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What Play Based Learning means in a Preschool Classroom

What exactly is play based learning?

Most people would say that play based learning is children learning through play. But when you really stop and think about it and dig a little deeper, we start to question … well, which activities are actually considered play based learning? And how does play based learning relate to the broader concept of play?

For example, if you have a classroom full of toys, and children are playing with the toys all day, without any other types of involvement – Is that play based learning? Kind of a tricky question, right?

I think this differentiation between play and play based learning is hard, because playing still has a stigma around it as being a relief from work or learning and not the vehicle for our children to work or learn. So, where does that leave us -early educators who are wanting to ensure that our children are learning in the best way, the way that they were intended to learn.

Play Continuum

So today, we’re going to talk about the Play Continuum. I’m hoping this will give you a clearer picture of the different types of play and how we can incorporate many types to ensure we’re providing our littles exactly what they need.

There are five columns in the Continuum of Play. Each column is a different type of play. As we move on the continuum, from left to right, we go from child directed play to educator guided play. Finally, on the far right, we go to educator directed play.

Let’s start at the very far left – that’s where we find free play. Free Play is the very first column on the continuum. And it is the most child directed. So children start their own play, and they direct their own play. Educators, we’re just observing, we’re just watching. We provide the materials, the toys, and all the things that are of interest to children and that are actually in the center – but we let children choose how they’re going to use them. So this is very open ended, we see a lot of this free play happening in our block center, outdoor play, and the sensory center and art, we provide the materials, and they decide where to take it. So that is the very first column of our five -free play.

After free play, we move to inquiry play. And this is where children are getting to ask some questions and explore some ideas. So we educators, we are able to support children by gathering more resources and better encourage discovery.

But it’s important to remember that this is still very child driven. They’re the ones asking the questions. They’re the ones seeking more information and wanting to discover. This might look like when a child asks about a topic of interest, something that they love, right? Maybe it’s talking about dinosaurs, and they ask you a question about dinosaurs. And then this is where you can provide books and manipulatives to help them encourage that discovery.

What if it’s leaves? Maybe one child has said I noticed all the leaves are falling off of the trees. And so we can take that and we can go outside and pick the leaves, observe them, break them apart, read books about leaves. This is very, in the moment, kind of play that is very child driven. And we are there as a support to guide and help.

All right, we are smack dab in the middle of the continuum play. And right here in the middle column is collaborative play. So children co design play with us. This is educator guided, but not educator directed, because children and the educator are working together.

So this might look like children picking a theme for the dramatic play center based on their interests or what sounds exciting to them, and then involving them in the process of. We can ask, what do we need for this dramatic play? What tools might we need? Then helping guide them to help find those things. So you might have a bucket of toys that they go through where they can choose things to incorporate into their play. So amazing ideas here to bring children and educators together where we are guiding their idea, but it’s purely their idea, and purely their decision making along the way.

We have two columns left on our continuum of play and we are going to look at playful learning. This is where children explore activities that were created by us. So, we set up the activities, we explain the activities, but we aren’t necessarily right there when children are interacting with the activities.

You can look at this as small group time. But you can also look at this as centers. There are skills that we need to teach in preschool that is just part of our job, there are some things we want to make sure our children have learned before they leave us. And so playful learning is a great way to make this happen.

There are just some skills that don’t always make their way into other types of play. And so this is where we can be more intentional, but yet still playful. So some ideas for this are tray tasking – we love tray tasking. Trays are great for introducing and using in small group, and then moving to a center to become more independent. We also use writing invitations, to invite them over to the writing center for something new.

We might also use some intended things like, putting an order form in the play cafe in the dramatic play center, because we really want to push some of that emergent writing. Or maybe we’ve seen that sorting is really something we need to work on – so I’m going to be more intentional about making that a tray that we have in the math center that has an activity of sorting on it. So I’m hoping you can see that this is definitely where the magic happens in my eyes. Because while we have all the types of play, this one really is able to be the part that is missing when people say kids are ‘just playing’. Because they’re not going to learn everything we need necessarily through all the different other types of play. And so, Playful Learning is kind of bridging that gap.

We have made it to the very far right side of our continuum of play, and we are looking at learning games. So, this is the last and most educator directed activity, because we are coming up with the games, we are creating the rules or instructions and children are following the rules and instructions and we are directing the activity. Basically, without us right there, this type of thing would not work. This might look like playing games in small group. It may be simple matching games, it might be some cooperative games, it could be board games, so many different things. But, the children need you right there as their guide. Also consider movement games and really any whole group games.

Under the learning games, any circle time games that you might do would also qualify. Just think ‘if I am the one completely directing it, and they’re following the rules of my game’, then this is definitely on the very far right of learning games. Do children still find them incredibly engaging? Absolutely. But there is a difference between those learning games and the playful learning. Because with playful learning, children are still having some choice in how they play or interact with what you’ve provided them. So that is definitely the difference that I want you to see that children have a little bit more choice with playful learning, even though you’re still guiding it, then they do with learning games.

Recap of Types of Play:

Free Play

The most child directed. And we as educators are just observing.

Inquiry Play

This is where it’s very in the moment children are wanting to discover more asking questions, and we are there to help support them in the middle of collaborative play. So this is more of a co designed play with the educator.

Playful Learning

Children are exploring activities that were created by us with a goal in mind.

Learning Games

This is the most educator directed type of play. This may look like small group games, whole group games, circle time games, where children follow a set of rules or instructions.

So when we see the types of play, and that continuum of which they create, it’s a lot easier to see that we can incorporate different types of play to ensure that our children are learning what we need them to.

The thing about play based learning is that it gets a bad rap. Many think that children are just playing all day with no thought or regard to materials, the environment, and not even mentioned the social interactions. But when we look at the continuum, we see we need to be providing many different types of play into our classroom to support learning in a way that honors play based learning.

So I’m going to go ahead and challenge you to see what types of play do you have in your classroom currently? Is there some that you could add? Could you maybe be more intentional about bringing in different types of play in your classroom?

I know for me myself, I am looking to put more collaborative play into my classroom. And so this is definitely a goal of mine, collaborative, and definitely inquiry as well. Because sometimes when we look at it as a whole, we can see where the gaps are in our classroom. And then now that we have that knowledge, we can go back and try to fill those gaps with some other experiences.

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