Play-based Learning: Why We Struggle to Implement it Beyond Pre-school

September 1, 2022

Critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence. These are just some of the competencies that employers look for when hiring, and they take time to develop over a person’s childhood through their adolescent years - often through play. For children, play-based learning (PBL) develops real-world competencies and are also critical to the development of cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills. 

| When we think of learning through play, early childhood education often comes to mind. However learning through play continues to be essential throughout adolescence and adulthood as well. 

Following LEGO Foundation’s definition of play, play is joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative, and socially interactive. These attributes of play can in fact be translated into suitable learning activities for primary and secondary school students. For example, secondary school students in an English literature class can make use of Lego bricks and craft materials to create scenes from a book. They could also be used to depict the plot, build a structure that portrays the theme of the book, or even design a symbol that represents the internal traits of a character in that book (Edutopia, 2022).

The struggle to implement play-based learning

Numerous studies like LEGO Foundation's, show how play is an essential strategy for learning and can set students up for success. The constructivist educational theorist Jean Piaget and the well-established Reggio Emilia approach are leading examples in the belief that children can unlock their own intelligence through a process of discovery (McNally & Slutsky, 2017) which the process of play provides. 

Yet with all the findings presented, many primary and secondary educators do not view the idea of play as an essential form of learning and therefore, do not usually implement it in their teaching approach. Further research suggests this could be due to a couple of factors: 

  • A lack of understanding of play and its definition
  • Disparities between the importance on academic success versus real-life success, and
  • The lack of teacher professional development in the area of play-based learning (Khalil et al, 2022)

Another limitation worth considering are cultural and personal biases as well. Let’s explore this and other factors that may contribute to limiting beliefs about play-based learning beyond pre-school. 

1. Cultural influence on play-based learning

Our values and belief systems are influenced by the culture and society we grow up in. The idea of “play” and “learning”, and the perceptions and attitudes towards each, differ across cultures. For example, a study found that mothers in Papua New Guinea believe that children learn through work, not play. A study in Malaysia showed that many parents do not favour play as an activity in learning. Meanwhile in countries like Japan, Sweden, and the United States, play is seen as part of learning, and is essential to developing the skills needed for real life (Izumi-Taylor et al, 2010).

As children grow older, we expect them to take on functional roles in society, often leaving the idea of play behind. However, knowing that different cultures perspectives of “play” and “learning” exist, reminds us to ask ourselves, 

| “What influences our own values and perspectives towards play and learning?”

For some, it could be our childhood upbringing at home, and for many, it would be our cultural and societal norms at large. Has it also influenced how we view academic success in relation to real life success? Being an educator at the forefront of change, begins with the hard work of self-reflection. 

2. Attitudes towards validity

As a society that is highly developed through scientific research, we are often used to relying on quantifiable and tangible results to determine if something is valid. This can make it a challenge to view play as a valid learning method because assessing its outcomes may be more nuanced than traditional exam-based assessments. Thankfully, we have studies such as mental health psychology that are worthy examples of determining validity in a variety of ways. 

While a framework for the pedagogy of play is still being developed, a step towards implementation can begin when we exercise new attitudes towards validity. Perhaps we can find our own ways of recognising what is valid in the classroom. Wear the shoes of a scientific researcher and try connecting intended learning outcomes to play-based activities, keeping track of how students respond to it over time. 

3. Choosing familiarity

We naturally form habits and patterns over time as a form of survival and to determine success. If something has proven to work in the past, we apply it knowing that it will reward us with our desired outcome again. It soon becomes a familiar approach. Adopting anything new such as PBL in primary or secondary education requires us to disrupt these familiar patterns as we introduce a new behaviour or habit into our teaching routine. This can seem like a risk. 

For example, trying a new teaching method may seem refreshing, but when new challenges arise - perhaps extra preparation time - this new teaching method may start to feel inconvenient. At that moment, it can be tempting to revert to what’s familiar. Too much familiarity over time can cause us to be stuck in a cycle. However whenever we push ourselves to try something new, it creates meaningful moments for ourselves and also for our students. 

What’s Next? 

We now know that learning through play is still crucial in primary and secondary school years. It can be experienced differently as children mature, and no matter how old children are, the element of “play” in learning is guaranteed to create moments of joy and make your lessons truly engaging. Now, isn’t that worth a shot! As you take the first few steps towards implementing play-based learning for your class… Remember, its a process for you to enjoy too. 

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Our globally connected world requires new competencies and skills in both teachers and students and more importantly, a new perspective of what learning can be.  As we explore and share new ideas in teaching today, it influences how students experience learning tomorrow. We are living in a time of exciting possibilities in education!

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