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Emerging challenges and creative solutions for early childhood play-based learning in remote settings

Creative solutions for remote play-based learning

By Maggi Ibis
December 3, 2020

Play-based learning engages young students in intentional, structured, and developmentally appropriate play that supports specific learning goals. This child-centered and self-directed approach gives students more choice to discover what they enjoy; encourages active participation in learning; and can benefit young students’ cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development (Lugo-Gil & Dang, 2020 [1,216 KB PDF icon ]).

>> Watch our documentary Kindergarten: Where Play and Learning Can Meet

Strategies for integrating play-based learning into remote instruction

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, educators who use play-based learning face the challenge of transitioning the approach to a remote setting. Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest reached out to three Illinois district leaders in our Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance who have been exploring strategies to support play-based learning in the home. Kimberly Nelson, executive director of early childhood at Rockford Public Schools; Peggy Ondera, interim director of the Early Learners Education Program at Elgin Area Schools (District U-46); and Emily Simon, P2 program manager for the Office of Early Childhood Education at Chicago Public Schools, share their strategies and tips for integrating play-based learning into remote instruction.

  • Ensure access to materials. The primary challenge for remote play-based learning is ensuring that students have access to the necessary materials, such as pencils, papers, puzzles, and manipulatives, as well as to technology devices and the Internet. By providing resources, districts ensure that children can play individually, with their families, and with other children virtually using the same materials. Nelson’s district, in addition to distributing learning materials at designated pick-up sites, posts resources (such as choice boards and other ideas for play with an academic focus) on the school website for caregivers to access. Every 2 to 3 months, her district plans to add new materials as students’ lessons shift in focus.
  • Encourage caregiver interactions. Many families are still struggling to adjust to the new and unfamiliar routines and demands of remote learning. Nelson notes the importance of incorporating caregiver interactions into the school day while simultaneously limiting young students’ screen time. Her district implemented one-on-one meetings with each family during the first few weeks of the school year to understand each child’s needs and unique experiences. Her district also loaded technology devices with applications and activities designed to promote communication between child and caregiver. Ondera’s district has been experimenting with ways to support caregivers one-on-one by making district leaders, school staff, and teachers available to answer questions related to remote learning and resources.
  • Create a structured and dynamic remote play-based learning experience. Because young students have shorter attention spans, Ondera emphasizes the need to develop remote play-based learning experiences that keep students engaged, particularly at the computer screen. Elgin district leaders and kindergarten teachers work together to create videoconferencing sessions that are heavily structured and segmented into smaller and more manageable activities for young learners. This “accordion” approach involves a mix of whole-group, small-group, and independent activities, followed by a whole-group reflection at the end of a session. If caregivers and children are unable to access virtual learning sessions in real time, teachers record lessons so that materials are accessible offline.
  • Explore new ways to play. In the classroom, play-based learning often incorporates centers where students can explore various materials and activities. Teachers in Ondera’s district are cultivating a center-based approach in the home by facilitating new ways for students to play in and explore their surroundings. For example, hands-on activities make use of common household items as well as materials provided by the district. In Simon’s district, educators are remotely teaching classification and sorting skills by having students move around their homes to gather, sort, and classify shoes and socks.

For all three districts, implementing remote play-based learning remains a work in progress. For example, districts are still determining the best way to administer authentic assessments in remote settings. District leaders and teachers plan to continue collaborating to identify strategies and best practices for implementing play-based learning remotely and supporting young students and caregivers.

Learn more about MECERA resources for play-based learning

The Midwest Early Childhood Education Research Alliance (MECERA), which REL Midwest facilitates, brings together early childhood practitioners, policymakers, and researchers, with a focus on improving early literacy in Illinois. MECERA has produced a suite of resources to support play-based learning:

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Author information

Maggi Ibis Staff Picture

Maggi Ibis

Research Associate | REL Midwest


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