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What is Play Based Learning?

July 8, 2022

what is play based learning

Key Points

  • A play based program centres around the child's own discovery. For it to be successful, teachers need to create a safe and supported environment for children to explore and be themselves
  • Children learn to express themselves through play. With themselves, teachers, other children or adults. Play can improve and build their language skills so that they can communicate and listen effectively.
  • Parents and families can set up areas that help children explore and expand their minds. Playing together can deepen your connection with your child and build their self confidence.
  • Teachers support, motivate and instruct children in play-based indoor and outdoor learning environments to capture the interests, strengths, ideas, culture, abilities, curiosities and questions that motivate their learning.

On this page

What is Play Based Learning?

Why is Play Based Learning Important?

Elements of Play Based Learning

Benefits of Play Based Learning

Play Based Learning Activities

Differences Between Play Based Learning And Free Play 

Tips to Encourage Play Based Learning at Home

How Play Based Learning is Implemented Within Early Education and Care


We all know children like to play...

Children learn best by playing. Play stimulates a child's natural curiosity and teaches them essential skills. Through the trial and error of play, children learn to explore, take risks and use their imagination.

The first few years of a child's life are formative to their brain development. Research shows that play is crucial to shaping children's structural brain development by strengthening neural pathways. Play also sets up a solid foundation for future academic learning.

What is Play Based Learning?

Play based learning refers to a holistic approach to learning and development. Through play, children learn valuable skills that support their social, physical and cognitive development. Through engaging with others, objects and symbols, children learn to make sense of the world around them.


Why is Play Based Learning Important?

Play based learning programs are designed to help your child learn by exploring their own interests. Where the activities are child-centric in a teacher-supported learning environment.

In this non-traditional learning environment, play drives discovery. Through individual exploration, children learn creative ways of thinking that enable them to solve problems.

Play based learning rooms are usually separated into sections such as an imaginative play area, reading area, object or blocks area, natural and textural play areas. By interacting with different play settings, children start to think, read, draw, write and talk at their own pace.

Elements of Play Based Learning

A play based program centres around the child's own discovery. For it to be successful, teachers need to create a safe and supported environment for children to explore and be themselves.

The following elements make up play based learning:

  • Self direction: the child decides what and how they want to play, including how long they want to explore on their own. Teachers can supervise or suggest, but the child needs to use their curiosity to decide what they should do.
  • Unstructured: without rules, children independently learn and discover at their own time and pace. Exploring their own interests, without direction, along the way.
  • Process-oriented: where learning is based on the process, without an end goal of what something should be.
  • Fun: where the learning environment is enjoyable. The child feels good and connected to what they're doing, without being forced.
  • Imagination: the freedom to be creative and play 'make believe', without limitations.

Benefits of Play Based Learning

Play based learning promotes a child's holistic development. They learn cognitive, physical, emotional, social and creative skills that set them up for success in further education.

Develops Social and Emotional Skills

Learning through playing with others helps build emotional and social skills. When children play, they learn to share, cooperate, communicate and solve problems with their peers. They become part of a community.

Play can help children express and understand their emotions. Helping build your child's awareness of their own emotions and empathising with others in different scenarios. As well as, fostering positive relationships with others. It can help your child relate to others and feel connected through shared experiences.

Play based learning activities can also help children work through stressful scenarios in a healthy way.

Improves Language and Literacy Skills

Children learn to express themselves through play. With themselves, teachers, other children or adults. Play can improve and build their language skills so that they can communicate and listen effectively.

Play also helps children find connections between hearing, speaking, writing and reading words. They build associations between words and connections in their mind for how words can be used. This is crucial in early childhood when children's vocabularies are growing rapidly.

Improved language is also possible when a child is guiding their own independent learning processes. While playing children create imaginative scenarios and often verbalise multiple characters. They use their minds to create stories, and build structure and associations between words.

Fosters Imagination and Creativity

Creativity and imaginative play come naturally to children. When fostered in early childhood, these skills can help children become adults that are resilient and think outside the box.

Imaginative play develops children's ability to think fast and to think for themselves. It helps them navigate real and made-up scenarios. By exploring their creativity, children learn to adapt and solve problems when things don't go to plan. It gives them skills to proactively work with boredom.

Expands Fine and Gross Motor Skills

Play builds children's physical awareness, coordination and tactile responses. By moving small and large muscle groups in their body, children expand their gross and fine motor skills.

Motor skills are developed through crawling, walking, running, jumping, climbing and throwing. These activities help children learn hand-eye coordination and balance. As well as building strength in their body's muscles.

Play activities such as drawing, grasping, touching and moulding things help children master the use of their hands, fingers and wrists. This also includes exploring objects of different textures and surfaces, such as sand, wet paint, wooden blocks and soft toys.

Reinforces Confidence and Positive Attitudes Towards Learning

Play based activities help children build their self confidence from hands-on learning. With increased confidence, children feel more inclined to take risks and try new things. They learn to make decisions for themselves and feel a sense of accomplishment.

Each child learns differently. Learning becomes a positive experience when children are left to explore at their own pace. The freedom to figure things out on their own alleviates any stress they may feel about an outcome. Motivating children to learn through their own inquiry processes.

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Play Based Learning Activities

A play based approach in early childhood education encourages children's holistic development through their own curiosity. Using their bodies and minds, children learn through hands-on investigation. The learning environment is tailored to each child and is directed or supported by a teacher.

Sand and Water Play

Sand and water play are both tactile and sensory learning activities. They help children strengthen their motor skills, hand-eye coordination and balance. Improving their sense of accuracy and control as they play with water and sand separately or together.

