Learning
experiences can also build up the learning-to-learn
skills that allow children to nd relevant content
through their own eorts. It is important to cultivate
both paths, and playful experiences provide a context
that can support both. In the next section, we present
insights from research on how children learn best -
both skills and content.
Content is not learnable if
communication skills are not in
place, and critical thinking operates
on content, not in a vacuum. In
this way, the skills build on and
reinforce one another.
Rebecca Winthrop & Eileen McGivney,
Center for Universal Education, Brookings Institution
11
Learning is broad, interconnected and dynamic
12
Children are born to learn through play
From the rst moments of life
Children possess an amazing, natural potential to
learn. Infants as young as a few hours old prefer to
listen to the sounds of human voices over any other
sound (Vouloumanos & Werker, 2007) and young
infants have even been referred to as “scientists in
the crib” (Gopnik, Meltzo, & Kuhl, 1999) due to their
natural curiosity and drive. Beyond more obvious
areas, such as language development and motor
skills, young children also have an imagination and
inventiveness that helps them create new ideas and
opportunities, and a strong motivation to connect and
engage with others. Play harnesses and builds on this
potential. From pretending to discover a new country in
one’s own backyard to hours spent building the world’s
largest train-station, there is no doubt that play and
childhood go hand-in-hand. In the past few decades,
research has repeatedly shown that play experiences
are not merely fun, nor just a way to pass the time
along the way to adulthood. Instead, play has a central
role in learning and in preparing you for challenges later
on in childhood and through adulthood. In the next
section, we will explore the characteristics of play that
lead to deeper learning - ultimately preparing children
for handling unforeseen events and taking advantage
of opportunities in their lives in the 21st century.
Children are born to learn
through play
The tools for enhancing and strengthening children’s learning are already available in our
homes, communities, and classrooms. The answer is, in essence, as simple as child’s play.
Play is natural and necessary
From vocal play in human infants to play observed
in other animal species such as rats, non-human
primates, and dolphins, play seems to be a natural
inclination across the animal kingdom and help
individuals within a species to learn, grow, and thrive
(Pellegrini, Dupuis, & Smith, 2007). Extreme cases,
where infants were raised in deplorable conditions
(Bos, Fox, Zeanah, & Nelson, 2009) or experimental
manipulations where rats and mammals were raised
without play (Spinka, Newberry, & Beko, 2001)
have shown that play is not simply a ‘bonus’. Rather,
play has a key role in healthy, positive development.
Although natural, play must also be supported by the
environment. A report from the American Academy of
Pediatrics highlights the need and importance of play
for promoting healthy child development, especially
for those children living in poverty whose access to
safe, playful experiences may be lacking (Milteer,
Ginsburg, The Council on Communication and Media,
& Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and
Family Health, 2012).
A continuum of playful learning
Generally, the literature conceptualises play as existing
along a continuum. At one end, free play gives children
the freedom to explore, play, and discover with
minimal constraints. But play is not just something that
happens in a vacuum: our environments structure play
(e.g., the materials available when playing in a home, in
a yard, in urban environments, in rural environments,
etc.) as do the peers, adults, and other people around
us. And so, at the other end of the continuum is play
that is more guided or structured. The term “playful
learning” is an umbrella term that is used to include
free play as well as these more structured, guided play
contexts (see gure below). Additionally, researchers
have recently added games under this umbrella
(Hassinger-Das, Toub, Zosh, Michnick, Hirsh-Pasek,
& Golinko, 2017). Playful learning can take many
forms, including physical games such as hide and
seek, construction play with blocks, board games,
pretending with objects, or engaging in fantastical
role play (see the literature review on play types and
children’s development by Neale, Whitebread et al.,
2017). Although there is ongoing debate in research
and practice about where free play ends and more
guided play begins (e.g. Pyle & Danniels, 2017), our goal
in this piece is not to resolve this theoretical debate.
Instead, we maintain that learning through play can
happen through free play and when adults or aspects of
the environment structure the play situation towards a
particular learning goal.
child-led child-led, adult
scaolded
Adult designed/scaolded
Set rules and constraints
for play
Adult designed/controlled
Set constraints for activity
Playful learning
Free play Games
Guided
play
Direct
Instruction
Balance of child-adult involvement and constraints
13
Children are born to learn through play
The importance of child agency
Whether adults are supporting or not, a critical
requirement for learning through play is that children
must experience agency and be supported rather
than directed. Anyone who has spent time with an
18-month-old knows just how much children like to
take control. Whether it is putting on her own shoes
or feeding herself despite lacking ne motor skills, a
hallmark of toddlerhood is the idea of the self as an
agent. This quest for control, initiative, and, in a way,
leadership, does not end with toddlerhood however.
Indeed, the challenge of balancing a child’s own desires
with the reality of rules, social norms, and situation has
been at the heart of many psychological theories. From
Freud’s id, ego, and superego to Erikson’s psychosocial
stages of development, the idea that children have a
drive for at least some degree of agency is prevalent
both anecdotally and theoretically. Having agency does
not equal ‘anything goes’ for children either at home or
in education contexts. Agency in learning through play
means seeing the child as capable rather than a blank
slate to be lled (Daniels & Shumow, 2003).
Agency is about the balance of initiative in the child-
adult relationship: are children’s interests listened to?
