Play-Based Learning in Education – Brain Boosting Activities

Play Based Learning

Providing opportunities for play-based learning in educational programs is essential for child development and learning.  Play-based learning can and should occur during free play and direct instruction.  This type of learning is obvious for early childhood education programs, but it should also be a part of kindergarten and elementary school classrooms. Children need to enjoy learning; play is the best way to make it fun!

Children learn best through play and when having fun. 

As an occupational therapist, one of the first things I learned in my pediatric early childhood education courses:  Play is a child’s occupation.

It’s their job.  Their work! 

But kids don’t know they’re working.  Play is fun!  It’s motivating. 

Whether children are enjoying free play or participating in play through direct instruction, it builds their brains’ learning as well as the capacity for learning. 

Kids don’t realize they’re improving their development and strengthening learning pathways in the brain when they play.  

Playful learning improves child development.  It adds opportunities for sensory input, improves gross motor and fine motor skills, and it provides opportunities for improving social skills.  A play-based approach to supplement learning enhances problem-solving skills for cognitive development.  

“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”

~ Jean Piaget

Playing is a great way to do this!

What is Play-Based Learning?

Play-based learning focuses on play as the context for learning.  This happens in a playful environment or through a playful activity. Academic goals are addressed using play activities.  

Kids are encouraged to explore and problem solve  which strengthens executive functioning skills.

Play works on all of the skill components that a child needs before reading and writing.   Purposeful play uses developmentally appropriate activities that naturally builds skills and encourages learning.

Play improves sensory, motor, perceptual, cognitive, and social-emotional skills.  All needed for school and life!

Play builds foundational skills for children and uses many systems of the body and brain at the same time.  It helps to focus on the processes of learning, rather than just the end product or educational goal.  

Play encourages kids to develop, learn and grow!  It provides and encourages:

  • Motivation
  • Problem solving
  • Executive function
  • Independence
  • Creativity
  • Memory
  • Social skills
  • Communication skills
  • Coping skills
  • Fine motor skills
  • Gross motor skills
  • Sensory skills
  • Brain growth

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”

~ Anatole France

Play is natural for children.  It sparks curiosity and creates more neural connections in the brain.  

Some school districts adopt a play-based program for their kindergarten classrooms.  There is much research to back this up.  Even if schools focus more strongly on academic programs, play can easily be added to any part of the learning day. 

What Are the Benefits of Play-Based Learning During the School Day?

Positive attitudes and a fun learning environment create optimal conditions for a child to make new brain connections for learning.

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  

~ Albert Einstein

Play-based learning is not just for early education programs and kindergarten.  A great educator or parent can make it a part of everyday learning for children of all ages. 

Play provides positive experiences that motivate kids to learn.  Play with peers improves social and communication skills.   It works on sharing, taking turns, and patience. 

During play, kids have opportunities to work through with minor conflicts.  This helps develop coping skills and cooperation.  Children learn to be patient, kind and to make compromises.

It gives kids a chance to independently think and interact with the environment and peers.  Creative play centers stimulate growth in the brain.

A board game, building sets, and puzzles improve problem solving.  Blocks, beads, and art projects work on fine motor skills needed to grasp and control a pencil.  

Gross motor play activities outside or in a gym promotes sensory motor development and strength needed throughout the whole body.  Many indoor or outdoor play activities support visual skills development for learning.

Additionally, play is fun and motivating for kids.  Fun activities increase memory and focus during learning.

Play-based learning has brain growth as the end outcome.  It builds and strengthens connections for learning.  The academics will all fall into place when the child’s brain and body is ready for higher level learning.  Children need multi-sensory learning opportunities using the lower parts of the brain before the higher levels of the brain can be successfully accessed.  They need to use as many parts of their body as possible before engaging in structured paper pencil tasks or before increasing periods of direct instruction.  

Play activities address many skills needed for reading and writing, without expecting the kids to sit and read and write too soon and too frequently.  

For example, let’s think about the end goals of writing and reading.  And let’s consider the steps needed to get there.

Play Based Learning during Direct Instruction and Free Play

Play Activities That Support Learning to Write

Think about the educational goal of learning to write.  Writing is the end product.  But several skills are needed for the actual task.

Before a student starts writing with a paper and pencil, they need: 

These skills are all developed during play!!  But NOT play with a screen or digital device (click the link for Screen Alternatives for Kids!)  

Play Activities That Support Learning to Read

The skills required for reading are very complex!  There’s pressure for some kids to read too early before they’re developmentally ready.  

Learning to read requires a strong foundation of processing of sensory input as well as the development of sensory motor and perceptual motor skills.  (As shown on the sensory Pyramid of Learning.)

If children are missing foundational and developmental building blocks, they will have difficulty learning to read.  

