What Is Purposeful Play Based Learning in Pre-K and Kindergarten? - The Cream City Teacher (2024)

“What is play based learning?” is a question that does not have an easy, straight-forward answer. An even more complicated question is, “What is play?” I know, I know! I totally get it. There are lots of ideas and opinions around these topics. In fact, I hesitated to even address the questions.

But I am hopeful that I can bring a different perspective to you. Listen up, Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers! Because I want to lift a weight off of your shoulders that you may not have even known was holding you down.

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When I was hired at my current school, it meant switching grade levels. It also meant learning an instructional approach that I was not as familiar with: play based learning. As I read professional learning books, perused websites, and watched videos, I was overwhelmed. There were too many contrasting ideas around play based learning and lots of strong opinions that intimidated me.

I was particularly startled when I saw young children climbing to the tops of trees (literally) and covered head to toe in mud. I thought, “Is this what my students must do in order for our learning space to be considered play focused?” Well, now I know that the short answer is “Nope!”

You might be nodding your head right now. Perhaps you are thinking about how my story sounds similar to your own. Or maybe you love the idea of building an outdoor child-centered play space for your students, but you are not there yet. Or perhaps you are just trying to take a more playful approach in our classroom, either by choice or because you are being directed by your administration.

Regardless of why you are here reading this blog post, my goal is to help you build confidence in yourself to move forward on your play based learning journey.

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What Is Play?

Defining Play

There are countless beliefs and viewpoints around play. The difficulty with forming a definition is that almost anything can be referred to as play if it meets certain criteria. Many researchers have created their own explanations and designed their own sets of criteria.

My very favorite definition that I continually come back to comes from Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler. In their book, Purposeful Play, the authors share that “something is play if you have chosen to do it, have the capacity to pretend and change as you go, and enjoy it for the most part.” The authors also emphasize that play is intensely personal.

How Is Play Personal?

Think about people in your own life through the lens of this definition. You might consider your students, family members, or friends.

When I think of my son creating swords out of paper and acting out scenarios, he is certainly engaging in a playful, voluntary, and joyful activity. The activity meets the criteria for play. The same goes for my husband when he plays video games. The activity is his choice, my husband pretends that he is this warrior soldier that navigates a map and regularly changes up his strategy, and of course he enjoys hanging out with his buddies online.

On the other hand, you will not find me playing with paper swords or playing video games. When I have free time, typically I choose to lay on my couch and read. Is this play for me? Absolutely! I choose to read, imagine characters in my head, and change up my predictions. And of course, I certainly love to read. What about YOU? What playful activity do you enjoy? Does it meet Mraz, Porcelli, and Tyler’s criteria?

The point of these examples is that we (the teachers) do not get to decide which activities qualify as play and which do not qualify as play for our students. Our students get to make that choice.

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What Is Play Based Learning?

Defining Play Based Learning

Now that we have addressed the idea of play, we can move on to play based learning. As you have likely guessed by now, much like the ideas around play, there is no end to the definitions of play based learning.

With that being said, here is the gist: play based learning is an educational approach that prioritizes play as a critical method for learning and growth in children.

Purposeful Play Based Learning in Pre-K and Kindergarten

There is a misunderstanding out there that play based classrooms are a free-for-all environment where students hop from this activity to that activity leaving a mess in their wake, while the teacher puts out fires all day long. However, we know that this thought process is just not true. High-quality play based classrooms are intentional and well-designed learning environments. Teachers and students co-construct purposeful play experiences that lead to deep learning for children.

What Does a Play Based Classroom Look Like?

Every play based learning environment looks different depending on countless variables, including classroom size, student population, available resources and materials, program or district expectations, student interests, teacher beliefs and styles, and so on. With that being said, it would be typical to see children engaging in any of the following activities in a play based kindergarten, pre-k, or preschool classroom:

  • assembling a farm-themed floor puzzle
  • stacking 3D shapes based on a task card
  • building classmates’ names with letter magnets
  • painting a picture of their home
  • recreating the Titanic ship out of recyclable materials
  • inventing a toy for their cat
  • listening to and following along in the book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  • replicating a rainy cloud with shaving cream and water
  • hunting for numbers hidden around the classroom
  • writing love letters to their family members
  • dressing as astronauts and flying spaceships
  • acting out a magical story with puppets
  • testing out a marble track
  • engineering bridges with wooden blocks
  • investigating the characteristics of a pumpkin

The ideas above are a snippet of a list that could just go on and on. Now you might be wondering, “So what are the students learning in these scenarios?” Through experiences like these, students are exploring, developing, and learning . . .