Are they consulted on decisions that concern them?
Do they initiate an activity and invite adults to join
them in play and decision-making? In other words,
what opportunities do children have for exerting their
thinking and actions in a social context where others
hold the same rights? Two dimensions may be helpful
to consider: how planned the learning environment is,
and how much the child and adult control the evolving
‘ow’ of activities (Sinclair, 2004; Toub, Rajan, Golinko,
& Hirsh-Pasek, 2016; Cheng, Reunamo, Cooper, Liu, &
Vong, 2015).
Imagine a teacher arranging creative centres in the
classroom. In one corner, children cut cardboard
owls from a template; in another, they choose and
colour print-outs with a shape - triangles, squares, or
circles; in the third corner, children work together to
build a city from wooden blocks. On the surface, all
children are busy doing a task with creative materials
but they have dierent degrees of choice: from none
when they are cutting out templates to at least some
when choosing and colouring shapes. The greatest
opportunities for exing their ‘thinking muscles’ come
when they are allowed to create and develop a city
from their own idea to a nal product. Likewise, we can
picture a two-year-old with her dad, trying to solve a
puzzle. In one scenario, the dad hands over the puzzle
pieces, one by one, and indicates where to place each
piece. In this case, he controls almost all aspects of
the activity. Alternatively, he might support her to
work on the puzzle herself, but occasionally make
suggestions, such as rotating a piece if it doesn’t t at
rst or trying to look for similar colours. Researchers
nd that this kind of scenario, where caregivers
ensure that children play an active role in solving a
problem-solving task, promotes children’s executive
functions - that crucial suite of skills used in goal-
setting and exible thinking (Matte-Gagné, Bernier, &
Lalonde, 2015; Hammond, Müller, Carpendale, Bibok,
& Liebermann-Finestone, 2012).
Benets for development
The importance of agency and self-directedness
and their impact on learning for humans across the
lifespan is, in fact, widely researched. From the work
on self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) and
intrinsic motivation with adults (Cordova & Lepper,
1996), the literature is full of examples in which choice
and a sense of agency in determining what is learned
appears to be a powerful mechanism. Even before
adulthood, seeing oneself as an agent has been
linked with learning. Infants who are given experience
with grasping objects themselves are better able to
14
Children are born to learn through play
understand the mental states (such as intention and
desire) that underlie actions of others (Sommerville,
Woodward, & Needham, 2005). As children begin
to move through the world on their own instead of
being carried or pushed in a stroller (and thus, have a
higher degree of agency), we see widespread benets
to cognition. According to Campos and colleagues
(2000), “...the onset of locomotor experience brings
about widespread consequences, and after infancy,
can be responsible for an enduring role in development
by maintaining and updating existing skills.” (p. 150).
For example, elementary school children who are
allowed choice about the features of a game are more
motivated to play and learn more from it (Cordova &
Lepper, 1996).
Play is an agentic learning context
Play captures many of the features that we know from
research lead to deeper learning, and thus provides
an optimal environment to develop the skills and
knowledge that children need to thrive and succeed
as adults. Children are intrinsically motivated to
play, which makes it fertile ground for learning and
developing new skills. During play, children can take
charge, making choices about what they do and
how. Play can be a highly social activity, allowing for
opportunities to learn from and about others. Thus,
play can provide many opportunities for learning, but
not all play is learning, and not all learning is play. Next,
we describe ve characteristics that specically dene
playful learning experiences and review evidence on
how these link to children’s deeper learning.
15
Children are born to learn through play
Regardless of whether a play activity falls closer to free
play, guided play or games on the continuum, we say
that optimal learning through play happens when the
activity (1) is experienced as joyful, (2) helps children
nd meaning in what they are doing or learning,
(3) involves active, engaged, minds-on thinking (4)
involves iterative thinking (e.g., experimentation,
hypothesis testing), and (5) involves social interaction
(the most powerful resource available to humans -
other people). The selection of these characteristics
is based on the theory presented by Hirsh-Pasek,
Zosh, Golinko, Gray, Robb, & Kaufman (2015) where
they provide evidence that a deep, conceptual
understanding requires that children are active (minds-
on) and engaged (not distracted) with meaningful
material especially in socially interactive contexts.
Here, we use this conceptualisation as a foundation,
combined with a playful state of mind - joy and iteration
- to further explain learning through play.
The ve characteristics ebb and ow as children are
engaged in learning through play activities. All ve
characteristics are not necessary all the time, but
over time children should experience moments of
joy and surprise, a meaningful connection, be active
and absorbed, iterate and engage with others. Joy
is a necessary requirement for an experience to be
Characteristics of playful
learning experiences
What does it look like when children learn through play? On the next pages, we dive
into ve characteristics of play with insights from research on how they promote
deeper learning.
playful. Indeed, the ‘...predominant emotions of
play are interest and joy.’ (Gray, 2013, p. 18). When
it comes to deeper learning, active engagement is
necessary as one cannot imagine children reaching a
depth of understanding and ability to apply without
being minds-on and actively processing information
or experiences. Additionally, learning through play
requires that an experience is meaningful to the child.
Exposure to abstract concepts that are not connected
to children’s real-life experience may lead to shallow
memorisation of information, but will not foster the
type of deeper, exible learning we wish to encourage
(see illustration on page 9).
