Learning Through Play is More Than Play

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Let children play! Let them figure out and discover stuff themselves! Let them create things! Let them set their own goals and come up with their own ideas! That’s how they learn: naturally!

Play 1

It sounds wonderful. Who would be against it? Really, no one could or would. Who can argue with these romantic, bordering on philosophical ideas about how young children learn best? You should because there’s a catch, namely that there’s no scientific evidence to support these ideas.

Now, don’t get your undies all in a bunch too quickly here. We’re NOT saying that children don’t learn anything through play, discover, and creation or that play isn’t important for their development. You can learn through play AND play is surely an important part of a child’s development. What we are saying is that play is not enough. Children won’t learn things like self-regulation, literacy, and numeracy through just free play without explicit instruction.

Play needs to be seen as one possible means/medium for learning and not as the foundation for it[1].

Deans for Impact recently published a report titled ‘The science of early learning: How young children develop agency, numeracy, and literacy.’ It is made up of deans from various teacher education programs and has as motto: Every child deserves a well-prepared teacher. They wish to ensure that every beginning teacher is good on day one, and on the path to become great over time… Their mission is to:

improve student-learning outcomes by changing the way this country prepares teachers. Our members are united behind a shared vision for a transformed educator-preparation system that graduates teachers prepared to measurably improve student learning.

The report aims to answer questions such as how do young children develop their sense of self? How do they learn to understand what they read, and express their ideas in writing? How do they develop abstract knowledge of mathematical concepts? This report can help us to (re?)consider what role play has in children’s development and their learning (including discovering and creating things based on their own ideas).

Play 2

In brief, The Science of Early Learning report

summarises current cognitive-science research related to how young children — from birth to age eight — develop skills across three domains: agency, literacy, and numeracy. It’s intended to serve as a resource to anyone interested in what the best scientific understanding is of how young children develop control of their own behaviour and intentions, how they learn to read and write proficiently, and how they develop the ability to think mathematically. Although The Science of Early Learning is not intended to cover every aspect of early learning and development, it’s a good starting point for educators, teachers, parents, and caregivers who wish to explore principles of learning science as they relate to young children.

The report discusses 12 questions:

1.       How do young children develop a sense of self?

2.       How do young children begin to respect others?

3.       How do young children learn to self-regulate their behaviour?

4.       How do young children develop independence?

5.       How do young children learn the meaning of the alphabet?

6.       How do young children become fluent readers?

7.       How do young children learn to understand what they read?

8.       How do young children learn to express their ideas in writing?

9.       How do young children learn to count?

10.   How do young children develop abstract knowledge of mathematical concepts?

11.   How do young children learn arithmetic?

12.   What should an effective math learning environment for young children include?

We won’t discuss them all; we’ll only summarise the most important points for three areas: freedom of choice, literacy, and numeracy. We also won’t cite any of the scientific resources that they have used to come up with their guidelines as these can all be found in the report itself.

Freedom of choice

They state that around the age of two, children begin to understand the concept of ‘me’ and start to feel ‘self-conscious’ emotions, such as shame and pride. To help them develop their own identity, educators can provide young children with opportunities to learn about themselves through mirrors, photos, and guided classroom activities, including games.

Self-regulation is critical as well. In order to learn to regulate their own behaviour, children need to remember their goals, prioritize things, suppress impulses, concentrate, not respond to distractions and, where necessary, be flexible to change how they think and react to things. In technical jargon, these skills are called ‘executive functions’. To help children improve self-regulation and executive functions, we can scaffold the ability of young children to self-regulate behaviour by striving for consistency and predictability. In other words, we must present them with rules (which we as teachers might decide upon in collaboration with them) and be clear when it comes to those rules, what they entail, and how they’re enforced. Research shows that executive function skills benefit from intentional instruction integrated into playful experiences. These can be games that require impulse control, such as freeze dance or Simon says, or role play to practice handling a difficult situation, such as waiting for a turn or persevering through a difficult activity.

