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Play and its Role in Learning

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Childcare
Wordcount: 2241 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Children undoubtfully go through many changes. An important part of childhood is learning. While traditionally, children learn in some form of a classroom, they may be able to learn in other ways too. For example, through play. Play and learning have often been paired together in research on children. Looking at the two, a variety of questions are raised. What is play? What is its role in learning, if it truly does exist? Are there any limitations to learning through play? Can it be utilized in the classroom to assist academic learning? If so, how?

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Before describing play’s role in learning, it must be defined. Play has four components, it must be driven by the self; the process of playing is the main goal, not the end; contains some kind of rules, typically they are mental, and imagination must be involved (Gray, 2017). Using this framework, play can be looked at as a means of learning.

Sook-Yi (1999) examined the differences between a child's development in pretend play and storytelling and their role in learning, recall, and inference. This research is important because it gives the field a way to potentially measure a child’s cognitive development and gives more understand to how children learn while playing. Sook-Yi’s subject pool consisted of 32 children in two age groups; 4 years old to 4.6 years old and 5.1 years old to 5.6 years old. The subjects were split fairly evenly between boys and girls; the majority of the subjects were middle to upper-class and Eastern European. The subjects were read a story and then asked questions, with the instruction to either narratively give their response or pretend play.  The researcher’s results suggest that there is a difference in memory recall between pretend play and storytelling. Results also suggest that the recall is made easier with cues available for the subjects.

Sook-Yi’s (1999) study provides a great deal of information in children’s ability to recall information from short-term and long-term memory. However, there are a few potential method errors. First, the same groups of children were used throughout the trials. This creates a large potential error for the third trial increased results, where cues were absent and the narrative and pretend play groups performed at the same level. This third group was still exposed to the trial where cues were present. The exposure to the cues in a previous session could potentially bias the results for the third session. Another issue is the author, with some assistance from other board members, evaluated and rated the responses herself. This could also cause a potential bias as well. While these errors are present, the research overall provides interesting information and it primarily suggests play as a potential method for encoding.

Another study examined pretending and how it contributes to learning. Sutherland and Friedman (2013) researched how pretending potentially is a method of learning, in particular for generic information. The researchers conducted three experiments. The first experiment contained a subjected pool of 24 children ranging from 3-years-old to 4 years and 11 months. Children were shown a non-narrative story about a fictional animal, termed nerp, and the researcher used vocal cues (e.g. to show chewing they used loud and exaggerated chewing sounds) to provide the plot of the story. The fictional animal, the food items, and other aspects of the story were represented by colored beads. After displaying that the fictional animal did not like to eat the presented food, and the pretend demonstration was over, children were tested in one of two ways. One was questions about the nerp, pictured as a loris and the other was questions about a googoo bird (another fictional animal), pictured as a baby kiwi bird. The children were not given exposure to information about the googoo bird. Overall, the results found that the children that were asked questions about nerp performed better, suggestion pretend can be a means of learning for the children.
 Sutherland and Friedman’s (2013) second experiment looked at children 4 years and 1 month old to 5 years and 10 months old. Similar to the first experiment children were shown a scenario, however this time in one of the three groups. The animal was either dubbed loris and was represented by the beads from the previous experiment or, in the case of the other two groups, the children were shown a scenario about a cat, displayed by a cat puppet. In the loris group, correct information was given, while in one of the two cat groups incorrect information was given. After the children played pretend with the experimenter, open-ended questions were asked. Results for this experiment further suggest that children learn from pretend play. As Sutherland and Friedman (2013) point out, this is supported by the lack of difference among the three groups.

 Sutherland and Friedman’s (2013) third experiment looked at children's ability to interpret and answer comprehension questions. All the materials for this experiment were concrete, in that they represented what they were said to be. However, one condition had plausible events (e.g. the cat eating an apple) and one condition had implausible events (e.g. the loris eating a hat or driving a truck) (Sutherland and Friedman, 2013). After the scenarios, the children were asked questions. Across the board, no difference was found in the comprehensive questions (e.g. what did the loris just eat?).  The children were then asked who eats the food (or non-food) item, pretend lorises or real ones and other similar questions. Overall, Sutherland and Friedman’s (2013) results found that children performed better on questions about the plausible scenarios than they did on implausible ones. As the researchers point out, this could suggest that while play does provide an outlet for learning, children are able to discriminate educational information from fantastical information.

Thus far, most research has looked at play involving others; that is play where the child is engaged with someone else and that other person is stirring the activity. Sim and Xu (2017) examined 2- and 3-year-olds engaging in free play and the cognitive learning process that is accompanied by it. The experimenters set up four groups. Group one was instructed how to use blocks to cause a machine to make a sound; groups two and three were not given instruction on how to make the machine give a noise. These three groups were instructed that their goal is to have the machine make a noise. Group four was not given any instruction on how to make the sound or that they were supposed to complete a task to make a sound. The purpose of the fourth group was to eliminate any potential that the participants have already learned from a previous experience how to make the machine signal a sound. Overall, despite group three being more difficult than group two, the participants in the groups performed equally well and surpassed the fourth group, suggesting independent play also can assist in learning. (Sim & Xu, 2017).

