About play-based learning: Discussion with Dr Stef Esterhuizen

Name of Scholar / Expert:

Dr Stef Esterhuizen

Who is Dr Stef Esterhuizen? 

I am a Senior Lecturer at the North-West University, where I act as Programme Leader of the Foundation Phase / Early Childhood Development and Education.

I had 20 years teaching experience before commencing my career at the NWU in 2005. I lecture undergraduate students and am study leader for post-graduate students. I participate in several national and international conferences and published chapters in various books. I consider myself as a life-long learner and attend and complete various workshops and courses, among others, Thinking Maps (David Hyerle), Habits of Mind (James Anderson), Six Bricks (Bent Hutcheson, Care for Education), Innovative teaching strategies (ADS), Theories of Potential (Prof Deborah Eyre), etc.

I was involved in research projects such as Schools as Thinking Communities (Prof Mary Grosser) and High Performance Learning (Prof Mary Grosser and Prof Mirna Nel). Currently I am involved in the Bafenyi Project: Early Childhood Care and Education: the holistic development of young children (Prof Mariette Koen), where play-based learning is one of the focus points.

I intensely believe that all children can achieve their maximum potential through apposite instruction that enhances cognitive and critical thinking skills. My research interest is the improvement of teaching and learning practices of prospective teachers and care-givers to enhance cognitive development in children from birth to 9 years. I strongly believe that this could be attained by learning through play from a very young age

What is Play-based learning and how can it enhance better thinking and learning?

In Figure 1 a chaotic scene, according to the principal and parent, awaits them. Meanwhile, the teacher knows exactly what she is doing.

 Figure 1 depicts a classroom where play-based learning takes place. (Picture from unknown source. Adapted from challenges2013.weebly.com. Date of access 18 Nov 2019).

What is play?

In order to understand play-based learning, we firstly have to define play. According to various theorists and researchers, the definition of play is as follows (Burgemeester, 2019; Charlesworth, 2014:53 – 55; Excell & Linington,2015:191; UKEssays, 2018; UNICEF, 2018):

“Play is a spontaneous, creative, natural, biological and highly enjoyable action that both humans and animals engage in and is significant in the way learning takes place.”

The benefits of play are enormous (Burgemeester, 2019; Charlesworth, 2014: 35 – 55; Excell & Linington,2015:191; UKEssays, 2018; UNICEF, 2018):

  • play is regarded as the highest level of child development, because of its spontaneous nature of thought and feeling (Froëbel);
  • children’s learning evolves naturally through play and their knowledge and thinking is extended through play;
  • play and kinaesthetic movements establish complex neural pathways in the developing brain (Gesell);
  • play is a way in which children face reality, obtain necessary skills and address obstacles creatively (Erikson);
  • children are most receptive to learning during play and exploration and will therefore learn to persist in order to learn something new or solve a problem;
  • cognitive development and the learning of language are best acquired in appropriate environmental stimuli where they extend their oral language(Piaget; Vygotsky);
  • play develops children’s ability to regulate their own thought processes and problem solving strategies (Vygotsky);
  • through play, children learn literacy, numeracy and life skills practice, develop their imagination and creativity and experiment and make discoveries in a non-threatening way;
  • during play, children engage with the perspectives of others as they negotiate roles and solve problems while making sense of real life situations; and
  • children use all their senses during play and develop fine and gross motor (small and big muscle) skills essential for successful learning.

Three stages in the development of play by means of assimilative acts are identified. (Burgemeester, 2019; Excell & Linington, 2015).

  • Sensory motor or practice play: This type of play commences in infancy and is acknowledged to continue throughout life. Sensory motor play is seeking pleasure and exploring the senses, involving the repetition of activities.
  • Symbolic / Pretend / Fantasy play: This type of play, also known as make believe play, begins at the end of the young child’s first year where they are able to give a different meaning to an actual object. Where a child pretends to be something (like a doctor or mother) or imagines that an object is something that is it not (such as a box for a car or a scarf for hair). Symbolic play is typical of the preschool preoperational child. Pretend play engages many areas of the brain because it involves various domains of learning, including socio-emotional, cognitive, language, and sensorimotor development. Many cognitive strategies are demonstrated through pretend play, such as joint planning, negotiation, problem solving, and goal seeking.
  • Games with rules: Children start to make and agree to rules that will guide their play, and create their own games and rules. This type of play is typical of children from age six and onwards.

So, why should play and learning be integrated?

Research over the past years indicates that human development from birth to 8/9 years are the most important years during which the foundation of cognitive skills, emotional well-being, social competence and sound physical and mental health is laid.

Figure 2 summarises during which age groups the most important developmental abilities take place.

Figure 2: Development of important abilities

Research on play and brain development therefore supports that “active, physical and cognitively stimulating play” provides a place for cognitive skills to advance (Anon, 2017; Bauer, 2013).

What is play-based learning?

