Learning to Play, Playing to Learn

July 31, 2019
by Peg Oliveira, PhD, Executive Director of the Gesell Program in Early Childhood at the Yale Child Study Center

At the Gesell Program in Early Childhood, we believe in the power of play. The magic of teaching happens in that place where we bring the joy, wonder and purpose together with the work of building essential skills and engaging with core content. Play-based learning takes the best of the child-directed nature of free play and combines it with the focus on learning outcomes and the adult scaffolding that are found in traditional academic classrooms. As described in our blog post Why Playful Learning Works, developmentally appropriate play can promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. In short, play is learning.

This summer, Gesell has partnered with New Haven Public Schools for a play-based learning pilot. For four days in June, teachers from around the district trained with developmental psychologists and educators from Gesell to revisit developmentally appropriate practice and define a shared understanding of a pedagogy of play. The learning intensive culminated in collaborating to co-create classrooms infused with joy, purpose and wonder that would serve nearly 200 pre-k through third graders during the month of July.

On the very first day of the summer program for students, a caring mother asked me, “I know this program is focused on playing, but will you also help her with her reading?” The myth of academics and play as opposing processes, as discussed in our blog post Books vs. Blocks, was not only on parents’ minds. How will children learn necessary skills, many wondered, if all they do is play?

In an effective play-based classroom, children choose activities based on where their interest and inquiry takes them. In the play-based pilot program, materials are impeccably chosen to offer provocations and set children up to learn or practice needed skills or gain useful knowledge. A classroom might include a drama center, a science area and water table, a reading nook, a math manipulatives center with a real-life problem to address, and (of course) blocks. While it may seem like the teacher’s job is a piece of cake (just hang out and watch kids play all day?), don’t be fooled. Good teachers are busily in the mix, appropriately encouraging kids to explore and scaffolding their knowledge all while facilitating social skills.

Rather than think of academics and play as opposing practices, consider types of play on a spectrum, useful for different goals. While free play is essential for all children, at all ages, it is not the best way to achieve explicit learning goals. For that, research tells us, we need guided play. Guided play takes advantage of children’s natural abilities to learn through play by allowing them to express their autonomy within a prepared environment and with adult scaffolding. Guided play is initiated by a teacher (or other adult) but the child is allowed to direct the journey of the play.

For example, in our program one classroom offered a sea creature puzzle to accompany their Wondering Question, “What is the sea useful for?” Two children began to construct the puzzle, but quickly became curious about one unfamiliar sea creature. A teacher, sitting on the floor with the children, noticed this curiosity and asked what the children “hypothesized” it might be, encouraging them to record their guesses on a white board. Then, the children found the box to the puzzle, scoured it for clues, and came upon the conclusion that the mystery creature was a dugong. Rather than insisting that the children focus on their work of making the puzzle, the teacher followed their lead and in the process extended their vocabulary, practiced literacy and writing skills, introduced them to the scientific method and advanced their knowledge of sea creatures. Later that day a child in the class proudly told me they had discovered a dugong, remembering the word because the learning was self-initiated and in context.

This July, New Haven children and teachers have co-created classrooms where they are putting a pedagogy of play into action. As reported by the New Haven Register, New Haven Public Schools plans to launch a play-based curriculum this fall in pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade classrooms at five elementary schools, before ultimately scaling to include pre-K through third grade classrooms throughout the district. Visit Gesell’s Sparking Wonder blog to hear more from the teachers and children who are taking this adventure in play!

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on July 30, 2019