Play 3

To develop independence/autonomy, the method of instruction is as important as the instruction. So, balancing brief, intentional instruction on new concepts with opportunities for choice and playful practice. When providing instruction, the recommendation is to start by giving two- or three-step instructions and demonstrations to align with young children’s capabilities for recall and attention; and add additional detail as children’s retention matures. In contrast, it’s best to avoid doing things that may inhibit young children from developing independence – such as offering incentives like sticker charts or rewards for good behaviour – because the reward often becomes the goal more than the learning.


First off, all writing systems employ a visual code for representing spoken language. Learning to read and write requires children to crack the code for their language.

Enigma machine and a series of three rotors from an Enigma machine scrambler.

Children need to develop phonemic awareness along with understanding of how spoken sounds link to letters (something that’s biologically secondary). Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate distinct sounds – phonemes – in speech. To achieve this, at some point (after a pre-literacy phase where they learn how to recognise words and sounds in words, rhyming, and so forth) young children need to explicitly and systematically learn letters as well as their accompanying ‘sound’ (their pronunciation), including instruction around how letters and letter combinations sound, as in how these combinations are encoded to speech. Retrieval practice is an incredibly effective strategy to use for these things.

To ensure that children become strong and avid readers, while reading aloud, teachers and caregivers should point to text, word by word; show the connections between text and images; and guide children to participate in reading some words, such as those that repeat throughout the text. Children also need explicit instruction on morphology[2], or the recognition of word parts, to support their transition toward more automatic, fluent word reading.  Last but not least, the Deans warn that “independent reading should not supplant other reading instruction: School time should be used for explicit instruction or guided practice when possible.”

When it comes to helping children understand what they’re reading, the Deans recommend that children should read texts that are rich in content, not just about familiar, daily life contexts. Remember, given the choice, most children – and especially children who are unsure – will choose what’s familiar above things that are novel (see also this piece about mastery vs. performance orientation and approach vs. avoidance behaviour).

Modelling and guiding practice with comprehension strategies (e.g., making predictions or using context clues to determine the meaning of unknown words) are OK but teachers shouldn’t overdo it. There’s minimal evidence that repeated, ongoing instruction in these strategies improve children’s abilities to apply them.


Numeracy starts with learning how to count. In order for children to understand the actual goal of counting, they need to understand the 1:1 relationship between what they count and real objects. This means that, when they learn ‘counting sequence’, they need to connect the number words to collections of objects. After sufficient practice, this can then be followed by skip counting, such as 2, 4, 6, or, in fives 5, 10, 15 or tens, 10, 20, 30. One way of achieving this is through board games; they provide an informal way to practice counting and to connect counting with number representations (and beat your mum, dad, teacher, older brother or sister, friend, etc. at the same time!).

Play 5

Young children begin to understand abstract mathematical concepts through concrete representations and learn to apply what they know in new contexts by gradually transitioning from concrete to visual to abstract. Manipulatives – physical objects – can be useful tools for understanding mathematical problems when used in a structured, guided context.

For a given concept, young children need to understand that symbols and abstract representations represent quantity, and these symbols should gradually replace manipulatives and concrete representations in how they think about quantity. This is called concreteness fading (again, moving from concrete to abstract).

Building on this (prior) knowledge, children can progress towards addition (builds on quantity), subtraction (builds on addition), multiplication (builds on addition and subtraction), and division (builds on all the above). The key here is, that all the ‘math facts’ need to be automated; children need to be able to quickly retrieve them from their long-term memory so that they can use their working memory to solve more complex math problems. To get there, a lot of practice is required, and it just takes time!

Any classroom that’s rich in interesting math materials, such as sorting materials, counting manipulation materials (blocks, cubes, pinecones, whatever), scales, rulers, puzzles, pattern games, and so forth, stimulates children’s enthusiasm to keep practising math.

We hope that it’s clear by now that neither we nor the Deans are against play, discovery, or creation. However, the point is, a) there’s a difference between play for play and play for learning and b) if it’s about play for learning, children need more than ‘just play’; they need good, often direct instruction as a method and within that, play can be a possible medium.




[1] See Dick Clark’s 1983 article on media and method. Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53, 445–459. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543053004445

[2] Morphology is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language. It analyses the structure of words and parts of words, such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes (Wikipedia).


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