May 25, 2021

Nancy Bailey: Play-Based Learning Isn’t Free Play and May Be Connected to Online Learning

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Nancy Bailey keeps a careful eye on education jargon, and she has spotted a trick some marketers are using with the term “play.” Reposted with permission.

The term play-based learning is increasingly used to reference play in school, especially during the past year. Sometimes it’s called purposeful play. Play-based learning is not the same as free play, even though sometimes it is described as such. It also might be used to transform classroom learning to screens.

It’s critical to understand the difference between play-based learning and free play.

One parent blogger says, The term ‘play-based learning’ now evokes in me a much different feeling than it once did. Something like nails on a chalkboard perhaps? Not because I don’t believe in children learning through play, no. But because it appears that the term has been hijacked.

Since No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards, play for kindergartens and some preschools has declined. Many teachers have felt pressured to remove classroom play kitchens and the toys children enjoyed. Kindergartens and some preschools have expected children to do more academic seatwork—school recess where play rules became increasingly rare.

A backlash has resulted. Much has been written about the importance of play in books and blogs. Now articles repeatedly highlight play-based learning.

Some consider play-based learning as a bridge between play and academics. There are times when play-based learning is needed to introduce children to new concepts. But teachers should not leave out free play.  

Free play involves a child or children being given the freedom to play. It’s unstructured. Children choose toys, blocks, dress-up clothes, or they get to choose what they want to play outdoors, the slide, swings, or a game, even a game they make up. If you’ve ever watched a young child play freely, you’ll recognize that it’s hard work and messy. Children are busy; they mix toys up and use their imaginations. Play helps children develop their cognitive development and much more.

Play-based learning is adult-directed. The teacher organizes the play for a student, and it will likely be aligned to a skill or standard that will be tested. Children may rotate to various stations and play with blocks or building materials set out for them to use, but it is designed to teach.

Screens may also be used, and this raises questions. Is play-based learning about transforming classrooms to online learning? The following study involved looking at how to make digital animation more interesting to children in play-based learning.

…this study found that digital play when considered from the perspective of the children and the teachers, needed to be examined in ways that took account of the full play-based program. The resultant digital profile of activities and practices embedded in the overall play-based program, is suggestive of new conditions for children’s development in play-based setting. However, more needs to be known because the fast-paced changing nature of technologies, with the continued development of apps and devices which afford better accessibility to younger children, will continue to change play-based programs. Consequently, researching the possibilities for children’s development within the evolving nature of digital childhoods will be an ongoing research need for some time to come (Fleer, 2018).

Edmentum, which is about digital and personalized learning, demonstrates what’s meant by play-based learning.

…while children are playing with blocks, a teacher can pose questions that encourage problem solving, prediction, and hypothesizing. The teacher can also bring the child’s awareness towards mathematics, science, and literacy concepts. How tall can this get? How many blocks do you need? Can you BLOW the house down? Who else does that? These simple questions elevate the simple stacking of blocks to application of learning. Through play like this, children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments.

Edmentum also includes gaming and gamification of online games as play-based learning.

The High/Scope Educational Research Foundation’s Educating Young Children describes well the freedom children have with free play and how adults fit into the picture (Hohmann & Weikart p. 210). It is a much different scenario than play-based learning.

Participating in children’s play is one way adults can demonstrate that they value and support children’s interests and intentions. When children are playing or starting to play, and are receptive to other players, adults can sometimes join them in a non-disruptive, respectful manner. They can do this by looking for natural play openings, joining children on their physical level, engaging in parallel play with children, playing as a partner, preferring one child to another, and suggesting new ideas within children’s ongoing play activities.   

In another study, how teachers approach play for children is on a continuum from free play to play-based learning (Pyle & Danniels, 2017).

…students engaged in 5 different types of play, situated along a continuum from child-directed to more teacher-directed. 

What’s important for preschoolers and kindergartners when there’s an effort to transform schooling to online learning, and students are returning to in-person schooling is always to question what the teacher, school administrators, or school boards mean by play or play-based learning. What does it involve?

Recognizing that free play is important to children is critical. At times play-based learning is also helpful. But adults micromanaging and organizing all play is a concern. Know what is meant by play-based learning. Make sure children really get time in school to dream and imagine and learn through free play.


Fleer, M.  (2018). Digital animation: New conditions for children’s development in play-based settings. British Journal of Educational Technology 49 (5) 274-289.

Hohmann, M & Weikart, D.P. (1995). Educating Young Children: Active Learning Practices for Preschool and Child Care Programs. Ypsilanti, Michigan: High/Scope Press.

Pyle, A. & Danniels, E. (2017). A Continuum of Play-Based Learning: The Role of the Teacher in Play-Based Pedagogy and the Fear of Hijacking Play. Early Education and Development 28 (3) 274–289.

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