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Posted on May 1, 2010

Learning Through Play

Learning Through Play

by Joanne den Boer, SCSBC Director of Learning  ◊  

Do you believe a child’s ordinary moments of play are full of learning? In recent visits to kindergarten and preschool classrooms, I had the privilege to spend hours observing children playing in their classrooms and in the school yard. My observations are nothing short of astonishing.

Scenario One

“I’m an eagle,” the kindergarten boy said to the princess.

“But you’re still my baby, right?” she asked. With a quick nod, and with extended arms flapping behind his back, the eaglet flew past various play centres in search of food. Returning to his cardboard nest in the middle of the playhouse, he confronted an intruder. “What are you doing here?” he asked the newcomer. It was obvious to him that she, a salamander, had to leave his nest since salamanders are outdoor animals. He, on the other hand, had to be indoors. “How come?” she asked. He looked at her earnestly and said, “I’m a bird! I can be in or out.”

Scenario Two

The dice rolled four. Aaron added four more Unifix cubes to his second ten-square frame. “I only need a three, then I win!”

“But I only need two! I will win faster,” Simon countered. He rolled a three. His disappointment was evident. The rule is that you have to roll the exact number of spaces left on the card; you cannot overshoot.

Aaron rolled a two. He raised his arm in victory. “Yes!” He placed three Unifix cubes on the ten-square. “Hey …!” Then, peals of laughter burst from both boys. Clearly the sneaky surprise trumped a win or loss.

Structured and Unstructured Play

The two scenarios are examples of unstructured and structured play, or child-initiated and teacher-initiated play. In the eaglet scenario, the children chose their own imaginative play. Their dramatic play was constantly reinvented as children left or joined the group. Perhaps with no apparent purpose, their play brought together everything they had learned and wondered about.1 In the second scenario, all children were playing the same game, as directed by the teacher. There was no choice; the materials were the same, the rules were the same, and the object of the game was the same – to count and fill the two ten-square frames as quickly as possible. Both teachers provided a thoughtful environment with meaningful materials to engage students in their play albeit their goals were different.

Unstructured and structured play are both necessary in the learning environment. It is tempting to believe that unstructured play is real play and that structured play is work. Likewise, it tempting to believe that unstructured play is non-learning and that structured play is learning. In the hands of a skillful early learning educator, planning for both throughout the day allows the teacher to teach multiple concepts.

Benefits of Play

Nowhere in history have children been more sedentary than in the last two decades. Numerous research studies have shown the correlation between the loss of play and children’s poor health. Advocates for play cite that play boosts levels of fitness, lowers anxiety and depression, decreases acts of aggression, and helps children self-regulate. Furthermore, particularly with more outdoor play and appropriate rough and tumble play, children are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and placed on medication. Encouraging children to develop imaginative or creative play can offset a tendency towards a growing addiction to digital media. Best of all, playing outdoors promotes a child’s delight in nature, in God’s created world.

According to the Alliance for Childhood,2 children ought to have a minimum of 60 minutes of free play time per day. Our preschools already have many opportunities scheduled in the preschool day for children to play. In fact, they are legislated to provide “each child with daily outdoor play periods unless weather conditions would make it unreasonable to do so.” 3 The BC Ministry of Education’s Primary Program: A Framework for Teaching, and the Full-Day Kindergarten Program Guide advocates for play-based learning, implying that schools should increase the amount of play during the school day. But we do not need research or government mandates to tell us that play

is an essential component of learning.

Science or Scripture?

Scientific research has contributed much to education in terms of linking connections between cognitive development and pretend play 4, between face-to-face interaction and social development 5, between various sub-types of play and academic competence in later years.6 Research has helped educators better understand brain neuroplasticity, how boys and girls learn differently, and how learning spaces affect learning. These have influenced many educational programs in Canada to move towards a play-based learning program, especially in schools offering full day kindergarten. This research is important; yet it behooves us not “to ascribe an authority to science that does not legitimately belong to it” and to resist “the widely accepted notion that scientific knowledge is a superior kind of knowledge based on an autonomous scientific authority.” 7 The authority of science, even on the matter of play, is subject to the authority of Christ the Lord and to his Word.8 Science, as part of God’s creation, must fall in with “the created order in determining how to meet the Scripturally-revealed normative condition for the training of children”. 9

It is within the created order that children typically develop along a continuum of milestones characteristic to chronological ages and stages. This requires teachers to provide a learning environment that acknowledges the variety of learning styles in children, the range in learning pace, the various interests of children, and the need for developmentally appropriate materials and activities. Attention to these go a long way to honour God’s command to not exasperate his children. In other words, a normative condition of Scripture would see classrooms create an environment that promotes play to allow children to develop on their God-given timeline.

Implications for Schools

The Christian classroom helps children to develop as responsive disciples of Jesus Christ as they play.10 Play is a necessary part of children’s total development as persons. Through active play, they learn a great deal about God’s world and how they relate to it. Play promotes independent discovery and creativity as well as language development and communication skills. Hands-on experiences foster intellectual growth. Through play, children express and enhance their intellectual, emotional and physical energy and well-being.11

Play is equally necessary for older children. What are the school’s policy and practices regarding adequate play time through recess and lunch hour activities? Should a student miss recess to catch up on work, or go out to play? What can the school do to promote active play on rainy days? What could a play-based learning program look like at all grade levels?

Quietly watch a child play. Observe middle school students tinker with materials. Notice what they learn; you’ll be astonished too!


  1.…/early_learning_framework.pdf, p. 12
  3., Section 45(3)
  4. Bergen, D. The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development. Early Childhood Research and Practice. Vol. 4, No. 1.
  5. Wenner, M. The Serious Need for Play. Scientific American Mind. January 28, 2009.
  6. Encylopedia on Early Childhood Development. Synthesis on Play. October 2010.
  7. Fowler, S., Van Brummelen, H., Van Dyk, J. (1990). Christian Schooling : Education for Freedom. Potchefstroom University for Christian Hic. p.7
  8. ibid, p. 9
  9. ibid. p. 19
  10. SCSBC. Living, Loving and Learning: A Kindergarten Resource. (1999). p. 4
  11. ibid, p. 8,9

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