Is Play-Based Learning Really Effective?

As parents we carefully think about our children’s present and future. They deserve the best now, during formal schooling and beyond. As a result, we’re cautious about which early learning centre to choose and what kind of environment should our kids experience.

We also think which of the learning approaches is the most effective. One such popular approach is play-based learning wherein there’s also a focus on play, active exploration and interaction. However, is play-based learning really effective? Can it help our children develop their potential and better prepare them for formal schooling?

Rationale behind play-based learning

For much of human history people don’t sit in classrooms and process academic concepts all day. Instead, people go outside, learn and interact with other people and the surroundings. Back then there were no “formal jobs” and people didn’t prepare for careers. Rather, their focus was on survival and having a role in the tribes or crude societies back then. The structure of societies was entirely different.

Fast forward to today, “formal jobs” now exist and to get one such job, we need to have adequate preparation and solid credentials. We often get that through school and studying for 15+ years. We can pick up other skills through relevant training and workshops but formal schooling is the one that takes much of our time. As a result, many of us have spent years and extended hours inside the classroom. It’s interesting that schooling resembles how assembly line works. We go from one workstation to another (primary, secondary, senior secondary and tertiary education) wherein we pick up knowledge and skills along the way. The ultimate outcome (after going through the assembly line) is a finished product ready for the job market.

It has been a useful way of preparing kids for the future especially if we’re talking about scale and cost effectiveness. Students receive almost the same instruction because personalised attention to each student is almost impossible to achieve. The old approach was individual apprenticeship (this is still in force today especially in trades) wherein the apprentice learns directly from the craftsman. In contrast, the present approach is to learn together from quality books and qualified educators. This is the classroom setting wherein the youth sit together and learn. It’s a good way to prepare people for jobs, businesses and the modern society.

However, is it the best way for the upcoming decade and beyond? With many impending changes (especially if we’re talking about artificial intelligence, robotics and automation), is classroom approach still the best way to prepare our kids for the future? After all, things would have drastically changed by the time they finish school. Many new types of jobs will sprout and yes, many jobs will also disappear. The current setup might be preparing millions of people to careers that won’t exist tomorrow.

The private sector and the government have already recognised that emerging issue. Classroom and pure academic learning might not be enough to prepare children for the world of tomorrow. For a time the old approaches had been very useful. But still, changes are required in response to the changing times.

One such initiative is the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (Belonging, Being & Becoming). These are the included learning outcomes for children birth to 5 years:

  1. Children have a strong sense of identity
  2. Children are connected with and contribute to their world
  3. Children have a strong sense of wellbeing
  4. Children are confident and involved learners
  5. Children are effective communicators

Notice that academics is nowhere to be found. It’s still a required foundation because literacy and numeracy help us form our identity, contribution, wellbeing, confidence and communication skills.

Is play-based learning really effective

Aside from those outcomes, the Early Years Learning Framework has a specific emphasis on play-based learning. This approach gears toward more and deeper dynamic interaction with other people and the surroundings. Notice that we’re going back to the basics when people in the past go outside more often to learn, hunt, gather food and explore. Also notice that play-based learning also better simulates what happens in the professional and business world.

Often, things get accomplished if we go out there and collaborate (far from what we do in the classroom). Through play-based learning, our kids will be able to learn that early on and better adapt to formal schooling and beyond. Remember that in the learning outcomes having a strong sense of identity and wellbeing are included. With those, children will feel confident at school and better perform in academics and extracurricular.

This play-based learning is a more fun approach because children are allowed to play and explore. With the guidance of qualified educators, kids will be encouraged to play while remaining safe and being on the right path. They will also be in a stimulating and friendly environment where the world is their playground.

In summary, play-based learning could be much more effective because it covers more aspects. It’s a holistic and integrated approach where kids get adequate preparation on all fronts (cognitive, physical, social and emotional). Most importantly, kids can still enjoy while helping develop their creativity and cognitive foundations.