Together with a sense of agency, we suggest that
joy, meaningfulness, and active engagement, are
necessary for children to enter a state of learning
through play, and the addition of any combination
of the other two characteristics (iteration and social
interaction) supports even deeper learning. In the
following sections, we draw on existing research to
describe the potential of learning through play.
16
Characteristics of playful learning experiences
Socially
interactive
Actively
engaging Meaningful
Joyful
Iterative
17
Characteristics of playful learning experiences
19
Joyful
Joyful
Joy is at the heart of play
Here, we dene joy in a broad sense: as pleasure,
enjoyment, motivation, thrill, and a positive emotion
- whether over a short period of time or over the
entire play session. In other words, joy is seen as both
enjoying a task for its own sake and the momentary
thrill of surprise, insight, or success after overcoming
challenges. From a child enjoying a pretend play
session with a peer to the thrill of building that tower
just right, joy is a key facet of play. Saying that learning
through play must be joyful does not mean that
there can be no negative or neutral emotions at all.
Sometimes frustration with a problem is necessary to
feel the joy of breakthrough when it is nally solved.
Further, the power of surprise or the thrill of the
unexpected can bring joy to an otherwise boring or
even potentially intimidating situation (e.g., just think
of a child’s reaction to a jack-in-the-box or when a
child who is pouting because she is losing a board
game lands on a piece that puts her in rst place).
Crucially, joy is also linked with learning in a number
of ways.
In developmental research, joy is often linked with
interest or motivation. Over the last few decades,
researchers have made great strides in investigating
motivation through concepts such as mindset (Dweck,
2006) and grit (Duckworth, 2016), and how these
can improve learning. For example, everyone can
intuitively remember just how hard it can be to learn
or be productive when we are sad about something
happening in our lives, or when that inner critic
swallows all our mental energy. This is not just an
impression. Research repeatedly shows that negative
life experiences have implications on learning and
development, just as perseverance and positive
outlook improve our ability to handle stress and
challenges in life (Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2015).
We can also easily remember the excitement felt
and the ease of learning about something that
caught our attention in a surprising way. Recent work
suggests that even infants show more learning after
a surprising event than after one that is expected
(Stahl & Feigenson, 2015; 2017). From neuroscience,
we nd that emotions are integral to neural
networks responsible for learning (Immordino-Yang
& Damasio, 2007). Joy, for example, is associated
with increased dopamine levels in the brain’s reward
system linked to enhanced memory, attention,
mental shifting, creativity, and motivation (e.g.,
Cools, 2011; Dang, Donde, Madison, O’Neil, Jagust,
2012). Indeed, thinking of emotions as secondary to
thinking in learning goes against recent research in
the developmental and neuroscientic disciplines
(Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007).
The predominant
emotions of play
are interest and
joy.
Peter Gray,
play researcher
Making sense of experiences
Meaningful is about children nding meaning in an
experience by connecting it to something they already
know. In play, children often explore what they have
seen and done, or noticed others do, as a way of
grasping what it means. By doing so, they can express
and expand their understanding.
Imagine a two-year-old who will readily say “1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10!” when asked to count to 10. His parents are
happy and the child feels proud to have given the right
answer. But when this same child is given ve pieces
of candy and asked to count how many he has, he can’t
come up with the answer. Although this child appears
to know a “fact” - this is really just an illusion. He has
no true conceptual understanding that he can use
exibly or that connects to his world. The same kind
of “learning illusion” is also apparent when children
can recite the alphabet song but are unable to identify
the letters or the relevant sounds that go with each
letter. To move past rote learning to more meaningful
understanding (Ausubel, 1968), the child must learn
to connect the illusory fact to something in real life.
Children need to count actual objects rather than
reciting the count list without context. By showing that
each successive number in the list corresponds to an
individual object in a set, children begin to understand
the true meaning of counting.
The importance of meaning making cannot be
underestimated: from Ausubel’s (1968) distinction
of rote versus meaningful learning, to Shuell’s (1990)
writing on rote learning being a precursor to “real”
learning, to Chi’s (2009) more recent paper outlining
the importance of active construction of new
understanding based on what is already known, deep
learning must extend beyond facts to conceptual
understanding.
When thinking about applying the importance
of meaning to our conceptualisation of learning
through play, a particularly strong example comes
from the work of Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe,
and Golinko (2013). In this work, the researchers
compared children’s learning when they were told a
new fact directly (e.g., a triangle has three sides, some
triangles have sides of equal size although others do
not) to contexts in which children were given a goal
to discover the ‘secret of the shapes.’ Children in the
latter condition, who had to think about the shapes
in a more meaningful context, were not only better
able to identify non-standard shapes (e.g., skewed
triangles) but also retained this information a week
later. As such, learning through play can help children
to tap into their existing knowledge and spur them
to make connections, see relationships, and gain a
deeper understanding of the complex world around
them. Another method used to help children nd
meaning that seems powerful for learning is known as
dialogic reading. When parents or caregivers engage
in dialogic reading, they do not simply read the words
on the page. Instead, they prompt children to think
about what might come next or how a character might
be feeling. They may ask children to relate what is
happening in the story to something that is happening
in their own lives. This type of meaning-making in
reading is linked to greater vocabulary gains (Hargrave
& Senechal, 2000). Also, making connections between
familiar and unfamiliar input guides the brain in
making eortful learning easier (Luu, Tucker, Stripling,
2007). Meaningful experiences help us connect new
insights with our existing mental frameworks; this
way of processing recruits networks in the brain
associated with analogical thinking, memory, transfer,
metacognition, insight, motivation and reward (e.g.,
Bunzeck, Doeller, Dolan, & Duzel, 2012; Gerraty,
Davidow, Wimmer, Kahn, & Sohomy, 2014; Hobeika,
Diard-Detoeuf, Garcin, Levy, & Volle, 2016).
