The definition of ‘play’ and its relationship with learning frameworks, the role of adults and the children themselves varies considerably. Play will often be enjoyable for its own sake. Play-based activities might be solitary or social, and involve a combination of cognitive and physical elements. While play is a core part of the experience of children in early childhood education settings and has potential benefits around physical development, relationship building and expressive arts; this evidence summary looks at the impact of play-based learning on cognitive outcomes.
Play-based learning takes place across a range of indoor/outdoor, home-based and educational learning environments. On one end of the continuum is free play, where activities are initiated and sustained by the child. In these activities, the adult has a role in planning and setting up the learning provision, providing resources and materials to enhance learning and support play. The adult interacts with intention and a clear purpose in mind, but it is the child who leads and directs the activity. In the middle of the continuum is guided play, which has some level of adult involvement. Examples might include a group of children engaged in pretend play where the adult plans a scenario to take the play and conversation in a new direction. On the other end of the continuum are more staff-led or directed activities, such as games with rules or clearly structured activities.
Some examples of play-based learning may overlap with self-regulation approaches or social and emotional learning strategies. Play-based interventions have been developed to support social, emotional or behavioural development of children. These programs explicitly aim to improve social and cognitive skills by helping children learn how to play.
The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) version 2.0 emphasises play-based learning and the intentional role for educators and children in extending and enriching learning. It is directly related to the Practice of ‘Play-based learning and intentionality’, and is broadly reflected throughout the EYLF.
Play-based learning approaches have a moderate positive impact (+ four months) on learning outcomes, however, the evidence base is very limited.
Play-based learning includes a wide range of approaches across a range of environments, which includes staff-led activities and free play. More research has taken place on staff-led or guided play.
Similar positive effects have been identified in early learning outcomes in aspects of both early literacy and language development and early numeracy.
The variation in effects, and limited evidence around play-based learning that is not led by an educator, suggest that further research is needed to identify exactly what approaches are effective in play-based learning.
The evidence base for play-based learning is not strong or consistent, but does indicate a clear relationship between play and early learning outcomes. On average, the studies of play that measure impact found that play-based learning approaches improve learning outcomes by approximately four additional months. However, there is substantial variation in effects, suggesting that additional, high-quality research is needed in this area.
Positive outcomes have been identified for a range of early learning outcomes including language, early literacy, early numeracy and a range of other cognitive outcomes. Play-based approaches can have substantial benefits for children who are identified as having social, emotional, or educational difficulties.
Most of the identified studies focus on guided play rather than free play or role-play approaches. While studies of free play do exist, they did not frequently look at cognitive outcomes, and often used weaker research designs. The two studies that met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit had conflicting results, with one positive and one negative effect.
There have been few Australasian studies into the different dimensions of play-based approaches. A 2011 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.
While positive impacts can be found for a range of play-based learning approaches, most research has focused on guided play (17 of the 22 included studies).
Positive impacts have been found across a range of early learning outcomes including language, early literacy, early numeracy and a range of other cognitive outcomes.
Studies have been undertaken in a number of countries around the world, with the majority in the USA.
Although there were not enough studies to explore the relationship between play-based learning and disadvantage, there are examples of studies that have been successful in improving educational outcomes in settings with a high proportion of children experiencing socio-economic disadvantage.
The variation in outcomes across play-based learning make implementation particularly important. Key aspects to consider include:
- Cultivating environments that encourage and support children to develop their language, literacy and mathematical knowledge and understanding through play.
- Considering the balance between child-initiated play and more structured activities to meet the learning needs of children.
- Organising equipment in the learning environment to support active learning, play and exploration.
- Preparing staff to support learning through play-based activities.
The weak evidence means that it might be particularly important to evaluate the impact of any new play-based approaches you introduce.
Overall, the median costs of implementing play-based learning are estimated as very low. Most early years settings are designed to incorporate indoor and outdoor play facilities, so there are limited additional costs associated with play-based learning.
Costs can be higher when these facilities are not present or where specific additional resources and materials may be needed, such as those required for role play or play to support early literacy. Training for staff to develop their understanding of how to develop children’s learning from play activities is likely to be beneficial. This includes training to support decisions about how to intervene, and when to observe during child-initiated play.
The security of the evidence around play-based learning is rated as very low. 22 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. The low number of studies means that it is not possible to explore systematically how different features of the studies are linked with different effects.
An additional threat to the security of the evidence is that a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers – typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
In some studies, play is only one part of a broader program. When there are many parts to a program, it makes it difficult to establish the impact of play alone. Even though it may be challenging to evaluate such multi-component interventions, this is an important area for further research. More can be done to understand the impacts of various play-based approaches to support the learning and development of young children.
Low security of evidence is not the same as evidence of no impact. Many approaches may have low evidence, not because they are ineffective but because high quality research has not yet taken place.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.