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Challenging the definition of “play”

Cecile Doyen

Cécile Doyen

The expression “learning through play” seems so common in early years education, and yet the verb’s definition found through a quick online search states that “to play” is to “engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

In this post, we look at the theme of learning through play by looking at the work of the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) Development team as they support the PYP community to develop in this area. We also share feedback from Catherine Erpen, Assistant Elementary Principal and PYP and Early Years Coordinator at GEMS World Academy in Abu Dhabi – Catherine attended a session by Cécile Doyen on this theme at the IB regional conference in The Hague, Netherlands.

definition of play

As the Acting Head of the PYP, Cécile Doyen opened her 2015 conference workshop sessions with the definition of play (pictured above). In response, session participant Catherine Erpen told us, “I felt as uncomfortable as Cécile with this universally-accepted definition. Like many educators with experience in early childhood education, this is not what one wants to hear.”

Clearly, Cécile and Catherine are not alone. 81 of approximately 200 of Cécile’s participants feel that play as learning is essential, 35 said they wanted more research, and 49 want more professional development for both themselves as educators and also for parents. And in 2014, The LEGO Foundation in Denmark, brought together innovators, opinion shapers, and educational specialists to consider the question: “How will we convince the world to redefine play and reimagine learning?” The group examined the latest research on brain development and play, and discussed how play can contribute to better lives, foster stronger communities and transform the learning experience.

 “How will we convince the world to redefine play and re-imagine learning?”

At the time of the LEGO event, the review of the PYP was in the early stages. Cécile found that what she was hearing at the LEGO event seemed to match the feedback that her PYP team were getting from schools. PYP schools were highlighting a demand for increased guidance on play and asking for a clear explanation of the relationship between play and learning in the PYP. “We know that play is a cornerstone of creativity and imagination—characteristics we seek to develop in students as citizens of the world, today and tomorrow” explained Cécile.

lego reading age growth

Image credit: Suggate 2012. Image courtesy of The LEGO Foundation


As part of an emerging compelling body of evidence, data in a 2012 study by Suggate showed that children who formally learn to read later catch up with children who formally learn to read earlier. Cécile invited the regional conference audience to considerations on  the idea that the children who were given the time to develop learning skills through play and learned to read through formal ways of teaching later, at age 7 instead of age 5, were not only likely to have the same reading skills at the age of 11 but with better reading comprehension (see image below), because they were given more time to build meaning by creating connections through their engagement in open and playful inquiries.

So, what can we do to help teachers support their students’ learning through play?

PYP construction workersAt the IB Annual Regional Conference in October 2015 in The Hague, and at the Teacher Skills Forum in Jordan in December 2015, Cécile delivered workshop sessions that focused on teaching strategies to plan for and evaluate learning through play. She highlighted three processes crucial for learning which teachers can focus on when evaluating, monitoring and documenting learning when children play, plus a set of three lenses through which teachers can look in order to design learning experiences and environments that promote play as inquiry-based learning.

Catherine Erpen recalls: “As we considered the research, we reviewed three crucial processes to document/monitor the learning that happens when children play: self-regulation, language and social skills. We then thought about types of play as organized according to developmental stages, relationships and learning environments.”

For example, a playful approach to language learning can offer powerful support for the development of literacy skills through:

  • Language-rich play environments
  • Narration in play situations
  • Cognitive-linguistic skills development (phonological awareness, symbolic representation, etc.)
  • Sequencing of steps to problem-solve (plan for play, etc.)

Adapted from: Christie & Roskos (2006), Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff (2003), Konishi et al. (2014)

pyp lens of developmenta stages

By looking at photos of children playing, the workshop participants had an opportunity to evaluate both what types of play and what learning processes were taking place. They also had time to think about how the different ways that play is directed/initiated could have an impact on the learning experience/outcome. See table* below.

  Child-directed Adult-directed
Child-initiated Free play Co-opted play
Adult-initiated Guided play Direct instruction

Catherine shared her session experience with colleagues when she returned to her school in Abu Dhabi. She said: “It prompted some really rich discussion about the types of opportunities teachers were providing and the ways in which we could enhance student learning by ensuring a greater range of play experiences that promoted growth in all key areas in the context of the units of inquiry. It was interesting to reflect upon how the various types of play were evidenced in our classrooms and the extent to which each of the quadrants [see table above] was represented. We have only just begun to think more deeply about this, but I am confident that through thoughtfully reflecting and sharing with each other we will develop strategies for enhancing play experiences and ensuring that student learning is maximized.”

What next?

Tell us what you are doing – As organizations like The Lego Foundation and educators around the world continue to challenge the official definition of “play”, we welcome any feedback from the IB community and beyond about their work and experience as they develop their childhood learning through play.

Use the handout and other resources – Here are the slides and handouts outs from Cécile’s session at the Teacher Skills Forum in Jordan in December 2015.

Attend a workshop or webinar – Find IB workshops on play-based learning for PYP educators around the world here plus an overview of what to expect here in the 2016 IB Workshops and Resources Catalogue.

And finally,

Learning through play isn’t just for children. Here’s a parting thought from Catherine: “I have been thinking about “play” from my own personal perspective, reflecting on what kinds of “play experiences” promote the same kind of growth in us as adults both personally and professionally. I believe that our personal representations of ‘play’ can look very different according to our interests. I am an avid snowboarder. While I have had to develop my skills as an individual in order to develop my muscles and develop control of my board, for me, snowboarding involves connecting with others, it is a social activity. I have learned the language associated with the sport and have developed my cognitive abilities in learning to pay greater attention to my surroundings and reflect on the ways in which I strategize to improve my performance. I believe that the skills I have developed are reflective of those associated with play.”