two students using a laptop to play games

What is the importance of learning through play in education?

Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.”

Psychologist Abraham Maslow knew the importance of play all too well in his research, and as an educator, you’ve likely heard it before, too. But what’s the hard evidence, and how can you incorporate meaningful play into your curricula?

Well, you’re about to find out! In this post, we’ll look at 10 ways students today are learning through play. Stick around until the end for some extra fun examples!

Developing meaningful play in the classroom

It helps to look at examples of how play has been incorporated successfully in an educational setting.

Goddard and Montessori are two very pertinent names when it comes to learning through play, but these schools also emphasize steps educators should take to initiate meaningful play, and not just play for pure entertainment.

The Goddard School is a private preschool and daycare focused on preparing students for school, their future careers, and life in general.

The Goddard school of thought views powerful play as the following:

  • Customized based on students’ interests
  • Fun and hands-on
  • Nurturing and promotes a passion for learning
  • An easy-to-follow routine that includes exploration

The second prominent school of thought with regard to play was established by Marie Montesorri, who is known for emphasizing the importance of children’s independence in education. Montessori schools use play that is:

  • Imaginative and up to interpretation
  • Self directed
  • Relaxed, rather than stressful or competitive
  • Centered around the process rather than the outcome

As you can see, both schools support self-directed learners and voluntary play.

Furthermore, thee Early Childhood News for Teachers states that play influences communication, cognitive function, and social relationships, so it’s definitely not something to overlook, even in an educational setting.

Still wondering how a kid playing on the school playground or playing with blocks learns? Activities like these develop motor, life, and problem-solving skills. 

kid playing an old school arcade game
Photo: Unsplash

10 ways students are learning through play

1. Communication

We live in a world where acronyms and emoji reign supreme. Now more than ever, we need to nurture students’ communication, and what better way to do so than through play?

It’s no mystery that playing fosters language since cooperative play encourages kids to talk with one another and to solve problems together.

The Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute describes the importance of talking about objects, engaging in activities that interest children, describing experiences, and using music and hand gestures to encourage language development.

Newsflash: You can make all of these improvements through play.

Let’s also throw in this study, which found that a play-based curriculum positively influences grammar!

2. Listening skills

Adjunct professor Angie Stratton, M.A.Ed, notes that play not only initiates communication and language but also facilitates listening. She uses the example of kids playing in a kitchen center where they have access to measuring cups, a sink, and fake food. She notes that kids in this area have to listen to one another and respond appropriately to successfully complete a given task as a group.

For example, if two students want to use the sink, they need to communicate their intent, listen to each other, and respond accordingly to avoid any conflict. Spelling out all of those steps may seem silly to you as an adult because you’ve already developed these skills through your social interactions, and conflict resolution has become second-nature to you. But your students are still learning!

3. Social skills

Have you ever had your students build a tower, perform a skit, or create an art project together? These are all examples of social play. Social play helps kids develop interpersonal relationships, build on that communication that we keep talking about, and learn the nuances of interacting with different personalities.

Building a tower may seem trivial at surface value, but during the process, students must resolve conflicts, brainstorm ideas, communicate their ideas to others, make compromises, and provide one another with positive (or constructive) feedback. All of these skills carry over to their adult life.

4. Cognitive skills

Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, notes that play positively affects your brain because it changes your neurons. He emphasizes that play develops the prefrontal cortex, which leads to greater executive control. Additionally, according to Pellis, free play allows kids to solve problems on their own and develop social skills.

And let’s not forget about well-known constructivist theorists like Jean Piaget, who emphasized the need for first-hand experiences and active learning to nurture cognitive development.

In short, play develops mental connections in your student’s growing brain — so start building that tower!

5. Physical skills

There’s a reason why schools integrate physical education and recess. Play is strenuous — mentally and physically.

That game of kickball gets you running, catching, kicking, and laughing. And while building a block tower isn’t exactly a sports game, it does involve standing, walking, and manipulating the world around you. In a sense, it’s just as valuable as engaging in sports. Plus, the game offers far more opportunities for movement than sitting at a desk, so it’s better than nothing!

