Play-based learning is used a lot in the educational community, especially in the early childhood years. But what exactly does it mean? There’s no doubt that children need time to just be children and to play without boundaries or expectations. However, play can also be guided by the teacher in meaningful ways.

This is where purposeful play comes into the picture. The book aptly titled Purposeful Play, by Kristine Mraz, Alison Porcelli, and Cheryl Tyler, discusses the importance of play and how it can be intentionally used to teach students a range of subjects and skills.

This deliberately planned play can include multiple subjects or skills and can either target them individually or take an integrated studies approach and cover multiple concepts at once. This approach harmonizes traditionally distinct subjects into one holistic learning experience.

A Natural Fit for Different Ideas

When looking at these two concepts separately, their integration may not immediately come to mind, but once the connection is made, it’s hard not to think of one without the other. For example, imagine observing students in a pre-K classroom busily playing in the imaginative play area. To the untrained eye, it might seem like they are simply playing house. However, using a purposeful play/integrated studies lens, you can see that a lot of learning is taking place.

Imaginative play draws on many pre-literacy and simple mathematical concepts such as oral communication, listening skills, and storytelling, as well as counting, addition, and subtraction. Not to mention all of the social and emotional learning that is happening, like problem-solving, teamwork, flexibility, and communication.

Now imagine how much more learning could happen if the teacher added a few inspirational materials that helped young children connect to current learning or gave them a prompt to help structure their play.

Keys to Successful Implementation in the Classroom

The key to successfully implementing play that promotes integrated studies is to clarify the intention behind the learning. What skills or concepts are the children meant to be learning? Planning and structure become important. Be well prepared and intentional in planning, but allow for flexibility and inspiration.

It’s important for all learning, even play based, to start with explicit instruction. Tell students what they’re learning. Provide them with the knowledge and tools to let them explore these concepts independently. One way to do this is to begin with large group instruction. Start with something that’s going to excite the learners and get them thinking. This can be a photo, video, song, or object that is directly related to the skill or skills being taught. Once their curious minds turn on, explicitly state the teaching point. Then model it, showing the skill in action. Afterward, allow some time for the students to explore it as a group through intentionally designed play opportunities.

In my pre-K class, to introduce our unit on measurement and comparing measurements, I put on a simple puppet show of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” to get my students excited. (Using literature doesn’t only have to be for reading and writing lessons.) During my story, I made certain to point out and show a visual of the specific vocabulary I wanted my students to learn, such as big, medium, and small, and comparisons like bigger than and smaller than. As a group, we then practiced comparing different items and using the vocabulary I had just introduced to the class. I made certain to place items of all different sizes, such as bowls (just like in the story), where the children could re-create the story or a story of their own using the vocabulary I taught.

You might set up centers with multipurpose play materials or manipulatives like a tinker tray or loose parts where students can demonstrate multiple skills, including fine motor, ordering or classifying objects, letter formation, or artistic creativity. If children have more freedom to choose which area of the classroom they would like to play in, it’s important to have materials or objects relating to learning in each area.

I’ve stocked the imaginative play area with different sizes of felt and other fabrics for different purposes. For example, we begin our year with the “Who We Are” unit. This unit discusses different types of families, cultures (I work in international schools), and identities. The purpose of the fabrics for this unit is for the children to explore traditional clothing unique to their culture; the ways in which gender or traditional family roles can be represented through clothing and how we can challenge that; and how they can use the fabric to create walls, doors, and windows for their “house” (bringing math and engineering into the equation).

Other natural materials can be collected and added to your tinker tray. This tray can be used when learning about classification, such as sorting all of the pebbles, leaves, and buttons into separate groups. It can be used to discuss shapes or simple addition and subtraction, or it can be used to create art related to your topic. If you place this tray in your imaginative play area, students can use it to create dinners (math comes in here when figuring out how much they might need), build an item for their house, or create simple instruments such as tools used at a doctor’s visit (science skills can be used here).

How Do You Know Your Students Are Learning?

Now that students are playing meaningfully and integrating different skills and subjects, how do you know they are learning the concepts you want them to know? As is the case with more traditional subjects, creating a comprehensive rubric is important. You can add and take away as necessary depending on what standards need to be assessed. With your intention in mind, observe your students in action. With parental or guardian permission, take pictures, shoot videos, and get direct quotes from the children as they’re playing. This is the hard evidence needed when cross-checking your rubric. 

Don’t forget to scaffold learning. Differentiation is crucial, so sit with students one-on-one or in small groups to get a sense of what they know and how they can be supported, whether that is to set challenging goals or to reinforce past and present concepts.

Additional Resources to Get You Started

To help ensure a successful play-based and integrated studies journey, make sure your classroom is stocked with natural and multipurpose materials. These don’t have to be expensive; they can simply be recycled materials or items found at home or outdoors.

A fun activity at the beginning of the school year is to go on a walk around campus to collect leaves, sticks, and stones for the children to use in the classroom. Be sure to include sensory materials like sand or homemade play dough and art supplies. Add anything you feel will enhance learning while students are hard at play.

Here’s a list of other resources that are helpful:

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