21
Meaningful
Meaningful
Learning is hands-on and minds-on
Learning through play also involves being actively
engaged. When children are immersed in the act of
self-directed eort, are minds-on, and persist through
distraction, we see benets to learning. Imagine a child
who is intently absorbed in playing with a set of building
bricks. She is actively imagining how the pieces will
go together and is so immersed that she fails to hear
her father call her for dinner. This mental immersion
and resistance to distraction is a hallmark of both play
and learning separately, but seems to be especially
powerful within the context of learning through play.
Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, et al., (2015) make the distinction
that active learning requires children to be “minds
on,” whether or not their bodies are active. From
studies nding that children learn best when they
play an active role in solving a problem rather than
being explicitly instructed (Zosh, Brinster, & Halberda,
2013; Matté-Gagne, Bernier, & Lalonde, 2015) to
studies showing that children as young as 3 months
of age are more likely to interpret others’ actions as
goal-directed if they had personal, active experience
with something like reaching for an item themselves
(Sommerville, Woodward, & Needham, 2005), it is
crucial that children adopt an active and engaged
mindset. Learning through play creates that mindset
without falling victim to the downsides of instruction-
based pedagogy.
Adults inuence child curiosity
Bonawitz and colleagues discuss this double-edge
sword of pedagogy (Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon,
Goodman, Spelke, & Schulz, 2011). In this study,
children were allowed to play with a novel toy with a
number of hidden functions. When an adult taught
them how the toy works by showing a limited number
of those functions (e.g., actions A and B yield results
X and Y), the children tended to play with only those
functions. In contrast, when an adult who claimed not
to know about the toy “accidentally” revealed one of
the hidden functions, children tended to explore more
widely and discover more of the other hidden features
of the toy on their own. The didactic context in the
rst condition led children to believe that the adult had
taught them all there was to know about the toy and
they explored no further on their own.
This nding does not suggest that we should leave
children in a world with zero guidance or instruction;
they can and do learn from listening to and observing
others. Children in the rst condition of Bonawitz and
colleagues’ study learned the functions that were
shown to them, but when they were put in a less
structured environment, they engaged in the kinds
of minds-on thinking that led to more exploration
of the toy. These more self-directed, discovery-
based techniques can support a deeper, conceptual
understanding. In fact, neuroscience nds that active
and engaged involvement increases brain activation
related to agency, decision-making, and ow (e.g.,
Kuhn, Brass, & Haggard, 2012). It enhances memory
encoding and retrieval processes that support learning
(e.g., Johnson, Singley, Peckham, Johnson, & Bunge,
2014). Full engagement in an activity allows the brain
to exercise networks responsible for executive control
skills, such as pushing out distractions, which benet
short term and lifelong learning (Diamond, 2013).
23
Actively engaging
Actively engaging
Neither play nor learning is static
A fourth characteristic of learning through play
involves the iterative nature of children’s play and
learning. From a toddler playing with a puzzle and trying
out dierent strategies to a young child discovering
that the angle of a slide impacts how far a marble will
shoot across a room, iteration - trying out possibilities,
revising hypotheses, and discovering the next question
- leads to deeper learning. Because play is a scenario
that provides children agency to direct their own
activities and a safe space to experiment without risk,
it encourages iterative and exploratory behaviour. For
example, children engaged in a playful building activity
with a peer built larger, more complex structures
than pairs of children engaging in an adult-directed,
structured activity (Ramani, 2012).
Children also use play to test out hypotheses and
explore unknowns. In one study, preschool children
observed a demonstration of a toy where the
causal structure was unclear (two buttons were
pressed simultaneously and two eects occurred)
or a demonstration that made clear how the toy
worked (each button was pressed separately and
led to distinct eects). Children who viewed the
ambiguous demonstration spent more time playing
with the toy, whereas children who viewed the clear
demonstration chose to play with a new toy instead
(Schulz & Bonawitz, 2007; see also Cook, Goodman,
& Schulz, 2011; Buchsbaum et al., 2012). Even infants
show this tendency: 11-month-olds who observed an
object appear to pass through a solid wall subsequently
banged the object against the table to test its solidity,
and others who observed an object appear to hover
in mid-air dropped it repeatedly to test if it would
fall (Stahl & Feigenson, 2015). Engaging in this type
of iterative play not only helps children learn and
understand more about the world around them, but
also strengthens their critical thinking and scientic
reasoning.
Pretend play itself is a form of counterfactual
reasoning, where children have to keep in mind a set
of premises separate from reality and reason about
what those premises imply (Weisberg & Gopnik, 2013).
