Many children learn best when they’re having fun, which is why play based learning has such an important role in childcare and early childhood education these days. Straying from the traditional approach, a high quality play based program lets children lead the way, while a teacher encourages children’s learning, is fast gaining traction. 

Interested to know how it could help your child’s development? Find out more about what play based learning is, how it is used by childcare centres and how dramatic play increases a child’s development.

What is a play based approach to learning?

A play based approach involves educators to let children take the lead in what they do with their time. Most types of play teach children something — whether it’s improving their movement, communication, imagination, social skills or something else.

Best of all, because the activities are chosen by the kids, you can be assured that it’s something they’ll be interested in so their focus won’t wander too quickly.

Because children engage better in play based learning, it’s a good stepping stone in early years to being engaged in more formal styles of education and academic learning later in life.

Child engaging in play based learning

What is the difference between play and play based learning?

A play based program sounds a bit too good to be true, but what’s the difference between just play and play based learning?

Normally, it’s the involvement of an adult. While a child may pick the activity, an educator will help guide it. So if the kids want to throw a ball around, the adult might add in a target so they can work on accuracy and gross motor skills. Children who want to play make believe, but the teacher might add in scenarios for the kids to workshop.

With each suggestion, the educator has a goal in mind, directing the children play into an activity where they can learn and develop.

Key elements of play based learning

A play based program to aid learning generally includes activities that meet a few factors. The most important of these are:

  • Self-direction
  • Unstructured exploration
  • Fun
  • Process-oriented

By combining these factors, children learn through play without the feeling of boredom or worry that their attention spans will falter.


For play based learning programs to work, the child must have the choice of whether they play, how they play and how long they’ll be involved. Because they’re following elements of their own interests, it’s more likely they’ll stick with it for longer. With child initiated play, you’ll find kids engage actively and develop their cognitive skills more quickly. 

While educators may suggest games or have input into how things are done, the kids must have free reign over their involvement. This helps to build independence and engagement, as they don’t feel like they’re being forced into doing anything in particular.

Unstructured exploration

While educators may use their experience to direct certain games or activities, there must be some elements that are unstructured that allow the kids to use their imagination in play based programs. When you make things too structured or put in too many rules, it limits what a child can do, and what they can learn.

When play based programs give children the freedom to choose, they’ll build on stories, encourage problem solving skills and end up with more time spent learning in their early childhood.


It goes without saying that play based learning should be fun. Without the element of fun, kids are unlikely to stay engrossed in the activity for long and if they’re not engaged, they’re not learning. By letting children organise activities, you’ll see they have a more positive attitude as the play stimulates them and they’ll be naturally motivated to join in. 

Of course, there may be other emotions involved. Whether it’s frustration, confusion or something else, there are likely to be obstacles in the games. The important thing is that those feelings aren’t felt too long, and the kids are able to achieve their goals along the way.


So although we want the children to be learning in their early childhood, it has to be a wide area of learning rather than a particular goal.

The only goal of play based learning is that the children enjoy the process. There shouldn’t be a specific lesson or end goal in mind. Giving children the freedom to choose how things develop creates better learning outcomes in the long run – where play helps children.

Fun in play based learning

The role of play based learning in childcare and early learning

Now that we know how to set up play based learning activities, the next thing we need to know is why to use these techniques in early childhood and childcare centres. Some of the key benefits of play based learning include:

  • Language development
  • Social and emotional skills
  • Creativity
  • Positive learning attitude
  • Motor skills
  • Positive relationships

A child might not get all of these benefits from one activity, but over time you should see developments in multiple spaces.

Language development

Communication is a vital part of many play based activities. During games, children will talk with each other to direct activities and overcome challenges. Even solo play, where a child has a doll or toy, can improve language skills as a child talks to (and sometimes for) their toy.

Educators will be on hand to assist by asking about what’s happening, introducing new vocabulary to situations and encouraging children to work together on projects which can involve literacy concepts and other teacher supported learning practices.

Social and emotional skills

A big part of play based activities is children playing together, developing friendships, social skills and their emotional capability.

There will be hiccups along the way — when one child gets a favoured toy or it gets tricky to share fairly — but coming up against these storms is the only way for children to learn to navigate these waters.

Play therapy often builds on these skills by getting children to role play certain scenarios, helping them develop empathy and learning to see things from other perspectives.


Creativity is hugely beneficial in childhood. Often, it’s been best seen (and developed) by giving a child free rein of what they do, in which a play based program builds upon. This creative streak can be developed in different ways — with a paintbrush in hand, by telling stories or through dance.

Creative play and games with elements of make believe give many avenues to create something new while sometimes giving children some basic items can end up with them creating something magical. 

Positive learning attitude

Not all children thrive at school because they haven’t found learning to be enjoyable. They may struggle to gain mastery in any particular areas and you’ll see children’s learning falter. But by introducing kids to play based learning, they find enjoyment in these learning processes whilst also developing their skills. This leads to longer, more engaging sessions where educators can begin to add in extra elements of learning.

This can help to develop a positive learning attitude and a lifelong love of knowledge. In fact, many adults will find that they get benefits from play based learning too, which can reignite their passion for education.

Motor skills

A play based curriculum can also help develop both gross and fine motor skills.

Different activities will be promoting focus on different motor skills. Athletic and active play (like running, climbing, throwing and balancing) will help develop strength, mobility and balance.

Fine motor skills include more detailed oriented pursuits. Everything from drawing and painting to playing with blocks, dolls or action figures can help to develop these.

Positive relationships

Young children and toddlers find it easy to make friends while playing which is another benefit of this type of learning. By playing together, they’ll become comfortable with each other, communicate more often and develop friendships, often for life.

A play based classroom, or play based environments in general, is also an opportunity for children to build bonds with their educators. Because of the fun and enjoyable nature of these activities, children will be at ease and there won’t be any aspects of stress or frustration. Perfect for letting children develop strong bonds in the early years of education and to develop positive attitudes towards childcare. 

positive relationships through play based learning

What are the challenges of play based learning?

Although there are many benefits to play based learning, it’s not without its challenges.

Because children are given a lot of freedom, they might not learn as much as they would in other scenarios. You may find some children repeatedly go to the same tasks, limiting their exposure to some areas of development. Other shy children might have their experiences minimised by kids with more self confidence or feel uncomfortable in activities with large groups. This is where educators have to problem solve and find ways of applying knowledge from their training to keep all of their children engaged. 

Of course, although many skills can grow through play based learning, others are better taught through more academic means.

Finding a childcare with play based learning

Understanding the advantages of play based learning is just one step in knowing how to choose a childcare option. Sign up for a free Space account to compare centres near you and find the best option for your family. Be sure to book a tour and ask the educators about their approach to learning.

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