(Check out How to Improve Reading with 50+ Sensory Strategies for more info on what skills are needed from the body and brain for reading.  And, click on any of the skills in the above list for more info.)

Development in children is still occurring at the same rate, despite our advancing world, and despite our increase in academic expectations.  

Some younger children can have success memorizing sight words.  Others can hold the pencil perfectly and write on the lines. 

But how fair is this to all the others whose eye muscles aren’t strong enough to focus on letters or who struggle to grasp basic literacy skills. Or for the kids who can’t even hold the pencil properly when they’re asked to start writing?! 

As a school-based occupational therapist, I see too many kids becoming frustrated in kindergarten and first grade.  They struggle with tasks that could and should be easy and fun, when their bodies are ready for them!

Positive experiences in kindergarten and the elementary years are important.  This happens during play and when having fun during learning!  The underlying skills needed for reading and writing can be addressed through play.

Play-Based Activities for the Elementary Classrooms

Children learn best when having fun and taking multiple (age appropriate) breaks during the learning process.  Many educators have so much on their plates. It’s often hard to think of even adding more to the lesson plans.  

However, I’ve found many teachers who have added simple, quick and easy play activities to their daily routines or they find playful ways to make lessons more fun.  The teachers end up having just as much fun as the students!  This creates positive relationships in the classroom and a great environment for learning.

I have several teachers that stand out from my childhood and most of it is because of the playful learning environment they created. My sixth grade teacher (during my 1990-1991 school year!) had some clever games that made our class so fun.  On the chalkboard, he had a doghouse cut out with a magnetic dog that he would move around the room.  Different locations had different meanings.  One particular spot meant that there would be a pop quiz that day.  

He also played music, added simple movement brain breaks, and he had us march around the room to various chants.

It made the year extra exciting to learn, and I remember being motivated to pay attention to his every word and move!  

Playful Activity Ideas to Use with Your Lessons and Curriculum  

  • Play games such as Heads Down, Thumbs Up or Simon Says
  • Add mystery games to your classroom
  • Play bingo
  • March around the room to music
  • Teach chants or rhymes
  • Take movement brain breaks
  • Add board games to learning centers
  • Incorporate card games
  • Play dice games
  • Playdoh or molding dough
  • Complete puzzles
  • Use partner activities
  • Offer manipulatives for science and social studies lessons
  • STEM or STEAM activities
  • Building sets
  • Lego’s
  • Create challenges during recess
  • Play music
  • Dance during breaks or in between lessons
  • Sing songs 
  • Do fingerplays or pair body movements with songs
  • Re-create scenes from a story
  • Brainstorm and act out skits
  • Offer free play time

For more occupational therapy activities to further enhance child development, check out Learning Centers for the Classroom Using OT Activity Ideas

Additionally, Improve Memory and Focus with this Brain Hack shares ways to make learning fun in the classroom. 

Play-Based Learning

Play-Based Learning Stories in Kindergarten Through Third Grades

I have a few stories to share based on this content, but I’ll just pick some examples to share in each grade. 

Kindergarten Play-Based Learning Example

First, I had the pleasure of working with an amazing group kindergarten teachers in one of my school districts.  They shared something with me that they realized after a year of mostly virtual learning for their students. 

It was one of the things that I had secretly hoped to see many teachers, administrators, parents, and districts realize.

During virtual learning, they initially felt so limited.  They weren’t able to teach the same way as they had in person.  So, as a group, they had to completely change the traditional approaches they had been using.

They were forced to slow down the academics; they backed off from pressure to get the students to read and write too early in the year. 

Instead, they used a play-based approach and added active learning projects throughout the year.

And guess what?!

At the end of the year, the kids were exactly where they needed to be academically!  The important process of their learning involved more hands on play and fun projects.

First Grade Play-Based Learning

Another example involves first grade teachers.  I delivered a program to a school district with 30 minute OT lessons for 8 weeks.  At the beginning of the program, an assessment tool was used to assess writing.  But, we did not write again until the program was over!

Play activities and classroom exercises were shared each week.  The teachers were given supplies and easy ways to incorporate the playful OT strategies into their day and learning centers

After the program ended, the writing screen was used again.  And guess what?! 

The teachers that used the play and exercise activities the most (and even added their own) had the highest increase in scores on the writing assessment.

I’m proud to have met and to work with these teachers!  They all realized the importance of purposeful play and having fun with the students as a necessary part of the learning process.

I continue to be proud of other first grade teachers who embed board game time into their lessons as well as singing and dancing.

Second Graders with a Strong Foundation of Play

My third story is about a group of second grade classrooms.  These kids only had 6 months of kindergarten, and an entire first grade year of virtual and/or hybrid schooling. 

I’m sure many educators and parents worried that these kids were going to be behind.  However, these kids did not have the pressure and push to read during the first two years of school. 

They were in an area where play and development was valued, supported and encouraged.