6. Motivation

It’s old news that motivated students do more. Integrating play into your curriculum increases intrinsic motivation, according to experts like the Minnesota Children’s Museum.

Would you rather listen to a lecture on DNA or play with marshmallows and toothpicks to create your own DNA models?

Like most students, I prefer the latter.

7. Spatial ability

Play encourages kids to interact with their surroundings and improves their spatial abilities.

Take the popular game of tag. Children must be aware of distance and the world around them to avoid hearing the dreaded “You’re it!” They also must avoid obstacles, such as playground equipment and anything else in their way, as they navigate the playground.

Clearly, there’s a lot more learning in a simple game of tag than most people realize!

8. Predictability

We’re not talking about ESP here — play establishes predictable patterns. In the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Susan Fitzpatrick explores the concept of timing in play. She discusses the positive impact of games like “Double Dutch,” in which children need to discover a predictable pattern to jump successfully.

Think of even simpler activities, like throwing a pebble into the water and noticing the rippling effects. Discovering the quality of predictability helps us to understand the patterns in our world and can be learned through meaningful play.

9. Reflection

Play encourages students to link their experiences to the game’s objectives and receive guidance from those with more experience. Reflection is an important part of memory — students who associate games with your lectures are more likely to retain that information later on, like when they need it for a test. Best of all, games offer a care-free, low-stakes context for learning from mistakes and feedback.

10. Connecting experiences

There’s a reason why the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa, Florida, has life-inspired scenes like grocery stores, farms, and boats. The institute is all about learning through play and believes that kids will make connections to these real-life experiences.

Simulations, like those above, have made a big name in education. In these activities, the teacher serves as a facilitator and provides appropriate environments that nurture play.

boy playing with legos and looking at instructions
Photo: Unsplash

A few thoughts on how to integrate meaningful play

As a teacher or administrator, you may find it difficult to stop and play because the classroom is your workplace. But as we saw above, play is integral to developing the minds of our students.

Here are some things for educators to keep in mind during play:

  • Set clear expectations before play.
  • Provide appropriate materials.
  • Observe the play to keep it safe.
  • Ask questions and mediate when needed, but try to give students space.

Need a few examples of play-based activities to get you started? Here are a few!


Lego is so much more than tiny plastic blocks. Creating with Lego requires construction, geometry, and visualization skills. This is a no-prep STEM toy that kids love to play with. Plus, their creations will astound you!

Video games

Certain video games don’t belong in the classroom or even a young student’s home, but age-appropriate, educational video games can make a world of difference.

The power of gamification is undeniable — video games can create highly engaging, vibrant, and life-like worlds that allow students to learn decision-making, collaboration, and problem-solving skills.

Need some inspiration for how to use video games in the classroom? Check out Classcraft’s getting started guide.

Simulation toys

This is a blanket term for all those toys that simulate real life — fake kitchens, plastic vegetables, toy tools, and much more.

Let’s not forget the classics: dress-up toys like chefs, firefighters, police officers, and even superheroes.

Playing pretend with these objects prepares the little ones for real-life experiences.

Playgrounds and obstacles

Playgrounds epitomize play. Tell your students to “Go play,” and you’ll find them running gleefully for the swings and slides behind your school.

Playgrounds offer the opportunity for discovery, exercise, problem-solving, and much more!

Don’t have access to a playground? Offer your kids the (safe) materials to create one of their own! They’ll be thrilled to put together an obstacle course.

Sand, water, slime, and other tactile substances

There’s a reason why sandboxes have stuck around. They allow students to play with their tactile senses as well as have fun with sand, water, slime, and other means of learning through play.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss the sandbox — kids can learn about mathematical concepts like volume and density just by playing with sand and building things with their own hands.

So how are kids learning through play? 

The answer is quite clear! Play has an important role in the classroom and shouldn’t be overlooked. As educators, we definitely need to offer more opportunities for students to play amid all the traditional learning they’re engaged in. But in a world of standardized tests and daily interruptions, this is easier said than done and likely won’t happen overnight.

Administrators and teachers need to be on the same page when it comes to play in the classroom. See how Classcraft can help here.

Photo: Google Edu

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