For example, if a child is pretending that an empty cup
contains tea, and then the cup tips over, they continue
their game as if the table is now covered in tea (Harris
& Kavanaugh, 1993). When children naturally engage
in this type of reasoning during play, they are using the
same set of skills that scholars and scientists use when
they test theories by reasoning about what would
follow if a given set of conditions were true.
With practice, iteration increasingly engages brain
networks related to taking alternative perspectives,
exible thinking, and creativity (Kleibeuker, De Dreu,
& Crone, 2016; Kleibeuker et al., 2017; Van Hoeck,
Watson, & Barbey, 2015). In addition, perseverance
associated with iterative thinking is frequently linked to
reward and memory networks that underpin learning
(Boorman, Behrens, & Rushworth, 2011; Nemmi,
Nymberg, Helander, & Klingberg, 2016).
25
Iterative
Iterative
Social interaction is key
Finally, although play and learning can happen on one’s
own, a powerful context for both learning and play is
social interaction. Through the processes of sharing
one’s own mind, understanding others through direct
interaction, and communicating ideas, children are
not only able to enjoy being with others, but also
build a deeper understanding and more powerful
relationships.
In fact, infants are driven to look for, and participate in
social interaction. Social partners are key resources
for learning from as early as the rst few hours of life.
From imitating a tongue protrusion of a social partner
right after birth (Meltzo & Moore, 1983) to increased
learning of new object labels when a social partner
looks at and labels an object rather than just a straight,
non-social presentation of the identical information
(Wu, Gopnik, Richardson, & Kirkham, 2011), evidence
continues to mount that social partners and social
information are not just a support to learning but may
actually be a key to learning. The importance of social
interaction is perhaps best highlighted by the classic
work of Vygotsky (1978) whose sociocultural theory is
centred around the idea that learning happens through
social partners.
Although some types of play are solitary in nature,
most play involves others, and as such, is an important
scaold for learning of all types. Social interaction may
be important for some of the more complex, learning-
to-learn skills such as critical thinking. Gokhale’s
(1995) work demonstrated that there is a particular
benet for critical thinking skills when children work in
groups versus when they work alone. Similar positive
relationships are seen among children’s language
abilities, creativity, and social play (Holmes, Romeo,
Ciraola, & Grushko, 2015).
Interactions fuel learning throughout life
Importantly, research shows that social interactions
early in life set the stage for learning and development
throughout the life course. Positive caregiver-child
interactions help build the neural foundations for
developing healthy socio-emotional regulation and
protecting from learning barriers, such as stress
(Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University,
2016). Early social interaction can promote plasticity in
the brain to help cope with challenges later in life (Maier
& Watkins, 2010; Nelson, Fox & Zeanah, 2013; Nelson,
2017). Furthermore, social interaction activates brain
networks related to detecting the mental states of
others, which can be critical for teaching and learning
interactions (German, Niehaus, Roarty, Giesbrecht, &
Miller, 2004).
27
Socially interactive
Socially interactive
Many families, in particular those with lower incomes,
are pressed to make ends meet: ‘It’s exhausting to
be a parent in any circumstance, but it’s much more
exhausting to be a parent when you don’t have the
resources that other families have” (Lew-William,
October 3, 2016). This leaves caregivers little energy
for positive interactions with their children, despite
the signicant benets of such interactions (Bono,
Francesconi, Kelly & Sacker, 2014; Hurley, Yousafzai
& Lopez-boo, 2016). At a policy and practice level,
recent decades have seen a push for children to learn
academic skills at ever younger ages. For example, US
kindergartens have shifted towards more literacy and
math content, direct instruction, and assessment,
over creative and child-led activities (Bassok, Latham
& Rorem, 2016) as well as recess in both US and Britain
(Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005).
International evidence is mounting
On the other hand, the importance of learning through
play and child-centred practices is gaining traction
internationally, fuelled by inspiring examples such as
ReachUp. This home visiting programme is based on
the Jamaican Study (Gertler, Heckman, Pinto, Zanolini,
Vermeersch, Walker, ... & Grantham-McGregor, 2014),
and showed impressive gains for children living in
under-resourced contexts. In the intervention, a
community health care worker visits new mothers
for one hour weekly, teaching parenting skills and
encouraging them to interact and play with their
children. Amazingly, the participating children caught
Future directions and
unanswered questions
In the 21st century, space for learning through play is contested across children’s
spheres of life: at home and in their communities, as well as in school contexts.
up with more advantaged peers in their cognitive
development, mental health and social behaviour.
Research also begins to show how child-centred
preschool lays a more solid foundation for later
learning than an academic focus alone (Marcon, 2002;
Campbell & colleagues, 2008; Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek &
Golinko, 2013). A number of educational programmes
oer inspiration for future eorts. For example,
the Montessori curriculum, which emphasises the
importance of children actively directing their own
experiences, has been shown to lead to positive
results on academic as well as social and behavioural
measures (Lillard, 2016). Another programme worth
noting is the Abecedarian Approach (Ramey, Sparling
& Ramey, 2012). This early childhood education
programme targeted infants and young children from
low-income families. The researchers investigated if
providing children with enriched learning experiences,
embedded in stable, nurturing and responsive
relationships with caregivers, could buer against the
adverse eects of poverty.
