Evidence for Learning: Play-based learning

Play-based learning

The summary below presents the research evidence on play-based learning in the Australasian context.

The Early Childhood Education Toolkit focuses on impact; it presents an estimate of the average impact of communication and language approaches on learning progress, based on the synthesis of a large number of quantitative studies from around the world.

This page offers a summary and analysis of individual Australasian studies on communication and language approaches. In contrast to the Early Childhood Education Toolkit it includes studies which do not estimate impact, but instead investigate the implementation of interventions and how they are perceived by early learning professionals and young learners. This information is valuable for early learning centres interested in finding out more about particular examples of communication and language approaches that have been delivered in Australia and New Zealand.

Edith Cowan University generated this evidence summary on behalf of CoLab (a partnership between Telethon Kids Institute and the Minderoo Foundation) and it is current for July 2019.

Play-based learning is a foundational element of the early learning frameworks of state and national governments and is acknowledged as one of the key ways children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations” (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009, p. 46). A child’s sense of self, others and community and all areas of their development are shaped by play-based learning. While there is global evidence showing the promise of play-based approaches, there have been comparatively few Australasian studies into the different dimensions of the issue.

Exceptions have included a study conducted in two kindergartens in New Zealand in which children co-produced impromptu storylines and used ventriloquism to talk objects into life (Bateman, 2018). This study suggested that dramatic play supported early literacy practices by encouraging children to orally construct characters and build coherent storylines. This form of dramatic play encouraged children to symbolise by representing one object for another and to co-construct meaning through paralinguistic resources. Fleer, Harrison, Veresov and Walker (2017) found that Lindqvist’s playworlds’ approach which highlights teachers’ involvement in children’s dramatic play, helped to develop play further and introduced more complexity. A central feature of this approach was the opportunity for teachers to have extended discussions with children before they entered into the imaginary world. Of note, Fleer is currently leading a five-year investigation into how play-based education can deliver essential cognitive and learning outcomes for infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers in the STEM domain.

Edwards and Cutter-Mackenzie (2011) studied the use of three play approaches to developing children’s environmental concepts in 16 early learning centres across Melbourne, Australia. Open-ended play, where children created their own understandings through play with materials, modelled play which involved a teacher showing children how to use materials, and purposefully framed play in which a teacher participated in a modelled play experience. Preliminary results suggested that even though children seemed to learn more in a modelled play experience, the other two play experiences deepened the learning. In turn, this depth of understanding provided children with the capacity to engage with and lead the other children in using the materials. Each approach offered different pedagogical strengths.

In more recent years play-based learning has gained momentum as a way of helping children to more closely connect to their physical world. Nature play emerging in Aotearoa early childhood settings provides an opportunity for children to experience a stronger connectedness to place and to deepen their spiritual inter-relationship with the land, mountains, rivers, and oceans (Alcock & Ritchie, 2018). Bateman and Roberts (2018) contend that pretend play in natural spaces provides an opportunity for children to develop in important areas of morality.

In conclusion, Edwards and Cutter-Mackenzie (2011), in a review of the literature on child-centred pedagogy suggested that play-based learning needs to incorporate children’s cultural competencies, involve the educator in helping children make connections to concepts and content and be based on carefully planned learning outcomes. Moving away from a child-centred orientation to a focus on the dynamics between the child, educator and content.

Alcock S. & Ritchie, J. (2018). Early childhood education in the outdoors in Aotearoa

New Zealand. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21, 77 – 88. doi: 10.1007/s42322-017‑0009‑y

Bateman, A. (2018). Ventriloquism as early literacy practice: making meaning in pretend play. Early Years, 38(1), 68 – 85, doi: 10.1080/09575146.2016.1254162

Bateman, A. & Roberts, P. (2018). Morality at play: pretend play in five-year-old children in New Zealand bushland, Research on Children and Social Interaction 2, 195 – 222.

Biordi, L., & Gardner, N. (2014). Play and Write: An early literacy approach. Practically Primary, 19(1), 6 – 9.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia.

Edwards, S., & Cutter-Mackenzie, A. (2011). Environmentalising early childhood education curriculum through pedagogies of play. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 36(1),51 – 59.

Fleer, M. (2015). Pedagogical positioning in play – teachers being inside and outside of children’s imaginary play. Early Child Development and Care, 185(11 – 12), 1801 – 1814. doi: 10.1080/03004430.2015.1028393

Fleer, M., Harrison, L., Veresov, N., & Walker, S. (2017). Working with teachers’ pedagogical strengths: The design of executive function activities for play-based programs. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 42(4), 47 – 55. doi: 10.23965/AJEC.42.4.06

Ludlow, S. (2010). The place of play in Twenty-first Century classrooms: Evidence and approaches. TEACH Journal of Christian Education, 4(2), 18 – 23.

Makin, L., Hayden, J., Holland, A., Arthur, L., Beecher, B., Jones Diaz, C., & McNaught, M. (1999). Mapping literacy practices in early childhood services. Sydney, NSW: New South Wales Department of Education and Training and New South Wales Department of Community Services.

Newman, L. (2016). Children’s literacy play environments: Snapshots of practitioner research for change. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 41(3), 95 – 103.

  • ERIC
  • Informit A+ Education
  • Google Scholar
  • Australia and New Zealand newsstand

Pretend play; play-based activities; play-literacy approach/​interventions; guided play activities.