4 Reasons to Stop Play-Based Learning – Use Directed Play Instead

Stop Play-Based Learning

Play-based learning has many benefits, but are the long-term effects worth it? Let’s discuss.

Stop Play-Based Learning

Why Should We Stop Play-Based Learning?

When I hear a school focuses on play-based learning, I cringe. When I hear someone tell me they are not an “academic” school, I involuntarily roll my eyes. Let me tell you why.

Play-based learning is an integral part of early childhood development, encompassing a wide range of activities that promote exploration, discovery, and creativity. It involves engaging children in play experiences that are both enjoyable and educational, allowing them to learn and develop essential skills in a natural and holistic way.

When done correctly, play-based learning recognizes the inherent curiosity and need for self-expression that children possess, providing them with opportunities to explore their interests and engage with the world around them.

The key word is “correctly”. We are not talking about free play. Often – if not most of the time, when I hear someone say they are play-based, they mean teachers sit at the table talking to each other while the kids play amongst themselves.

What is Play-Based Learning?

Stop Play-Based Learning - Directed play is better.

Play-based learning is a pedagogy that supports children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. Through play, children can develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, creativity, and resilience.

They learn how to navigate social interactions, negotiate conflicts, share resources, and collaborate with others. Play also helps children develop fine motor skills as they manipulate objects and engage in various sensory experiences.

What are the Benefits of Play-based Learning?

Stop Play-Based Learning - But play is important, so what do you do?

1 Imagination & Creativity

One of the primary reasons why play-based learning is so crucial for early childhood development is its ability to foster imagination and creativity. When children engage in imaginative play, they are given the freedom to explore new ideas, experiment with different scenarios, and express themselves in unique ways.

This process encourages the development of creative thinking skills that can be applied across various aspects of life.

During play, children often create imaginary worlds and characters, allowing them to tap into their imagination and think outside the box. They have the opportunity to invent stories, solve problems within these narratives, and come up with innovative solutions.

This type of open-ended play nurtures their creativity by encouraging them to think beyond the boundaries of reality.

2 Self-Expression

Furthermore, play-based learning also promotes self-expression. Through various forms of play such as drawing, painting, building with blocks or even role-playing, children are able to communicate their thoughts and emotions effectively.

This helps them develop a sense of identity and confidence in expressing themselves creatively.

Stop Play-Based Learning - An example of directed play.

3 Developing Problem-Solving Skills through Play

In addition to fostering creativity, play-based learning is instrumental in developing problem-solving skills in children. As they encounter challenges during playtime – whether it’s building a tower with blocks or navigating through an obstacle course – they learn how to think critically and find solutions independently.

This process allows them to become more confident in their abilities to overcome obstacles in other areas of life.

Through play, children learn how to analyze situations from different perspectives and come up with strategies to overcome obstacles. For example, when building structures with blocks or constructing puzzles during playtime, they have to think logically and plan ahead in order to achieve their desired outcome.

It enhances their critical thinking abilities and teaches them to approach problems with a systematic mindset.

4 Resilience and Adaptability

Moreover, play-based learning also promotes resilience and adaptability. Children are encouraged to experiment, take risks, and learn from their mistakes during play. They learn that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process and that they can overcome challenges through perseverance.

It builds their resilience and teaches them to adapt to new situations, which are vital skills for problem-solving in real-world scenarios.

By engaging in play-based learning, children not only have fun but also develop essential qualities such as creativity, critical thinking, resilience, and adaptability. These skills serve as a strong foundation for their future academic success and overall well-being.

Addressing Common Criticisms

Stop Play-Based Learning - Engage with children when they play instead.

While play-based learning has gained popularity among educators and parents, there are still some common criticisms that need to be addressed. Here are a few:

1 Lack of Academic Focus

One common criticism of play-based learning is that it does not prioritize academic subjects and may not adequately prepare children for future academic success. I think the biggest problem is that many facilities use play-based learning as a way to have “free play” all day long. With free-play, children will not learn the skills they need for academic success.

2 Perceived Lack of Structure

Another criticism often leveled against play-based learning is the perceived lack of structure. Some argue that without clear guidelines or rules, children may struggle to navigate their learning experiences effectively.

3 Lack of School Preparedness

Another common criticism of play-based learning is that it may not adequately prepare children for formal schooling. Again, allowing children to play with no guidance or interaction from adults will not result in school preparedness.