Play-based learning is not an obstacle or barricade to academic learning, nor is it lazy teaching. It is not a space where you put children in a room filled with toys where they jump from activity to activity and the teacher is disengaged and spends most of the time managing behaviours.  When play-based learning is done well, the classroom becomes a teacher. A place where every activity and object are placed in the space with a specific purpose to add to the learning and scaffold information across the curriculum.

Play-based learning provides various opportunities for children to understand their world by means of inquiry, exploration, interaction and problem solving. It develops and enhances children’s content knowledge, social skills, competencies and imperative dispositions to learn how to express and manage their emotions. Purposeful play experiences can be created to construct deeper learning experiences that a child will remember and internalise. Children learn best through first-hand experiences and when they engage in real-life and imaginary activities, play challenges children’s thinking. Play-based learning motivates and empowers young children to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, as they desire to explore new paths. They are motivated and empowered to take ownership and responsibility for their own learning, as the desire to explore originates from their developing sense of identity.  Young children who have reached a sense of autonomy, use their initiative to solve problems through play. The main purpose of play-based learning, is to motivate, stimulate and support children’s development of skills, concepts, language acquisition, communication and concentration. High-quality classrooms that utilize play-based, hands-on learning activities are well-planned o, intentional spaces. The different levels of learning that children are able to get into during play, is more meaningful than completing worksheets, especially in the pre-school years (Anon, 2017; Charlesworth, 2014:53).

By means of intentional planning and by presenting appropriate materials, toys and activities, the teacher, parent or care-giver enhance play experiences that create powerful connections and naturally build on all domains of child development. Real-life experiences enhance the child’s spontaneous play. Curriculum-generated play experiences are purposefully planned to help children learn certain skills and concepts. Play-generated curriculum activities emerge from children’s spontaneous interests, activities and questions. The teacher, parent or care-giver have to increase children’s thinking to higher levels by asking open-ended questions, challenging their ideas and providing feedback.  An example of a planned lesson on symmetry, can be as follows. The teacher asks his/her children to work in pairs. Each pair bake their own cupcake, measuring the flour (in gram), the sugar and salt (by teaspoon), and the milk (in millilitre or cups). They mix it and put it in a baking pan. Throughout this process the teacher explains why flour is measured in gram and milk in litre / millilitre. She explains the time the cupcakes have to be in the oven, the temperature, etc. She also talks about safety in the kitchen and near the oven. She can address opposites, such as hot and cold. The children decorate the cupcakes with icing (sensory activity, measuring the icing in grams), mix it with water or milk (measuring in millilitre) and ask them to take 4 smarties (number sense) for each cupcake. During the activity, the teacher and children are constantly busy with discussions, questioning, answering, explaining, etc. Now the teacher can ask a question, such as “There is only 1 cupcake between the two of you. What can we do that both of you can have some cupcake?” The teacher can now introduce symmetry. Cut the cupcake in half. Children can also “divide” their friend’s face symmetrically with their fingers, or painting the one half of their faces. During this lesson, the teacher integrated mathematics, language and life skills. Each child was actively involved. The teacher decreased disciplinary problems and increased confidence and hands-on-learning (Anon., 2017; Bauer, 2013; Zosh, Hopkins, Jensen, Liu, Neale, Hirsch-Pasek, Solis, & Whitbread: 2017). Assessment by means of observations and checklists can be done.

Often unplanned learning situations emerge. Teachers, parents or care-givers should never let a learning opportunity vanish and should take advantage of children’s natural curiosity and excitement to guide them toward topics and ideas that interest them as illustrated in the examples below:

Example 1:

A boy arrives at school with his father’s builder measuring tape. All the children surround him to see and touch it and to hear the clicking sound it makes. The teacher observes the discussion that is taking place and listens to all the remarks made by the children. Later the day, the teacher asks if the boy could show her the measuring tape. She asks questions such as: What is this? Whose is it? What is it used for? How does it work? The teacher asks the boy to open the tape, and asks the following questions: What is written on the tape? What does it mean? Where can we use it? What else can we use it for? The teacher gives them opportunities to “measure” various objects, such as the carpet, the door, and the book shelve, etc. The teacher takes them outside to use it there. Once again asks questions such as “Will it be long enough?” Why / Why not? If not, what plan can we make to measure an object longer than the tape?

During this experience, children are challenged to solve problems, think critically and creatively, develop number sense, spatial relations, perceptual skills, enhance vocabulary and language skills, learn to wait their turn, to listen, to ask questions, etc. All of these are imperative skills for successful learning. The children never experienced failure or fear. They were encouraged to participate and to take a risk and they feel good about themselves and are happy! The children will go home and tell their parents and siblings all about their experiences at school.

Example 2:

Mommy is baking a cake for Daddy’s birthday. Ilse asks her mommy what she is doing. Her mommy takes out another apron, put it around her little body and explained every step of the cake baking process. She asks Ilse to weigh and measure the cake flour and feel and taste the structure. Asks her to fetch 2 eggs from the fridge, breaks it, to feel the structure, to taste it, and tells her about the egg yolk and egg white, allows her to whip it and mix it with the cake flour, sugar, salt and bicarbonate of soda and with milk.  She asks her questions, such as: What does the flour/egg/dough taste like? Did the flour change colour? Why?  She tells her about the oven, the degrees of Celsius and the time the cake has to bake in the oven. She allows her to decorate the cake.

