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Prioritizing Play: The Importance of Play-based Learning in Early Education

Northeast & Islands | July 06, 2022

Teachers and students participating in play-based learning

When my son opened the door to his preschool classroom this morning, one child was smoothing squares of colored felt onto the floors of a large dollhouse. At another table, stringy, green moss—coiled around smooth sticks and stumps—concealed gnome figurines and woodland creatures. Past the play kitchen and baby nursery, kids stacked heavy blocks to make a city or a pirate ship. In an adjoining room, bins of rice held funnels and measuring cups and spoons and rakes. The space invites play.

Play-based learning is relatively common in preschool settings and has been linked to the development of 21st century learning skills—including collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence1—as well as social and emotional development,2 language development,3  and math outcomes.4 However, standards-based accountability and mounting pressures from parents and state officials to meet academic benchmarks as early as kindergarten have led teachers to focus on more didactic approaches, such as direct instruction, rote memorization, and worksheets.5

While direct instruction can be beneficial in some areas, like phonics, a balance with play-based learning remains essential. Some states are ensuring children’s access to classroom play by legally mandating a play-based approach to kindergarten. In 2018, New Hampshire amended its education law to require "child-directed experiences," including "movement, creative expression, exploration, socialization, and music." Yet, many teachers in New Hampshire and beyond remain uncertain about what play-based learning looks like and how they can facilitate it.


Though the value of play is widely recognized, teachers’ perspectives on play-based learning vary considerably,6 and their implementation of play-based practices is also mixed. "Teachers often say ’oh yes, I’m already doing that’ because they let their students play for 20 minutes at the end of the day," explains Christine Brennan, Deputy Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire, "but there’s so much more to it than that."

One study found that teachers who view play and learning as discrete and dichotomous activities predominantly provide children with opportunities to engage in "free play," while those who view play as a conduit to learning employ a much broader continuum of "guided play."7 Understanding the range of types of play can help educators, school leaders, and policymakers enhance the power of play in their classrooms.


Free and guided play have unique benefits for children. Free play describes play that is child-directed, voluntary, and flexible. It often, but not always, involves pretend play where children adopt roles and enact sociodramatic scenes. Teachers and researchers alike view the value of this type of play to be social, emotional, and developmental; children gain skills by negotiating relationships and conflicts with peers and by role-playing novel situations. Research finds that in classrooms where free play is most prevalent, teachers tend to intersperse didactic lessons with periods of free play in which they rarely intervene. Teachers typically use these periods of play to prepare another lesson or attend to administrative tasks.

Guided play implies a more active role for teachers, but what form should their guidance take? Pyle and Danniels describe four types of guided play that lie along a continuum from child-directed to teacher-directed.

  • Inquiry play is initiated by children according to their own interests. Teachers intervene by asking probing questions and introducing resources to further children’s exploration and investigation. For example, noticing that children have created a pretend flower shop, a teacher could provide soil and seeds, encourage students to consider the differences between cacti, flowers, and vegetables, and enable exploration of shapes, colors, and patterns through arrangements of fabric flowers.
  • Collaboratively designed play distributes control evenly between teachers and students. Together, they determine the context, themes, and resources of the play. For example, teachers and students could decide whether a particular area in the classroom should be a flower shop, doctor’s office, or airport, and together they would brainstorm what is needed to create that space. Play within this context is child-led, but as with inquiry play, the teacher interjects to advance learning.  
  • Playful learning is useful in situations where specific academic skills are not naturally learned in other types of play. In this mostly teacher-directed approach, educators can build a playful context around skills practice. For example, students practice addition and writing by completing order forms for their pretend flower shop.
  • Learning through games engages children in academic learning using games with predetermined rules. This play is largely teacher directed, as teachers select games that target specific skill development. A teacher might introduce Go Fish for number recognition, for example, or Zingo for sight-word practice.  

While the outcomes of free play are predominantly social, guided play can yield a broader range of academic outcomes. In fact, a recently published meta-analysis finds that, for children younger than eight, guided play was more effective for teaching academic content than direct instruction.8 While a few key skills and knowledge areas, such as alphabet recognition and phonological awareness, benefit from direct instruction,9 research suggests that the most age-appropriate and effective method is a balanced approach that embeds brief periods of direct instruction within a play-based learning environment.10, 11


New Hampshire is one of several states that has recently passed legislation mandating play-based learning in kindergarten classrooms. Others, like California, are hoping that a move toward full-day kindergarten will offer more time and opportunity for play. Policy is an important lever for ensuring children’s rightful access to play is protected,12 and Brennan is very proud of New Hampshire’s leadership on this front. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that policy alone cannot guarantee the quality or equality of children’s opportunity for play.

Our team at REL Northeast & Islands is thrilled to partner with New Hampshire’s Department of Education and other stakeholders in a multi-phase project to advance the state’s play-based learning initiative. We plan to collaboratively design a measurement strategy for tracking play-based learning practices statewide. Data from this implementation measurement initiative will inform the development of a coaching series to strengthen the use of data to refine play-based learning practices. Finally, we plan to produce a factsheet for parents and school administrators to communicate the research evidence supporting a play-based approach to kindergarten.

When discussing the work ahead Brennan says, "We hope this collaboration can build adults’ capacity to connect the law to classroom practices, and develop parents’, teachers’, and administrators’ understanding that learning can happen in a very playful, joyful way."


1 Zosh, J. M., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Learning through play: A review of the evidence (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK.

2 Parker, R., and Thomsen, B. S. (2019). Learning through play at school: A study of playful integrated pedagogies that foster children’s holistic skills development in the primary school classroom. Billund: LEGO Foundation.

3 Stagnitti, K., Bailey, A., Hudspeth Stevenson, E., Reynolds, E., & Kidd, E. (2016). An investigation into the effect of play-based instruction on the development of play skills and oral language. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 14(4), 389–406.

4 Vogt, F., Hauser, B., Stebler, R., Rechsteiner, K., & Urech, C. (2018). Learning through play–pedagogy and learning outcomes in early childhood mathematics. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 26(4), 589–603.

5 Bassok, D., Latham, S., & Rorem, A. (2016). Is kindergarten the new first grade? In AERA Open (Vol. 2).

6 Bubikova-Moan, J., Næss Hjetland, H., & Wollscheid, S. (2019). ECE teachers’ views on play-based learning: A systematic review. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 27(6), 776–800.

7 Pyle, A., & Danniels, E. (2017). A continuum of play-based learning: The role of the teacher in play-based pedagogy and the fear of hijacking play. Early Education and Development, 28(3), 274–289.

8 Skene, K., O’Farrelly, C. M., Byrne, E. M., Kirby, N., Stevens, E. C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2022). Can guidance during play enhance children’s learning and development in educational contexts? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Development, 1–19.

9 Paige, D. D., Rupley, W. H., Smith, G. S., Olinger, C., & Leslie, M. (2018). Acquisition of letter naming knowledge, phonological awareness, and spelling knowledge of kindergarten children at risk for learning to read. Child Development Research, 2018, 1–10.

10 Managhan, E. (2020). Effective practices to balance literacy instruction in early childhood. Learning to Teach, 9(1).

11 Pyle, A., Prioletta, J., & Poliszczuk, D. (2018). The play-literacy interface in full-day kindergarten classrooms. Early Childhood Education Journal, 46(1), 117–127.

12 UN General Assembly, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, United Nations, Article 31.


Meg Caven

Meg Caven

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