Sim and Xu’s (2017) research on children learning through independent play suggests that children are able to learn on their own while engaging in solo play. This could potentially mean that play is not strictly a social-learning behavior, but one that is actively done to learn new information in general.  

The above articles all generally suggest that children learn through play. However, is this learning limited? Are there only specific types of information that can be learned through play? Whitebread, Coltman, Jameson, and Lander (2009) reviewed current literature and view education as the best type of information learned through play. Using their own previously conducted research, along with referencing classic studies, Whitebread et al also point out the difficulty in researching play, however, they suggest that the current research heavily supports a connection on play’s role in learning education-based topics. This gives way for potential use in the classroom.

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 Having established that play may have a role in learning education-based topics, its implication in the classroom could be a great benefit for children. Establishing from previous research, Trawick-Smith, Swaminathan, & Liu (2016), that little research has been done on math abilities and play, the researchers hope to find a relationship between types of play and math ability in preschool children. As Trawick-Smith et al (2016) point out, an abundance of research does suggest that play and learning share a connection. This could me having play implemented in a classroom setting could be beneficial to children. Trawick-Smith et al (2016) utilized the Test of Early Mathematics Ability, Third Edition (TEMA-3) as a means of testing their research participants’ math abilities before and after an extended period of time in which specific types of play were utilized.

The findings of Trawick-Smith et al (2016) are interesting. Their research suggests that socioeconomic status may play a factor in math scores, however they also found that student and teacher interaction contributed to nearly 25% of variance in pre- and post-test scores of the TEMA-3.  The authors attribute the large variance in pre-test scores to socioeconomic status and, as they point out, this may be due to play exposure that other children did not have the opportunity to experience. While the type of play was a reliable method of predicting post-test scores, pre-test scores were as well. This is what lead Trawick-Smith et al (2016) to their conclusions about socio-economic status playing a factor.

 Despite having clear evidence for a relationship between play and learning, there are still questions left. For example, is this relationship cultural? Is it just a western custom to learn from play, or is play universally used to learn across cultures? Lillemyr, Marder, & Flowerday (2011) surveyed play, views on it, and use in the classroom across multiple cultures. They found that free play is not limited to specific cultures. Unsurprisingly, as the researchers point out, play is an interest of all children and is not exclusive to any single culture. They even bring up an excellent point that due to one of the main aspects of play is intrinsic motivation, it provides a great opportunity to be used in schools. While the existence of play across cultures does not guarantee that children play for education and no other purposes, it does suggest that play and learning could go hand in hand. It would be interesting to see research on exactly what types of play are used for learning across cultures and see if any similarities exist. If similarities are present, it could further suggest play being a natural form of learning. 

 What about the exceptionally intelligent child? Do they play different than a typical child?


  • Gray, P. (2017). What exactly is play, and why is it such a powerful vehicle for learning? Topics in Language Disorders, 37, 217-228. DOI: http://0-dx.doi.org.wizard.umd.umich.edu/10.1097/TLD.0000000000000130
  • Lillemyr, O., Søbstad, F., Marder, K., & Flowerday, T. (2011). A multicultural perspective on play and learning in primary school. International Journal of Early Childhood, 43(1), 43-65. DOI: 10.1007/s13158-010-0021-7
  • Sim, Z. L., & Xu, F. (2017). Learning higher-order generalizations through free play: Evidence from 2- and 3-year-old children. Developmental Psychology, 53, 642-651. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000278
  • Sutherland, S. L., & Friedman, O. (2013). Just Pretending Can Be Really Learning: Children Use Pretend Play as a Source for Acquiring Generic Knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 49, 1660-1668. DOI: 10.1037/a0030788
  • Sook-Yi, K. (1997). The effects of storytelling and pretend play on cognitive processes, short-term and long-term narrative recall. Child Study Journal, 25, 175-191.
  • Trawick-Smith, J., Swaminathan, S., & Liu, X. (2016). The relationship of teacher–child play interactions to mathematics learning in preschool. The relationship of teacher–child play interactions to mathematics learning in preschool. Early Child Development and Care, 186, 716-33. DOI: 10.1080/03004430.2015.1054818
  • Whitebread, D., Coltman, P., Jameson, H., & Lander, R. (2009). Play, cognition and self-regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn through play? Educational and Child Psychology, 26, 40-52.
  • Wilson, H., E. (2015). Patterns of play behaviors and learning center choices between high ability and typical children. Journal of Advanced Academics, 26, 143-164. DOI: 10.1177/1932202X15577954



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