Applying Learning Through Play Theories to the Curriculum

Published: April 30th, 2024

Neuroscience has shown that the area of the brain responsible for cognitive processing and memory is developed through play.

Clearly, structured play can be a powerful asset in our learning curricula. In this article, we’ll look at some of the theories behind play-based learning and consider how they can be incorporated into the classroom. You can use the links below to jump to different sections:

Before we consider how we might adopt learning through play in our 21st-century classrooms, it’s useful to think about what ‘play-based learning’ means. Parker, Thomsen and Berry hit the nail on the head with their comprehensive definition, characterising it as the development of holistic skills through interactions with people, objects and representations in engaging, joyful, iterative, meaningful and socially interactive experiences. 

In other words: structured play that makes effective use of resources in the child’s environment in a manner that’s considered fun.

Learning Through Play Theory

The idea of learning through play is not a new concept or one that teachers are likely to be unfamiliar with. Writing in the early 19th century, Friedrich Froebel, whose ideas paved the way for modern education, claimed that “play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child’s soul”.

So, from the very beginning, children’s agency in their own learning has been an integral aspect of the concept. As we’ll see, there are different schools of thought as to whether play-based learning is most effective when directed solely by children or when led by adults. Froebel himself believed that adult guidance was key but ultimately that children should choose their own play activities, which is something to consider when introducing play to the classroom.

Many psychologists have expanded upon Froebel’s ideas. Susan Issacs developed a theory of play that suggested that play allowed children to become comfortable with their skills and that it specifically promoted emotional development. Maria Montessori’s approach to learning through play was based on the idea that it helps children to make active choices and practice specific actions, and her legacy can be seen in today’s prevalence of Montessori schools.

Influential though their ideas were, there are two other big names in the world of learning through play:

A child drawing on an interactive display, representing Piaget’s play theory.

Piaget’s Play Theory

Jean Piaget’s theory of play is one that many teachers will be familiar with. It represents a significant milestone in our understanding of learning because it supported the idea that children think differently to adults; a previously unheard-of concept. The theory is based upon his four stages of cognitive development, which offer a framework for the way children progress through different phases of learning:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years) During which children explore the world through movement and sensory investigation, developing an understanding of object permanence and causation.
  2. Preoperational Stage (2-7 years) During which children develop the ability to think symbolically, learning to use words and pictures to represent things that are not in front of them.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years) During which children develop logic skills, such as the concept of conservation, as well as empathy and the ability to see things from different perspectives.
  4. Formal Operational Stage (12+ years) During which abstract ideas are introduced, alongside hypothetical problems, deductive logic and the ability to form arguments around ethical, philosophical and political issues.

Piaget disagreed with the idea that intelligence is a fixed trait but proposed that cognitive development was a process based on biological and environmental stimuli, and that play was a critical tool to help children progress through this process.

Piaget’s play theory certainly contains some interesting ideas, but how can we use it to structure our activities in the classroom? Below are some suggestions:

Sensorimotor Stage 

Play in this stage will be centred around physical sensations: colours, shapes, textures, and sounds. We might prioritise games that help children develop object permanence, such as peek-a-boo or hiding toys around the child’s play area.

Preoperational Stage 

In this stage, play can support the understanding of symbols, so we might encourage children to draw or use symbols such as emojis to represent feelings. If you have access to an interactive display, then something like the ActivPanel Whiteboard app is a great example of how we might enable children to do this in a collaborative way, along with Pictionary-based online games such as Quick, Draw! Learners will be progressing towards empathy in the next stage so we can introduce games that encourage role playing or different physical perspectives.

Concrete Operational Stage 

Logic development will be one of the key components of play in this stage. Puzzles will be critical, and we might introduce conservation tasks to demonstrate that (for example) a volume of liquid doesn’t change just because it’s in a differently shaped container or that a ball of clay doesn’t change weight when it’s shaped into a sausage. This is where Promethean’s ActivInspire templates for matching cards, crosswords or memory games would come in useful – the size ordering template is ideal for teaching conservation.

Formal Operational Stage 

Play in this stage will be centred around the development of logic skills and abstract thinking. This is an opportunity for us to introduce more advanced puzzles that might require children to make predictions or use more sophisticated abstract ideas such as algebra. Crucially, we’ll be asking them to demonstrate how they arrived at their conclusions. 

These elements of play can be introduced into the classroom, either through more traditional means or with the assistance of digital tools. But before we explore more ways to do this, first, let’s consider a different perspective.

Three children using an interactive display, representing Vygotsky’s play theory.

Vygotsky’s Play Theory

Vygotsky repeated a number of Piaget’s experiments but, while Piaget’s play theory is characterised by self-directed learning and a phased cognitive progression, Vygotsky’s play theory stated that children learn more continuously. He believed that their progress is socially constructed by external factors such as people and cultural tools.

In recognising the individuality of children as learners and highlighting their potential given a constructive learning environment with access to assistive tools, Vygotsky’s ideas are much more reminiscent of our modern approach to teaching.

He believed that we are all equipped with four elementary functions:

  1. Attention
  2. Sensation
  3. Perception
  4. Memory

He proposed that our environment encourages us to use these elementary skills to develop more sophisticated skills, and believed that with the help of a teacher, friend or technology, children are able to learn skills beyond their natural maturity level.

This is where learning through play comes in. Vygotsky proposed that play was a form of sociocultural learning and that it enabled children to progress from thinking that is rooted in the properties of their immediate situation, to thinking that is more abstract. He identified the most effective form of play to be that which involved imaginary situations, as these offer children a framework to think about concepts that aren’t rooted in their material world.

If Vygotsky’s theory that sociocultural factors encourage children to develop higher mental functions holds water, then it would follow that access to a more diverse range of cultural stimuli would bolster that learning. When we view this through a 21st-century lens, the role of digital tools in the classroom becomes apparent. An internet-enabled interactive display, for example, is a great way to bring a vibrant world of ideas and cultures into your lessons. 

What are the Intellectual Benefits of Play?

Parker and Thomsen noted that learners who have the opportunity to make choices about their learning demonstrate higher levels of engagement, motivation and positivity towards their learning, which is significant in itself.

However, one of the primary intellectual benefits of play is the development of cognitive abilities. Building on the ideas outlined in Jean Piaget’s theory of play, studies have shown that play can support the development of language skills, problem solving, abstract concepts, memory, creativity and perspective.

This is something that Vygotsky agreed with, finding that play also promoted the development of self-awareness and self-regulation.

How Can I Introduce Play-Based Learning into the Classroom?

We’ve already seen how play can evolve to support structured learning through various cognitive development stages based on Piaget’s theory. For early years education, of course the most effective form of learning through play is hands-on play that engages the senses. But, as we move into primary and secondary education, the incorporation of technology can help to stimulate play-based learning.

Promethean’s ActivPanel is a great way to bring play into the classroom in a collaborative, structured manner. With its split-screen, multi-user feature, your students can play collaboratively or in competition with each other; you can even use the timer app to introduce an element of drama to the play.

The spinner app allows you to relive the era of 90s primetime gameshows and embrace your inner TV host by easily gamifying your lessons. Meanwhile, access to the Promethean App Store enables you to bring your students’ favourite games into the classroom, offering access to popular language learning, quizzing, and puzzle-based apps, including Duolingo and Kahoot!

Want to Learn More About How ActivPanel Can Support a Learning Through Play Curriculum?

Request a free demo to find out how the Promethean ActivPanel can help you incorporate play-based learning into your lessons.

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