Guess what the teachers observed?  The teachers are amazed at how well and how easily the kids picked up on reading.  The kids had a break from a strong academic program the previous year and a half. 

They started reading without difficulty, when their eyes, bodies, and brains were ready!  

My post, How to Improve Reading with Visual Skills Activities, shares that children are developmentally ready to start reading between 7 and 9 years old!  

Leading up to that, they need multiple sensory opportunities to play and development in order to prep their brains for instruction. 

It’s wonderful seeing second grade teachers value play and focus on development.

Third Grade Students Who Needed More Play

Finally, my sister reached out to me at the beginning of a recent school year.  She recognized the vast differences in abilities in her students and knew that it would be a challenging year for her.  Her biggest concern was the overall lack of problem-solving skills and executive function skills in her students.

She had already been using my brain breaks and crossing midline exercises during her direct instruction lessons, and she was historically great at adding playful learning activities into her lesson plans.  I gave her supplemental learning activities and games that worked on problem-solving skills, social skills, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and visual perceptual skills.  She found different ways to add them to her lessons and offered them as part of learning stations and during free play.

She was amazed at the end of the year how fun the simple activities (such as a visual motor magnet activity) were so beneficial for the students.  And she also noticed that the students who actually needed them the most, migrated toward them the most! 

Research Supporting Play-Based Learning and Developmental Kindergarten

There is very little research evidence showing that having students learn to read earlier improves test scores and school performance.  It’s actually the exact opposite.

There are endless research studies proving that pushing reading in kindergarten too early causes more harm in the long run.

Psychology Today: Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm is one of them.  This article references studies done on play-based vs. academically oriented early education classrooms. 

It discusses the social and emotional effects of early academic training.  Almost two decades ago I started to see little kindergarten and first grade students start to dislike school.  

The stories have continued over the years.  First graders being anxious about going to school.  Kids from stable families and highly educated parents disliking the beginning of their education.

It’s heartbreaking!  And unnecessary.  

Another great publication is from Alliance for Childhood.  This organization “advocates for policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, love of learning and joy in living.”

Defending the Early Years and Alliance for Childhood published Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose. 

This article discusses the Common Core State Standards and the push for early reading in Kindergarten vs. long term gains from play-based programs.  It’s an excellent read! 

Lastly, I like the post How play is making a comeback in kindergarten on The Hechinger Report.  It’s a story that also appeared on NBC news.

Teachers, Parents, Professionals, and Caregivers: Encourage Play Every Day!

To all of you out there already encouraging play and sensory experiences, THANK YOU!  I appreciate you!  You are fostering creativity, language development, physical development, and social-emotional skills during your enriching learning experiences.

Toddlers and preschoolers have numerous opportunities for play.  There are so many different ways to support learning through play. Parents, if you’re looking for a preschool for your young children, please find one that focuses on child development!

If you’re a kindergarten teacher, my hope is that you are using components of a play-based program to supplement your curriculum.  Making daily time for play has many benefits for academic learning.  You will foster lifelong learning with a play-based classroom. 

Play shouldn’t stop in kindergarten! Encourage play during lessons and in between lessons in all grades.  Play inside and outside! 

I’m super excited every time I walk into a first, third, fifth, etc grade class and see play activities happening: playdoh, building sets, a board game, center activities, and teacher-led games!

Parents, don’t worry about your kiddo “not being ready for kindergarten.”  Or seeming to be “behind” with reading and writing in kindergarten or first grade.  It will all click when they are ready!

You can help them more if you minimize screen use (PLEASE!) and have them play to learn!  Encourage independent play, play with you or their siblings, and/or with peers.  Use a board game with rules, made up games with new or modified rules, and unstructured play.  And give them opportunities to work things out on their own. 

*Please share this article with other parents, educators, and professionals! 

Additional Posts You Might Find Helpful

Best Educational Games and Toys for Kids – This post shares great educational games that are great for your centers, free play, or indoor recess. 

Skill Building Outdoor Games for Kids at School  – Kids need recess! Check out this post for more ideas to build skills for the classroom.

Art Projects & Crafts for Kids – A Great Way to Support Learning and Development – Play through art has endless benefits for children.

Flexible Seating for the Classroom – During your play activities, find some cool seating options for the different areas in your classroom. 

How to Improve Reading Skills with Auditory Activities – This post shares fun and easy auditory games and activities that improve listening skills and following directions.

School-Based OT

Amy Hathaway MOT, OTR/L, CIMI-2 is a licensed and registered occupational therapist.  She is the founder of Develop Learn Grow. 

Amy has 22 years of experience as a pediatric occupational therapist.   She enjoys collaborating with teachers, parents, therapists, administrators, and support staff in preschools & schools, as well as coaching and guiding parents of infants and toddlers in their homes.

She is married and has three children.  Click to read Amy’s bio.  

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