Water and sand play increase children's concentration and focus. An important skill for classroom education. Through inquiry, they begin to understand why and how things happen. Including learning concepts such as weight and volume. About different textures and why different objects float or sink in water.

Play activities with water and sand are usually social experiences around a tub or pit. Children use spades, buckets, funnels and other toys to build, carry, combine, scoop, splash, submerge and pour. Children build their communication skills as they work together for a common goal.

Imaginative and Role Play

Time for imaginative play is essential for children. It encourages them to think for themselves. Helping them to be creative and flexible in their thoughts. This is important when children play with their peers where they must learn to be inclusive as not everyone can get what they want.

Through dramatic play, children are encouraged to create stories and take on character roles. Children learn to think from the perspective of another as they put on costumes and role play being a character such as a parent, doctor, police officer or teacher. They learn to recognise and respond to another's feelings by practising different social and emotional roles in life. Including how to express and label feelings while increasing their vocabulary.

Art Play

Art play activities allow children to freely express their thoughts, feelings and ideas. Through grasping different tools and materials they learn to create shapes and patterns. It improves their fine motor skills, finger and wrist muscles and hand-eye coordination.

Creating art engages the right side of the brain. Developing neural connections as children make something entirely from nothing through imagination or sight. Children mix and use a variety of colours, materials and techniques in different combinations to paint, draw, create a sculpture or collage.

The process of creating art requires creative thinking and experimentation. It helps children to connect and communicate with and without words. It also encourages logical thinking where children learn to analyse, ask questions and problem solve.

Object Play

Object play is sensory. Through independent curiosity or teacher instructed learning, children organise, explore, try new combinations and construct objects in different ways.

Object play helps children to be independent and creative in their thinking. It involves children playing with any type of objects such as building blocks, toys and junk materials. Like loose parts play, children use their imagination to give objects meaning and improve their motor skills.

Engaging with different and complex objects supports children's cognitive and physical development. They learn how to grasp, hold and carry different objects. What happens when you poke, bend, throw, shake, squeeze and stack different items. As well as understanding what different objects can do and how to use them.

Movement and Music Play

Music, dancing and singing activities help children with brain and body development. Through movement, they expand their abilities to coordinate and find rhythm in dance. This improves their strength and flexibility. It also increases their self-confidence, as they freely express themselves through dance and release energy in a positive way.

Music and singing help children develop language and literacy skills. By listening and singing along to the lyrics of a song, children expand their vocabulary. Songs that are educational are also important in broadening a child's knowledge, such as songs that include basic mathematical concepts.

Physical Play

Physical outdoor and indoor play involves running, jumping, climbing, crawling, swinging and moving through obstacles. It helps children discover their own coordination and balance through actions.

Physical play is as good for a child's health as it is for their brain. Through movement, they create connections between nerve cells and their brain. It encourages healthy habits and is an outlet for using up their energy in a positive way.

Over time, physical play will drive children's self awareness, problem solving abilities and fine and gross motor skills. Physical play is also social, helping children interact with others and step outside of their comfort zone.

Nature Play

Learning through playing in nature is a great way for children to make sense of the world around them. Nature play promotes children's wellbeing, independence and social development.

Forest schools and vegetable gardens have become popular modes of education in childhood. Through their own sensory exploration, children learn about the different aspects of nature and how it is constantly changing and growing. Nature play promotes children's own scientific enquiry and helps them develop a respect for the environment.

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Differences Between Play Based Learning And Free Play 

Play based learning is for a purpose, whereas free play is more of an outlet of fun for a child. While both can offer learning opportunities, a play based classroom is more structured in priming children for future academics.

Free play is where a child has the freedom to entertain themselves alone or together with others. Where children choose what games or activities excite them without direction from adults.

Quality play based learning introduces and reinforces concepts to children that are foundational to their development. Led by the child or teacher, play based programs have embedded learning in activities that are aligned with your child's own interests.

Tips to Encourage Play Based Learning at Home

To encourage play based learning at home, parents and families can set up areas that help children explore and expand their minds. Playing together can deepen your connection with your child and build their self confidence.

Observe your child and design the play areas in line with their interests. Aim to create a safe environment at home for children to learn with freedom:

  • Set up play spaces: include items suited to your child's interests. Such as drawing or painting materials, railway tracks, objects for construction, a costume box, animals, books, music equipment, science table, toy kitchen or common household items.
  • Include sensory elements: have materials that children must manipulate, like play dough and jigsaw puzzles, items with different textures, or things that that can be pulled apart and put back together again.
  • Be curious with them: parents should take on a similar child-like curiosity when playing together with their child. Follow their lead and ask them questions that answer what, how and why to expand their thinking and vocabulary.
  • Go outdoors: explore nature with your child and play investigator with everything you see. Encourage sensory exploration of all living aspects in the environment. Or perhaps set up a vegetable garden for them to regularly tend to with you.
  • Unrestricted time: set for children to play and explore by themselves and with you often.
  • Make it social: create opportunities for your child to play with others in their play areas.

For further ideas on how you can keep your children engaged in learning at home, see our free activity resources.

How Play Based Learning is Implemented Within Early Education and Care

Early childhood educators work together with families to understand each individual child. Then teachers design a purposeful play based learning program where outcomes must meet the Australian Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) for children 0-5 years old. The focus is on each child's development as they learn to make sense of their social environments through engaging in activities.

Teachers support, motivate and instruct children in play based indoor and outdoor learning environments, building on their existing knowledge to help children construct new knowledge and skills with teachers, peers, or by themselves. 


Topics: Education, Play

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