The Play-Based Approach to Early Years Education


Show, don’t tell. This is excellent advice for writers, but it encapsulates an important principle of effective childhood education.

Instead of describing hairy and slimy, isn’t it better to let children touch hairy and slimy objects so they know what these textures mean? This way, you won’t have to tell them anything; they’ll tell you instead.


This is what the play-based approach is about. It operates from the premise that play is vital in early childhood education. If you are a parent who believes in the play-based learning approach, consider enrolling your child in an EYFS nursery in Dubai.

EYFS stands for the early years foundation stage, one of the key stages in the national curriculum for England. British curriculum nursery schools typically incorporate play into their early childhood education programs.


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Why Play-Based Learning?

The play-based approach to early childhood education brings many benefits.

1. Develops 21st Century Skills

What are 21st-century skills? They are collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, confidence, and innovation, among others. They are the skills that children need today to advance in school and, later on, in their careers.


Play-based learning activities help develop these 21st-century skills in children. When children play, whether in guided or free activities, they are called upon to envision their goals and how to achieve them. They must then communicate their realizations and resolutions with the other children. Additionally, they need to delegate tasks and work together to attain their objectives. These dynamics help children hone the skills they need to succeed in and beyond school.

2. Promotes Social and Emotional Development

When children play, they engage with their peers and teachers. In the course of their play activities, they will encounter classmates who won’t give up the red pen, the triangular block, or the clay shaper. There will be classmates who won’t listen to instructions or cooperate with the rest of the group.

Likewise, there are going to be easygoing and highly collaborative peers. Some will be skilled at using their words to communicate with others, while others will be great at building, drawing and doing other things.

Through play activities, children get to deal with different personalities and encounter different situations. These help them develop social and emotional skills, such as empathy, self-regulation and problem-solving.

3. Improves Academic Outcomes

Contrary to conventional wisdom, playing does not distract young children from their studies. In fact, play can help them achieve better academic outcomes.

A study by Skene et al. (2022) reveals that guided play improves early math skills, shape knowledge, task switching, and spatial vocabulary. In other words, children who are allowed to play may know more words to describe the space around them, perform better at math, and be more mentally flexible.

4. Motivates and Engages

Play-based learning can increase children’s motivation and engagement in school, as they are more likely to be interested and invested in fun and enjoyable activities.

Types of Play

There are two types of play: free play and guided play.

1. Free Play

Free play is child-led, child-directed, and child-initiated. When a child takes blocks, stacks them up and pretends he’s building a tower, that is free play.

Children do free play voluntarily, and it typically involves role-playing or pretend play.

2. Guided Play

Guided play involves a teacher intervening to provide guidance and instruction. It has four types: inquiry play, collaboratively designed play, playful learning, and learning through games.

1. Inquiry Play

Inquiry play, like free play, is child-led. The child initiates the activity according to his interests. For instance, he can pretend he’s building a race track. However, the teacher intervenes by asking guiding questions and providing resources to help the child further his play.

2. Collaboratively Designed Play

The children and the teacher design the activity together. They decide the theme and context, the direction it will take, and the resources they need to proceed.

3. Playful Learning

In playful learning, the teacher takes the lead and directs the interaction. The teacher creates a fun context in which the children can practice whatever skill they are supposed to learn through the activity.

For instance, instead of teaching students to add by making them solve problems on paper, the teacher can set up a pretend market. He can equip it with items for sale, give children pretend money, and let the children take the role of customers and storekeepers.

4. Learning Through Games

Like playful learning, this type of guided play is mostly teacher-directed. The teacher chooses the game the children will play, and the children are urged to play according to the rules of that game. Playing the Haba Animal Upon Animal stacking game or the Think Roll and Play game is an example of game-centered learning.

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Features of the Play-Based Approach in Early Years Education

The play-based approach typically has the following features or characteristics.

1. Self-Directed

Play-based learning can be self-directed. In other words, the children choose what to play and how to proceed with the activity. This is especially true of free-play activities.

2. Process-Oriented

Play-based learning is process-oriented. Yes, play activities can teach children to add, build their vocabulary, and develop their communication and collaboration skills.

However, play-based learning does not focus on the results but on the process or experience, particularly on keeping the activity fun and engaging for children.

3. Incorporates Open-Ended Materials

In play activities, the children typically use open-ended materials or resources. These include sand, water, clay, and crafting supplies. They are flexible and versatile, ensuring children can use them as they see fit or incorporate them into their activities in many ways.

For instance, blocks can become schools, parks or shops, while playdough can become cakes and pastries. Sand can become entire cities, too.

4. Guided by Teachers

Play is effective when the children’s interests dictate their activities. When an activity captivates their full attention, the children can become more immersed and gain more from it.

That said, the teacher’s intervention plays a vital role. The teacher can enhance outcomes by asking relevant questions. He can improve engagement by providing materials and the necessary interpersonal interaction. He may also facilitate discussions that will help the children make connections and deepen their understanding.

5. Balances Free Play and Structured Activities

Nursery schools that use the play-based learning approach typically employ a combination of free and guided play activities. Both are necessary for development. The first type develops autonomy, imagination, creativity, and resourcefulness, while the second type hones a child’s social and emotional skills and enhances academic outcomes.

Play to Learn

Should you let children dig around and plant in the garden, slide and swing in the playground, bike in the cycling tracks, and play with the toys in the sensory play area? While it may seem these activities are simply fun and enjoyable (which they are), they offer so much more.

Play engages children’s imagination and senses, forges 21st-century skills, and improves academic outcomes. With play-based learning, children can have fun while they develop and learn. What else could parents ask for?

So, go on. Enroll your child in that kids’ nursery in Dubai that uses play as a teaching strategy because the play-based approach to early childhood education works.

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