  • executive functioning skills, including planning, flexibility, and attention.
  • spatial awareness.
  • collaboration and teamwork.
  • perseverance and stamina.
  • foundational literacy and math skills.
  • fine motor skills.
  • creativity and imagination.
  • curiosity and wonder.
  • scientific understandings.

Think about what more could be added to this list. I love this video because it is a great example of what purposeful play can look and sound like. Be sure to push that play button!

What Does a Play Based Classroom Sound Like?

If you step into a play based kindergarten, pre-k, or preschool classroom again and this time close your eyes, you might hear the children . . .

  • asking questions about the head of a sunflower.
  • describing what the water beads in the sensory table feel like.
  • role-playing a cashier and customer in a grocery store.
  • retelling The Gruffalo with a felt board and felt story pieces.
  • negotiating who gets to play with the firetruck and for how long.
  • discussing a plan for the city they want to build with foam blocks.
  • acting out scenes from their home lives in the theater.
  • singing songs while playing musical instruments.
  • explaining the materials and process they used to create a bracelet for their mom.
  • debating whose Lego tower is the tallest.

The sweet sounds of a play based classroom are music to the ears. While our students are cute and often make us giggle with what comes out their mouths, we teachers know that their comments and conversations are multilayered. So what are children exploring, developing, and learning in these examples?

  • social skills
  • speech and language acquisition
  • communication skills
  • disposition to learn
  • understanding of similarities and differences among people
  • ability to problem-solve
  • listening competencies

Once again, we could continue to add to this list. What more would you suggest?

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How Can Teachers Support Learning Through Play?

If you are wondering exactly HOW you can increase opportunities in which your students play to learn, I have you covered! Check out my blog post, How Can Pre-K and Kindergarten Teachers Support Learning Through Play? In that post, I share actionable strategies and ideas to move your students toward even more purposeful play.

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Want to Learn More About Play Based Learning?

Just like any other professional learning, it is important and helpful to hear from many educators and professionals in our field. I have compiled a small collection of related articles and books that will continue to guide you toward a deeper understanding of play based learning. Consider checking them out!

Professional Articles on Play

Professional Books on Play

Disclosure: The four links immediately above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission, if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.

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Closing Thoughts

Words of Encouragement

No matter if this is your 1st year or your 21st year in the classroom, you are on a play based learning JOURNEY! In other words, there will always be room for growth and the freedom to change. So learn from others in this awesome field of early education, but do not compare yourself to other teachers, especially those who have walked the path farther and longer than you. As I often like to say, you do you!

Pass It On

My hope is that reading about my personal experience and perspective has lifted a weight off of your shoulders that perhaps you did not know was there. If you know another educator who would benefit from reading this blog post, I encourage you to pass the blog post link on to them.

You can also quickly and easily save this post on Pinterest, but clicking on the pink “Pin!” button that pops up whenever you hover over any of the images in this post. When you do this, your Pinterest followers may see the post as well. Let’s work together to encourage and support one another throughout our play based learning journeys!

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A FREEBIE to Help You on Your Journey

If you have made it all the way to the end of this blog post, then you are serious about purposeful play in your preschool, pre-k, or kindergarten classroom. YAY FOR YOU! In this case, you will want to snag the free resource that I am offering! It is a documentation template that you can use to quickly and easily record what you see and hear as you observe your students at play.


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Are you interested in learning how to write your own teacher blog posts? Check out this helpful article from The CEO Teacher – Kayse Morris: 7 Helpful Tips on How to Blog Like a Boss.

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Before we turn the page here, I have a few bonus links to share with you!

What Is Purposeful Play Based Learning in Pre-K and Kindergarten? - The Cream City Teacher (2024)
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