Benefits of Play-Based Learning | Cambridge English

Tanya Paes is a final year PhD student at Cambridge, whose specialism is in play-based learning and children’s cognitive development. She has recently published a research paper for the Cambridge Papers in ELT series entitled, ‘Developing Life Skills through Play’. This blog post is produced from an interview with Tanya and expands upon her research in the paper.

What is play-based learning? How does it differ from play?

There is currently no clearly defined meaning of play. As such, Tanya Paes describes it as an activity which is pleasurable and usually sustained over a long period of time. This provides the optimum environment for a child’s learning. As Tanya writes, “children are best able to learn when their full attention is captured, which often occurs during play.”
Play-based learning differs from mere play in that its focus is on the outcome rather than the process. The former is structured, usually and often helpfully by a teacher who can guide the child towards a learning outcome. On the other hand, play generally has no predetermined goal – the aim is to have fun.

How does play-based learning align with more conventional pedagogy?

Research suggests that total engagement with the lesson, driven by relevant content and a socially-interactive classroom culture, provides the optimum environment for children to learn best. Consistency is also key to learning, and play-based learning often requires very few disruptions to the current classroom status-quo; There is usually a play-area already designated with sufficient equipment.
Tanya’s research shows that guided play or explorative learning which is scaffolded by a teacher is an effective way for teaching children. It is a compromise between passive learning through directed instructions and less structured free play activities. Tanya also explains how guided play can help illuminate the meaning of the activity. Reading a storybook, for example, can be tricky for a child to read by themselves. An adult can help ask open questions to expand the child’s thinking and to strengthen their understanding of the story.
Play-based learning also reduces the pressure on the learner, by teaching in a less formal environment. Activities are child-led and so children learn vital lessons through osmosis rather than direct instruction.

How does play-based learning benefit young learners?

Tanya explains several ways in which play-based learning can benefit young learners. These effects all align with the Cambridge Life Competencies Frameworka system which includes creative thinking, critical thinking, learning to learn (and thinking about one’s thinking) and communication.

Creative and Critical Thinking:

Play often gives opportunities for children to develop this skill, especially through pretend play. This means that the child can use their imagination to tackle a problem, often with an emphasis on collaborating with fellow playmates. This arrangement allows learners to approach tasks from different angles, as well as allowing them to keep trying different solutions without risk of punishment.
Creative thinking is also often the fun element of play, as it allows children to let their imaginations run free, inventing whole worlds, stories and characters.
Play-based guided learning is one which involves active learning, as opposed to passively listening to instructions. In this way, children have to be able to think beyond the scopes of the game: what would the character do if they went to your school? Why is that character angry? These sorts of open-ended questions are useful in guided learning and are an excellent way of helping the child move towards the objective learning through play. Tanya cites a study involving shapes, where children told about shapes prior to playing with them were compared to children who were able to touch and play with the shapes through guided learning. The second group performed best when asked comprehension questions about shapes, whereas the former group developed a more superficial understanding.

Learning to learn and communication:

Children are “citizens of the world”, as Tanya describes it. It is therefore crucial for them to be able to self-direct their learning in a way which will help in the future.
Tanya discusses how play-based learning forces children to self-regulate. Children must operate within the rules of the world they have constructed with their peers. She writes, “self-regulation is important for goal-directed behaviour, planning, and organizing information.”
When children engage in play, they practice using their negotiation skills. They will often have the opportunity to interact with children of different ages. This challenging environment which will greatly expand their communication ability.
In pretend play, children take on the role of a constantly changing character and they have to fit themselves to apply to the rules of character. It is often self-directed or a collaborative agreement. Therefore, children will learn to monitor their own behavior and be able to cross cultural differences.
In her research paper, Tanya uses Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ – that gap in expertise between children and adults of different ages in which an individual’s knowledge can grow.

How to create a play station

Play stations are easy to adopt in the classroom because they often already exist. Tanya points out that the theme of the play station can change according to that week’s core learning material.
In terms of the home, play stations can be both internal and external. What are the learning outcomes you want your child to work towards? If it is numeracy, for example, why not count the steps on the way to bed? Or for literacy, don’t just read the story, ask questions and have a small enactment afterwards. Doing so reinforces the lessons learned.


Play-based learning, as Tanya shows, can be used without much disruption to the classroom curriculum and dynamic. It also does not take up more resources. A stick can easily be a wand and a drawing can imply a whole other world. There is currently little evidence to support free-play as a learning mechanism, but this is due to the lack of research in the field as a whole. Tanya is one such researcher beginning to explore this exciting field of study.
If you are interested in methods for teaching early learners, Helen Kenyon has produced a piece on ways to harness children’s natural excitement, including the use of role play. After the 53rd IATEFL conference in April, Delia Kidd also wrote about using play to develop life skills in children.

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