You Should Be Doing Directed Play or Guided Play Instead

Stop Play-Based Learning - Directed play has support and involvement with adults who help guide them.

What is Directed Play?

Directed play or guided play refers to play experiences that are intentionally designed by educators to support specific learning goals. While children have the freedom to explore and make choices during play, educators provide guidance and scaffolding to ensure that learning objectives are met.

This approach strikes a balance between structure and freedom, allowing children to develop their problem-solving skills while still benefiting from educational guidance. This is what I learned in Japan and exactly how I learned to teach.

In fact, research has shown that guided play can lead to better learning outcomes compared to highly structured activities. A study conducted by researchers at Temple University found that preschoolers who engaged in guided play activities demonstrated higher levels of cognitive flexibility and creativity compared to those who participated in adult-led or free play activities.

These findings suggest that providing a certain level of structure within play-based learning environments can enhance children’s cognitive development and foster their creativity.

The Role of Educators

Stop Play-Based Learning - Use Guided Play

Educators play a crucial role in creating a supportive play-based learning environment and facilitating learning through play. They are instrumental in guiding children’s exploration and ensuring that they derive maximum benefits from their play experiences.

1 Create An Open-Ended Play Space

Creating a supportive play-based learning environment involves setting up the physical space in a way that encourages open-ended guided play. Educators can arrange the classroom with different centers or areas for various types of play, such as a block area, art corner, or dramatic play center. These designated spaces provide children with opportunities to engage in different types of play and explore their interests.

2 Create a Safe Place to Play

In addition to the physical environment, educators also create an emotional climate that supports directed play-based learning. They foster positive relationships with each child, building trust and creating a safe space where children feel comfortable expressing themselves freely. By establishing clear rules and expectations, educators ensure that all children have equal opportunities to participate and learn through play.

Stop Play-Based Learning - Engage with children during play.

3 Engage with Children During Play

Facilitating learning through play requires educators to actively engage with children during their play experiences. Instead of simply observing, educators become co-players and collaborators, joining in on the fun while providing guidance when needed. They ask open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving skills. For example, if children are building structures with blocks, educators might ask them how they plan to make their tower taller or what materials they could use to add stability.

4 Track Progress

Furthermore, educators document children’s learning during play by taking notes or capturing photos/videos. This documentation helps track each child’s progress over time and provides valuable insights into their development. It also enables educators to share observations with parents/guardians during parent-teacher conferences or informal meetings, fostering collaboration between home and school.

5 Active Engagement with Teachers

By actively participating in children’s play experiences, educators demonstrate the value they place on guided play-based learning. They model curiosity, creativity, and enthusiasm for exploration, inspiring children to do the same. Through their guidance and support, educators empower children to take ownership of their learning journey while developing essential skills such as problem-solving, communication, and collaboration.

Role of Parents in Directed Play

Stop Play-Based Learning - Use Directed Play Instead

It is important for parents and educators to recognize the value of guided play-based learning and incorporate it into children’s daily routines. By providing opportunities for open-ended play, setting up stimulating environments, and encouraging children to take the lead in their own learning experiences, we can support their natural curiosity and love for exploration.

Despite some common criticisms of play-based learning, such as concerns about academic readiness or lack of structure, research has consistently shown its positive impact on children’s overall development, when the adults prepare the play environment.

Guided play-based learning not only prepares children academically but also equips them with essential life skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, and resilience.

Educators play a crucial role in facilitating play-based learning experiences. By creating a supportive and inclusive classroom environment where play is valued and encouraged, educators can guide children through meaningful play experiences that promote growth across various domains.

They can observe children’s interests and provide appropriate materials and resources that stimulate their curiosity while promoting skill development.

Conclusion: Guided Play, Not Free Play

Stop Play-Based Learning - Guided Play is like coaching sports.

Guided play-based learning is a powerful tool that holds immense benefits for children’s development. It allows them to learn in a way that feels natural to them while fostering important skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. As parents and educators, let us embrace the power of play and create environments where our children can thrive through joyful exploration and discovery.

If you’re in need of coaching, please check out my new coaching page! I coach & mentor teachers and parents, and I’d love to help you!
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Valerie de la Rosa


I am an educator with almost 15 years of experience teaching in Japan, Hawaii, and in Los Angeles. My goal is to change education and the way we view literacy instruction in America.

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