In the rst longitudinal study, two groups of children
were compared: 57 children were enrolled in the
programme, while 54 children were not. For both
groups, families received basic nutrition, supportive
social services, and health care during the rst ve
years of the child’s life. The main dierence was
attendance of the full-day preschool programme,
where activities were designed to be highly engaging
28
Future directions and unanswered questions
and fun (Ramey, Sparling & Ramey, 2012). The authors
underscore an important view of children as active
learners, explorers and responders. Learning was seen
as occurring throughout the day including during daily
routines, physical play and exploration. Results showed
that children experiencing the Abecedarian Approach
improved on their academic and social competencies,
achieved higher education levels, and were more
likely to have full-time, higher paying jobs than the
control. Still, some have raised questions about the
programme’s eectiveness (Spitz, 1992) and the
relative cost versus benets of implementing such a
programme on a large scale (Masse & Barnett, 2002).
More research is needed
It is clear, more work has yet to be done: the reality
for many children is that gaps persist between good
intentions, policies and actual practices (Yoshikawa
et al., 2013; Ramstetter, Murray, & Garner, 2010;
Cheng, 2015; Nicholson, Bauer & Wolley, 2016). Next,
we outline ve particular areas of research that, to
our minds, are central next steps in helping clarify
our understanding of learning through play, and in
overcoming gaps in policy and practice.
29
3. Methods for testing higher level skills
As the skill one is testing becomes more complex,
it becomes harder to investigate the impact of
learning through play. For example, although
researchers can easily test a child’s vocabulary
before and after playful learning, it is harder to test
whether a child’s critical thinking or innovation
improves. Secondly, due to the changing and
dynamic nature of both child development in
general and of play in particular, it is dicult to
do the kinds of principled, controlled studies that
would allow researchers to determine the causal
mechanisms linking play to outcomes. One cannot
simply assign children to either a “no play” or
“play” group and measure outcomes. Although
highly problematic, these are challenges that can
be solved. The job of scientists and researchers
is to develop innovative ways of testing these
constructs.
4. The changing nature of play and
play characteristics
In this white paper, we outlined ve evidence-
based characteristics that help children learn and
that dene playful learning contexts. Much work
remains to be done, however, to determine how
varying levels of these characteristics support
dierent types of learning across childhood. For
instance, work on the video decit with children
(e.g., Anderson & Pempek, 2005), in which younger
children are unable to learn new information
through passive television watching but older
children can, suggests that social interaction helps
younger children to learn but that it becomes less
important (at least in some cases) over time. The
literature review on the role of play in children’s
development (Whitebread, Neale et al., 2017)
starts to theorise about the way dierent types
of play espouse these characteristics in dierent
ways. However, work remains to be done to
establish how dierent types of play support
learning across ages.
1. Cross-cultural evidence
Almost all work cited in this review, and available
via traditional research streams, is done in
Western cultures. Although many would interpret
the play characteristics and the impact of learning
through play to be universal, the data simply does
not yet exist to back up this claim. In the future,
it will be important to conduct studies across
cultures to determine whether learning through
play yields the same benets across contexts and
cultures.
2. Linking learning through play to diverse outcomes
Although many studies have investigated playful
learning and its benets for content knowledge
(e.g., math, spatial information, vocabulary),
much less work has been done to examine
the benets of learning through play on more
dynamic, learning-to-learn skills such as executive
function, communication, collaboration, and
critical thinking. Many of the current studies
that do investigate whether play interventions
improve skills such as sociability or creativity
suer from methodological aws that limit the
conclusions that can be drawn. A recent review,
for example, examines the impact of pretend play
on child development and nds that the evidence
is mixed and additional studies are needed before
one can draw a rm conclusion on the impact
of pretend play (Lillard, Lerner, Hopkins, Dore,
Smith, & Palmquist, 2013). This kind of principled,
objective, critical view of the data is necessary
for play research in general and especially needed
when examining more complex learning-to-learn
constructs.
30
Future directions and unanswered questions
5. Neuroscientic insights
As hinted at in this piece, neuroscience is
beginning to uncover the neural mechanisms of
the characteristics of playful experiences and
how these link to learning. Although neuroscience
evidence is beginning to mount, further work is
needed. This topic is covered in the literature
review ‘Neuroscience and learning through play:
a review of the evidence’ (Liu, Solis et al., 2017)
and we anticipate much more insight over the
next decade as the technology improves enough
that testing infants and young children in more
naturally occurring situations (e.g., play situations)
becomes more aordable and less invasive.
31
Future directions and unanswered questions
The goal of this white paper has been to summarise
the most recent, rigorous research on the role and
importance of play for children’s life and learning.
We conclude that the evidence on learning through
play is mounting; more than an enjoyable experience,
engaging with the world in playful ways is essential for
laying a foundation for learning early in life. Beyond
infancy and toddlerhood, learning through play is also
proving to be an eective and worthwhile pedagogical
technique for teaching in the 21st century.
Still, we have much yet to discover about learning
through play. For example, what is it about play that
fuels learning more specically - from the level of
neurons to children’s behaviour and interactions with
peers and adults? How can we extend research on
guided play to the more complex learning-to-learn
skills, as well as other cultural contexts? Research
into each of the areas will help close important gaps
in our understanding of learning through play, and
oer a crucial evidence base to inform the decisions
of those inuencing children’s daily lives, learning
and prospects: across homes, communities, schools,
governments and wider systems.
