By Michael Niehoff
Education Content Coordinator, iLEAD Schools
As project-based learning practitioners, some facilitators may still be in recovery from the years focused on the importance of explicit direct instruction and testing in lower grades. Indeed, there were many casualties from this era, including the unlocked learning potential of PLAY.
Researchers contend that play, or play-based learning, is a critical part of childhood learning that should not be excluded or minimized. At iLEAD, play-based learning is way more than “playing around.” Indeed, this other “PBL” is being implemented and experienced at the highest levels.
The concept of play-based learning doesn’t just feel and sound good; it has actual science behind it, according to iLEAD Agua Dulce Director Lisa Latimer.
“Play-based learning is play with intentionality,” said Latimer.
Project-based learning, by design, focuses on skill development (i.e. problem-solving and collaboration), deeper learning, inquiry, application, metacognition, student agency and creativity. Play-based learning not only complements these but actually optimizes them.
Latimer, who was recently named the USA’s Play Advocacy Committee Chair for the International Play Association, said, “Play-based learning is the best way to promote executive development in our young learners.”
Research indicates the increased complexity of language and learning processes used by children in play-based programs is linked to important literacy skills. Additionally, it has been found that children’s vocabulary and ability to develop literacy skills are higher in a play-based classroom than in a traditional classroom.
“There is a great deal of research that has concluded that play-based learning is truly impactful on student learning and development, especially in the early years of school,” said iLEAD’s Director of Humanities and Innovative Programs Dr. Angie Nastovska.
Neuroscientists have studied and concluded that play-based learning positively affects the development of specifics such as narrative language and acquisition of grammar, while also increasing their strength intellectually, physically and socially-emotionally. Indeed, they have found that play accomplished this high level of brain development that direct instruction approaches, such as rote memorization, testing, and worksheets cannot.
The facilitators at iLEAD Agua Dulce believe that children are naturally motivated to play. They have devised a play-based program that builds on this motivation, using play as a context for learning. In this context, children can explore, discover, experiment and solve problems in innovative and creative ways.
What Play-Based Learning Is Not
What Play-Based Learning Is (Purposeful, Intentional Play)
What It Looks Like
Whereas traditional school has often now focused on explicit direct instruction even in kindergarten or now in pre-K, Latimer emphasizes that a play-based approach is about “not telling the learners what to do or how to do it.”
“If we do the how for them,” said Latimer, “we rob them of the opportunity to discover this for themselves.” For example, she says that her facilitators at iLEAD Agua Dulce never tell learners what paint colors to mix in order to create secondary colors. “Instead, we put the primary colors out and let them discover secondary colors for themselves.”
It’s this process of self-discovery that Latimer will point to that is so vital for the learner’s brain development. Latimer explained that iLEAD Agua Dulce has created a learning environment where the facilitators routinely set up various learning labs, spaces or vignettes to accommodate. Examples include an outdoor science center, a sensory space that may have a table with various items, a storybook theatre with books and costumes, an outdoor art center complete with nontraditional art supplies and more.
For those who may continue to struggle to see the direct academic connections, Nastovska explains that play-based facilitators allow learners to discover and experience the standards, not be force-fed them. “It’s immersive, rather than prescriptive or directive,” she said.
As an example, Latimer and iLEAD Agua Dulce facilitators believe and can demonstrate that outdoor classrooms, by just simply engaging with nature, can facilitate high-level learning.
“When we tell learners to not play in the rain, we are actually doing them a disservice,” said Latimer. At iLEAD Agua Dulce, she said, “We not only let our learners play in the rain; we encourage it.”
This is about allowing learners to have authentic opportunities to learn and practice lifelong vital developmental skills, such as self-regulation and agency. “We’ve actually made our young people unhealthy — physically and emotionally — by keeping them locked up inside, protected from all the elements,” said Latimer.
This is further evidenced by iLEAD Agua Dulce’s practice of encouraging their learners to climb trees. What used to be a standard childhood activity has long given way to fear of injury.
But Latimer and iLEAD know that these play-based experiences not only develop the brain but create the foundation for deeper learning in project-based endeavors for the rest of the learner’s life. “Allowing children to play leads toward developing strong communication skills. Our learners have the opportunity to not only expend energy but to develop the tools necessary to communicate and resolve conflicts. This has created an environment where our learners solve conflicts and disputes in a positive and productive way,” said Latimer. “Our students are healthier in all aspects because of their ability to discover themselves and the world through play.”
Play, Projects, Deeper & Lifelong Learning
Sadly, research has shown that traditional, direct-instruction programs don’t support proper brain development and, worse, if applied in isolation, can have negative effects. For example, young learners who don’t get enough play often have higher levels of stress, decreased motivation and behavior problems. Research shows play-based programs for young children can provide a strong basis for later success at school. They support the development of socially competent learners, able to face challenges and create solutions.
iLEAD believes that carefully organized play helps develop such qualities in young learners as longer attention spans, perseverance, concentration and problem-solving. Play-based learning not only meets the needs of iLEAD students and their brain development but also prepares them for futures where problem-solving, creativity, innovation and ideation will drive their professional, economic, social and personal success.
iLEAD’s Play-Based Professional Learning
iLEAD has a PlayMaker Institute that is hosting an upcoming Play-Based Workshop. The institute is positioning itself to be the global leader in play-based professional learning. Plans include hosting workshops, conferences, webinars and more as part of a global, collaborative effort to promote the value and implementation of play-based learning everywhere. Indeed, much of this extends beyond school and education and is intended to be the professional vehicle for lifelong health and happiness. Finally, see iLEAD’s Being Makers for more on play-based learning and a whole lot more on project-based learning.
Dear iLEAD Agua Dulce families, We hope you will join us on September 24 for our first monthly Parent University! This month we are diving deeper into our two PBLs: project-based learning and play-based learning. We will be giving out some great information that will help you understand our program better. Project-based learning brings forth
iLEAD Agua Dulce embraces the whole child, focusing on both social-emotional and academic skills. After our beginning-of-the-year assessments and in lieu of the traditional parent-teacher conference, the learners, facilitators, and parents/guardians collaborate annually to create an Individualized Learning Plan (ILP). ILPs help to guide instruction and social-emotional aspects for each learner. Everyone works together to
We are providing breakfast to all children up to 18 years of age at no charge. You do not need to be an enrolled learner in order to receive free meals. Each child will receive one grab-and-go breakfast and lunch on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 AM to 1 PM except on school holidays. On Mondays, we will hand out