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Play in Kindergarten Classrooms
July 2018


What does the research say about the importance of incorporating unstructured play and play-based learning in kindergarten? How can teachers incorporate play in the daily schedule?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Barker, J. E., Semenov, A. D., Michaelson, L., Provan, L. S., Snyder, H. R., & Munakata, Y. (2014). Less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, Art. 593, 1–16. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6–7-year-old children's daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children's activities as "structured" or "less-structured" based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children's self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning."

Dills, A. K., Morgan, H. N., & Rotthoff, K. W. (2011). Recess, physical education, and elementary school student outcomes. Economics of Education Review, 30(5), 889–900. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Today's children experience a decreased amount of time at recess and fewer physical education (PE) classes throughout the school day. Breaks for physical activity limit class time for academics, potentially reducing learning. However, breaks may improve alertness and achievement. Using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999, we evaluate how recess and PE in elementary school influence children's learning. We find no statistically significant or economically significant impacts of weekly recess or PE time on student learning for kindergarteners through fifth graders. For example, in kindergarten, adding an hour a week of recess reduces the average test score gain in reading by a statistically insignificant 0.01 standard deviations. An additional 49 min per week of PE in kindergarten improves reading test score gains by a statistically insignificant 0.05 standard deviations. We find no statistical difference in the male and female students' response to recess and PE. Evidence suggests that recess and PE do not harm student outcomes."

Fowler, R. C. (2018). The disappearance of child-directed activities and teachers’ autonomy from Massachusetts’ kindergartens. Jamaica Plain, MA: Defending the Early Years. Retrieved from

From the Website:
"This report documents the disappearance of child-directed activities and teachers' autonomy from MA kindergartens. While child-directed activities have been reduced across the board, the study found that high socioeconomic status schools (SES) schedule 30 minutes more daily, two and a half more hours weekly, than low SES schools. Furthermore, low SES kindergartens were more likely to have transformed child-directed activities into adult-directed activities."

Jay, J. A., & Knaus, M. (2018). Embedding play-based learning into junior primary (year 1 and 2) curriculum in WA. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 43(1), 112–126.

From the Abstract:
"The researchers in this study have sought to explore relevant and current issues impacting on junior primary teachers' pedagogy and practice in relation to the use of play to engage children in learning. Using qualitative methodology, a case study design was chosen and included semi-formal interviews as well as data collected at teacher collaborative meetings. The research identified the necessary supports required for implementing play in the early years of school as well as the challenges experienced by the teachers."

Ranz-Smith, D. J. (2007). Teacher perception of play: In leaving no child behind are teachers leaving children behind? Early Education and Development, 18(2), 271–303. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The research explored teacher perceptions of the role of play in learning and the implications for practice. The study involved 4 first-grade teachers from 2 diverse socioeconomic school settings. The phenomenological work followed a qualitative format of interview with an analysis of related documents. Although the instructors held a common value for play in the development of young learners, they did not make corresponding provisions for such in their classrooms with the exception of one participant. Varying perceptions of the definition and place of play resulted in differing levels of willingness to include child-initiated play that were spawned within the educational contexts. These perceptions led to the inductively realized outcome variables of instructional goals, student products, and classroom climate. Dewey's (1916) view of work and play, Bredekamp and Rosegrant's (1995) Continuum of Teacher Behaviors, and Ajzen and Fishbein's (1980) theory of reasoned action provided frameworks for deductively understanding the teachers' instructional decisions."

Repko-Erwin, M. E. (2017). Was kindergarten left behind? Examining US kindergarten as the new first grade in the wake of No Child Left Behind. Global Education Review, 4(2), 58–74.

From the Abstract:
"This critical review of literature published within the years 2001–2016 synthesizes empirical and theoretical research centered on US kindergarten post-NCLB. Connecting NCLB's increased emphasis on standards and accountability to issues of kindergarten readiness, the role of academics, play, and developmental appropriateness in kindergarten, and changes in kindergarten literacy instruction, the author examines the complicated nature of teaching and learning in kindergarten in the wake of NCLB, with implications for research, policy, and practice."

Sarama, J., & Clements, D. H. (2009). Building blocks and cognitive building blocks: Playing to know the world mathematically. American Journal of Play, 1(3), 313–337.

From the Abstract:
"The authors explore how children’s play can support the development of the foundations of mathematics learning and how adults can support children’s representation of-and thus the mathematization of-their play. The authors review research about the amount and nature of mathematics found in the free play of children. They briefly discuss how children develop different types of play and describe ways adults can support and guide each of these to encourage an understanding of mathematics and to enhance children’s mathematical skills."

White, R. E. (2018). The power of play: A research summary on play and learning. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Children’s Museum. Retrieved from

From the Summary:
"This paper presents an overview of the scientific research that guides the educational philosophy that play is learning, discussing many overlapping forms of child-centered play, including social, object, pretend, physical, and media play. Through play, children learn to regulate their behavior, lay the foundations for later learning in science and mathematics, figure out the complex negotiations of social relationships, build a repertoire of creative problem-solving skills, and so much more. Finally, this paper also addresses the important role for adults in guiding children through playful learning opportunities."

Yoon, H. S. (2014). Can I play with you? The intersection of play and writing in a kindergarten classroom. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 15(2), 109–121. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In this two-month case study of a diverse kindergarten classroom, the practices are highlighted of a group of children that engaged in school writing tasks within their play. Given the space to play, children used the resources of popular culture and childhood interests with the academic tasks of writing, word and letter recognition, and phonics-based instruction. Peer interactions in play connected fluidly to their formal reading and writing tasks. The findings show the importance of play as a way for children to negotiate relationships, construct multiple identities, and explore social constructs especially that of gender. Most importantly, there is potential for formal language tasks to be enacted in authentic ways through children's play."

Zosh, J. M., Hassinger-Das, B., Toub, T. S., Hirsh-Pasek K., & Golinkoff, R. (2016). Playing with mathematics: How play supports learning and the Common Core State Standards. Journal of Mathematics Education at Teachers College, 7(1), 45–49. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"In this article, we review evidence from the literature about playful learning as an alternative and powerful pedagogical approach. We apply the principles of playful learning to specific state standards for mathematics and illustrate promising ways to improve mathematics learning in the classroom."

Other Resources

National Association for the Education of Young Children

From the Website:
"Play is an important part of children's learning and development. Find articles on how to intentionally connect play and learning, ideas to share with families, and the latest research about learning and play."

Northern Oral Language and Writing Through Play

From the Website:
"Our research goals are to support young children’s oral language and writing through play and to build teaching capacity in northern rural communities. Our focus is on children, educators, families and community caregivers in northern rural and Indigenous communities from Alberta in the west through to Ontario in central Canada. An extensive network of partners and collaborators working together to address the need for theoretical, empirical and practical work in the area of young children’s oral language and writing development.


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Play, Play-based learning, Recess, Kindergarten, Elementary, Early childhood

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.