Closing thoughts
Closing thoughts
32
Acknowledgements
Warm thanks go to our many colleagues and partners
in research and practice who have contributed
to this white paper. We would like to express our
sincere thanks to the researchers who challenged
and informed our initial thoughts on learning through
play during a series of informal interviews in the fall
of 2016. Also, we wish to thank the many passionate
participants at the LEGO Foundation Partner Event
2017, whose thoughts and perspectives on the ve
characteristics of playful experiences have added
invaluable nuance and depth.
About the authors
About the authors
33
Jennifer M. Zosh (Pennsylvania State University)
Jennifer is an Associate Professor at the Brandywine
Campus of Pennsylvania State University. Her areas
of expertise include cognitive development, playful
learning, language development, and the impact of
technology on children and families. Beyond traditional
academic research and publication, a driving force in
her career is the dissemination of scientic discoveries
to the public via blogging and outreach.
Emily J. Hopkins (Temple University)
Emily is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of
Psychology at Temple University. Her work focuses
on the role of play and media in early childhood. She
is particularly interested in guring out the ways that
ction and fantasy aect children’s learning to enable
the creation of ctional media and play materials that
will be eective as well as engaging for teaching young
children.
Hanne Jensen (LEGO Foundation Centre for
Creativity, Play and Learning)
Hanne is a Research Specialist at the LEGO Foundation
Centre for Creativity, Play and Learning and a doctoral
candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of
Cambridge. Her research focuses children’s learning
through play, particularly how adult-child interactions
frame learning opportunities and outcomes, as well
as issues of implementing play-based interventions
at scale.
Claire Liu (Harvard University)
Claire received her EdM from the Mind, Brain, and
Education program at the Harvard Graduate School
of Education. Her areas of interest include brain
development and cognition, informal learning, early
childhood development, and community engagement.
She is dedicated to building and improving access to
learning opportunities for families and children through
sharing knowledge, partnerships, and technology.
Dave Neale (University of Cambridge)
Dave received his PhD from the University of
Cambridge and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the
University of Delaware, researching how play can
be used to enhance children’s learning. Broadly, his
research interests are focussed around exploring
the role of adult-child interaction in children’s
development. Aside from his academic work, he is also
a writer and board game designer.
Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek (Temple University, Brookings
Institution)
Kathryn is the Stanley and Debra Lefkowitz Faculty
Fellow in the Department of Psychology at Temple
University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings
Institution. Her research examines the development
of early language and literacy and STEM, as well as
the role of play in learning. The recipient of numerous
awards, Kathy is the author of 14 books and over 200
scientic publications and is deeply committed to the
translation of science into practice.
S. Lynneth Solis (Harvard University)
Lynneth is a researcher in the Causal Cognition in a
Complex World Lab and doctoral candidate in Human
Development and Education at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education. Her areas of expertise include
early childhood cognitive development, scientic and
causal reasoning, and the role of sociocultural and
pedagogical factors in supporting young children’s
learning through play in formal and informal contexts.
David Whitebread (University of Cambridge)
David Whitebread is Acting Director (External
Relations) of the Play in Education, Development and
Learning (PEDAL) research centre at the Faculty of
Education, University of Cambridge, UK. His research
has focused on self-regulation in young children, and
the roles of play and oral language in its development.
He has published widely in academic journals and book
chapters, and has edited or written several inuential
reports and books.
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... A useful definition for learning through play should incorporate contemporary research about children's experiences of play, address the role of the child and adult, and the desired learning outcomes of the approach. Researchers have found five characteristics that embody educational play experiences: those that that are meaningful, actively engaging, joyful, iterative, and socially interactive (Zosh et al., 2017). Further, play has been recently redefined as a spectrum or continuum involving child-directed activity, and also adult-guided and adult-directed activity (Weisberg et al., 2013;Pyle and Danniels, 2016), bringing clarity to the adult and child's roles in facilitating learning through play. ...
... 1. Children develop holistic skills by interacting with people, objects and representations (Department of Education and Training, 2016) in actively engaging, joyful, iterative, meaningful and socially interactive experiences (Zosh et al., 2017). 2. Experiences are designed and facilitated to make effective use of available resources and integrate child-led, teacherguided, and teacher-led opportunities (Marbina et al., 2011). ...
... The research question was explored through multiple lenses. First, play was broadly defined using the five characteristics proposed by Zosh et al. (2017). Parker and Thomsen (2019) reviewed a range of literature (n = 124) across creativity, play and the science of learning and found that playful experiences lead to deeper learning when they are joyful, actively engaging, meaningful, iterative, and socially interactive. ...
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Learning through play has emerged as an important strategy to promote student engagement, inclusion, and holistic skills development beyond the preschool years. Policy makers, researchers and educators have promoted the notion that learning though play is developmentally appropriate—as it leverages school-age children’s innate curiosity while easing the often difficult transition from preschool to school. However, there is a dearth of evidence and practical guidance on how learning through play can be employed effectively in the formal school context, and the conditions that support success. This paper addresses the disconnect between policy, research and practice by presenting a range of empirical studies across a number of well-known pedagogies. These studies describe how children can foster cognitive, social, emotional, creative and physical skills through active engagement in learning that is experienced as joyful, meaningful, socially interactive, actively engaging and iterative. The authors propose an expanded definition for learning through play at school based on the science of learning, and summarize key findings from international studies on the impact of children’s learning through play. They identify four key challenges that underpin the considerable gap between education policy and practice, and propose a useful framework that addresses these challenges via a common language and structure to implement learning through play.
