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3 Reasons Play-Based Learning in Primary Schools is Important

Olivia Jones
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Play is an integral part of the learning process for kids. Studies have shown that play helps children develop creativity, learn how to engage with their environment, and practice emotional resilience. Researchers have also found that a lack of adequate play time can have a negative impact on a child’s cognitive development. Unfortunately, active play has declined over 50% in the last forty years, and the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures have only compounded pre-existing racial disparities in play access and education opportunity.

The good news is that children are resilient, and play is a great way for kids to cope with the stress and anxiety of this unprecedented time. Now that schools are returning to in-person education, educators have the opportunity to implement play-based learning to help students manage stress and get the most out of their education. Let’s explore some of the best ways to implement play-based learning in primary schools!

What is Play-Based Learning?

Play-based learning is an education style that emphasizes physical play, movement, exploration, and problem solving. Children are given time to play and work independently, which allows them to learn naturally and develop social and emotional skills. Play-based learning activities can be guided, with help from a teacher or educational game, or independent, which allows children to explore on their own.

As we mentioned, play-based learning can be a key element of equitable education policy. With some students lacking safe spaces for play at home, incorporating play-based learning in primary education can improve access and offer all children the cognitive and developmental benefits of play-based learning.

With these issues in mind, KABOOM! and Unruly Studios recently co-hosted a panel of leading researchers and educators to discuss how prioritizing equitable play can help students process a challenging year, gain critical SEL skills, and support learning goals. Panelists from this event included:

Alexis Perkins-Cohen, Chief of Staff, Baltimore City Public Schools Systems

Alexa Sorden, Founding Principal of Concourse Village Elementary School in NYC

Amon Milner, Associate Professor of Computing and Innovation at Olin College and Director of the Extending Access to STEM Empowerment (EASE) Lab

You can watch a full replay of the panel here. In the meantime, here are three key takeaways from the event.

3 Reasons to Prioritize Play-Based Learning in Schools

1. Play-Based Learning Improves Student Well-Being

Play-based learning supports a child’s entire development, from social to physical to emotional. Physically active play supports healthy development and improves academic outcomes. Play helps students learn problem solving and develop social skills with their peers. It fosters creativity and may help us enter a state of ‘flow’, which is key for high-level thinking and intrinsic motivation. Perhaps most importantly, play helps us develop coping strategies and feel less stressed.

Since play offers benefits that support a child’s whole development, it can be a great addition to any curriculum that is designed to prioritize equitable education and social and emotional learning. For example, during our panel, principal Alexa Sorden spoke about how her educators strategically used play during the pandemic to help students cope with stress. It went beyond play in the sense of guided games, she said, and focused instead on questions like “Is this [activity] joyful? Is there laughter?”.

2. Play-Based Learning Helps Students Build Relationships

A study from the Harvard Center of Developing Children shows play-based learning in primary schools results in deeper social emotional capabilities and student relationships. Play can be a low-pressure opportunity to practice socializing, especially useful for shy students. It also gives students agency and choice in their education, which allows them to better trust and appreciate their teachers’ guidance.

Amon Milner, a professor of computing and the director of the Extending Access to STEM Empowerment (EASE) lab, told us how he engaged a disinterested student by incorporating a song the student liked into the Scratch coding activity. “That playful engagement with Scratch helped us see [that] we’re on the right track and helped keep play at the core [of what we’re doing],” Amon said.

3. Play-Based Learning Increases Student Engagement

Educators know how important student engagement is to academic success. When students feel disconnected from their teachers, peers, and lessons, they can start to lose confidence and fall behind academically. Play can help re-engage students in their education. We recommend adapting your existing curriculum to fit a play-based model, with space for students to explore independently and collaborate with their peers. 

This is a great opportunity to incorporate physical activity into your existing lessons! Studies have shown that students who are physically active perform better on tests and are better behaved in the classroom. For example, during our panel, principal Alexa Sorden mentioned how she paired her PE and coding teaching together to increase engagement with play but also computation thinking with code!

With play-based learning, you can improve student engagement, foster student relationships, and encourage students’ all-around well-being. Check out this recording of our expert panel to learn more about how real educators incorporate play-based learning into their curriculum to foster achievement and address educational inequities.

Unruly Studios makers of Unruly Splats, programmable, stompable floor tiles that help kids learn fundamental coding skills through recess-style play. Best for elementary and middle school students from PE to science or coding class, a great addition to the classroom for active STEM coding and play!

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