In this scenario Ilse does not only experience the loving bond with her mother, her vocabulary, sentence structuring, number sense and scientific knowledge about the baking process are enhanced. She learned about measuring ingredients in gram, litre, millilitre, counting, etc. But most of all, she feels important and valued… she baked a cake for her daddy! Ilse will go to school and tell her friends and teacher all about her experiences at home.

Example 3:

Mpho’s father is working in the garden. Mpho asks his father what he is doing. His father states that he is making a vegetable garden, and invites Mpho to help him. Together the two of them choose which vegetable seedlings or small plants have to be planted where. They prepare the ground, use soil and make rows in which they will plant (categorise) the various vegetables. Mpho experiences bonding with his father, learns about the various vegetables they are planting, plans where and how they should plant the vegetables, and counts how many vegetables will fit in a row, how many rows of vegetables are there all together, how deep should the seedlings or small plants be planted, the different kinds of sand, which type of sand is the best for vegetables, how much water should be used, how many times a week it should be watered, etc. Mpho can even make a graph to follow the growth of the plants. In the end he can enjoy food with his family which has been “provided” by him and his father.

Extremely important skills were learned in this relaxed, loving, safe, stress-free environment. He learned language, mathematics and life skills without even knowing he is learning. Planning, organising, problem solving, thinking skills and language skills were enhanced in this learning environment. Mpho learned as he discovered, created and imagined. His father helped him to build new understanding and expand his thinking. Mpho will go to school and tell his friends and teacher about his experience.

Play-based learning has certain characteristics as represented in Figure 3 (Charlesworth, 2014:54; Grosser & Esterhuizen, 2015; Zosh et al., 2017;):

Figure 3: Characteristics of play-based learning

  • Enjoyment: Enjoyment is a key element of play. The child should find pleasure, thrill and a positive emotion when playing. Usually the child would show interest in things that makes him happy.
  • Meaning: Children’s actions have meaning, even if they are playing or learning. When a child finds meaning in an activity, he will be able to connect it to something he already knows.
  • Engaging and self-motivating: Play involves active, engaged mind-on thinking and is driven by what the child wants to do. If a child enjoys something, he will be motivated to explore it further. Engaged children can reflect on their learning and see the benefits of learning.
  • Inferential thinking: For example, what will happen if we do not water our vegetable garden? Where else can we find vegetables? What else can we plant in our garden to eat?
  • Social interaction: During play children are actively involved – physically, verbally and cognitively. It is therefore the opposite of passively taking in information. Pretend play vs reality is a very important aspects. It involves social interaction with peers and adults. Research shows that social interactions early in life set the stage for learning and development throughout life. Positive interactions with others help build neural foundations for developing healthy socio-emotional regulation. It promotes plasticity in the brain to help cope with challenges later in life and activates the neural pathways in the brain which is critical for teaching and learning interactions.

 As the above reading and various research done on play-based learning show, it can no longer be ignored that play-based learning holds numerous benefits for children from birth to 8 years and above.  Figure 4 summarises the benefits of play-based learning.

Figure 4: Benefits of play-based learning

Through play-based learning, real-life factual knowledge experiences will lead to deeper learning as represented in Figure 4 (UKEssays, 2018; UNICEF, 2018; Zosh et al., 2017). Play evokes innovation and creativity as children explore and experiment, clarify and construct knowledge leading to a deeper understanding that connects with their prior knowledge.

 Figure 5: Play-based learning leads to deeper learning

Unfortunately, play-based learning is not understood and positively accepted by all role-players. Some family, school and curriculum-developing settings regard play as less important and therefore influence children’s play opportunities. Nowadays, parents are anxious and expect more from their children’s performance academically, on the sports field, as well as in cultural activities. They believe play is a waste of time, therefore playtime has decreased and structured activity-times have increased. Parents, as well as children spend more and more time on their cell phones and computers and parents do not feel it is safe for their children to play outdoors without supervision (Bauer, 2013; Charlesworth, 2014:54; Grosser & Esterhuizen, 2015; Zosh et al., 2017).

Regarding Play-based learning and cognitive development, what have you found are the biggest challenges parents, teachers and practitioners face?  What are the best ways to overcome them?

Some of the challenges and solutions are summarised in Figure 6 below.

What are the most important signs that will indicate to parents, teachers and practitioners the successful functioning/implementation of Play-based learning on the cognitive development of children?

Children that have been exposed to play-based learning and have developed enhanced cognitive skills, will present with the following, as illustrated in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Characteristics of children with enhanced cognitive skills (Photo from https://favim.com/image/1169872/)


Visit our Tools and Research and Other Articles pages for Dr Esterhuizen’s recommended and applicable literature sources on Play-based learning. The figures used above are also available there. 

The January 2020 blog will further the discussion on play-based learning, with the focus on technology and the influence it has on the development of a young child. 

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