... The use of guidance during play is considered especially valuable given that play may afford several benefits to children's learning. Various characteristics that are often present during play, such as positive emotion, meaningful contexts, active engagement, and social interaction, can have a facilitative effect on children's learning (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015;Zosh et al., 2017). This aligns with Piagetian theory which suggests that play fosters learning as it allows information to be gathered in meaningful and intrinsically motivating ways (Piaget, 1972;Wood & Bennett, 1998). ...
... The included reports also lacked detail about the amount of adult-contact time the control groups received, and whether it was comparable to that of the intervention groups. As social interaction is thought to be associated with learning (Zosh et al., 2017), effect sizes favoring guided play may in part be a result of greater exposure to adult interaction rather than guidance. There was also limited information on the role of play type. ...
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... Additional research has demonstrated that the type and quality of PA relates more to motor skill development than simply movement quantity and intensity [4,24]. These findings support the notion that preschools should provide children with daily structured PA opportunities inclusive of formalized instruction in addition to regularly scheduled outdoor free play [25,26]. While both forms of PA and play are important (structured and unstructured) they are even more powerful when used and implemented together [27]. ...
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It is recommended that children ages 3-5 receive 180 minutes of physical activity a day, with at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Despite these recommendations, a majority of preschoolers are not provided opportunities in the early childhood education setting to meet these daily recommendations through either structured or unstructured physical activity. Accordingly, the number of young children identified as overweight or obese over the past couple of decades has increased. Critical to addressing this epidemic is the role of physical activity in the early childhood classroom and its capacity to increase healthy development and lifelong habits for young children. Participants in this study consisted of 23 Pre-K 4 teachers from 5 different preschools across North Mississippi. A phenomenological approach was utilized to determine if the barriers to physical activity implementation in early childhood education classrooms were effectively addressed through the Growing Healthy Minds, Bodies, and Communities curriculum. This was completed by garnering teachers' perceptions of the curriculum through pre- and post-focus groups. Three themes emerged from the data regarding teachers’ perceptions of the Growing Healthy Minds, Bodies, and Communities physical activity curriclum. Those themes are as follows: (a) teacher and student benefits of and engagement with physical activity in early childhood education; (b) shifting the mindset from “fitting it all in” to “making it work with modifications”; and (c) linking it to literacy. The opportunity for young children to participate in physical activity is a critical determinant of their overall health and development. While there has been an overall decrease in opportunities for preschool children to participate in both unstructured and structured physical activity, it is crucial to view physical activity as an essential and integrated component of the curriculum. When viewed through this lens, it provides a foundation that promotes lifelong healthy habits and development of children who become happy, healthy, and productive citizens in society.
Chapter
In this chapter, we explore early childhood educators’ experiences and perceptions of young children’s play and learning at dioramas, portrayals of frozen moments in time depicting three-dimensional scenes of the natural world. In this study, we interviewed ten early childhood educators at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Through teachers’ perspectives and experiences, we explore examples of play-based, diorama-based science learning activities. Findings suggest that play and learning at or inspired by dioramas looks different across classes and contexts but is perceived as vital in sparking imagination and creativity for young children when integrated into experiences, and affords unique opportunities for role play, games, and discovery. We provide examples of teachers’ perceptions of the affordances of dioramas for play and learning, as well as a variety of pedagogical approaches and strategies teachers’ use to bring to life dioramas and the science concepts represented within them. This study highlights how dioramas can be integral in play-based science learning—making museums that are not traditionally designed for children into places for play.
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Play-based learning is an approach used in early childhood education that is well supported by research on its varieties and effectiveness for young children’s learning. Play-based learning meets the developmental needs of young children, but new research presented in this paper suggests that teenagers learn through play too. The experience of 25 Year 10 students in three Western Australian government schools was drawn upon to generate grounded theory about how students experience their teachers’ expectations of them, which included findings that playful learning approaches communicated high teacher expectations. The students were shadow-studied in their classrooms and interviewed at the end of each day. Teachers were appraised as having high expectations when they included a playful learning approach, characterised as creative, exploratory, hands-on, fun and non-didactic . The students reflected that this led to increased motivation and academic success. A foundation for conceptualising play in teenagers’ education is provided, suggesting how secondary school educators can harness play and communicate high expectations for learning through their pedagogical approach.
Chapter
This chapter explores the integration of disciplinary literacy across learning stations in PreK through 3rd Grade classrooms to facilitate culturally and linguistically responsive learning. Through a synthesis of research and the professional experience of the authors, the chapter offers a conceptual framework and pedagogical support for literacy practices that are culturally and linguistically responsive to each child's emerging and developing literacy. Additionally, this chapter describes the components of an interdisciplinary approach to facilitating literacy learning at the prekindergarten through third grade level that ensures a culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum integrating language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies using learning stations. This model supports self-directed learning facilitated by responsive adult-initiated adult-child interaction in a play-based environment for nurturing intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning.
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