10 Jun
What is Play based learning?
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By the team at Playground Ideas & Nudel Kart, June 2020

“Play is very important for children. Through play, babies and young children explore and learn to understand the world around them as they come to communicate, discover, imagine and create. When children play they are showing what they have learned, and what they are trying to understand.”

(Australian Government Education Department, Early Years Learning Framework)

So why is it so important to use Play as the basis for learning?

Play is a deep need in every brain, so deep in fact that it predates us as humans. All mammals and even birds use play as their first tool for learning the critical fundamental skills for success throughout their life span.

And Play is the tool that the brain uses to learn whatever it is developmentally ready to learn. Whether it is stacking blocks to explore the physical properties of the universe or to simply make a friend. Play is there to help explore, compare, evaluate, practise, and so on, until the goal is mastered.

To prompt children to Play, the brain rewards them with generous doses of positive hormones such as endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline. The result is often happiness, joy, and energetic and loud behaviour which unfortunately is not always enjoyed by adults seeking didactic outcomes for interventions. Yet it is precisely the organic, messiness of Play that is its strength. 

Play can prepare children for an uncertain future

Valuing children’s Play is to truly trust that the human brain has its own processes and timeline for development. Observing a child carefully in Play and following the child’s cues is the place any educator or carer should start from if they wish the child to learn something quickly and easily.

This guarantees that the child will not lose the love of learning which is one of the biggest sins many education systems can effect.

And it allows the child to incorporate school learning with ‘other’ crucial learning such as problem solving, socialisation, and skills that are important for success in STEM disciplines and the like. Preparing them for a dynamic future.

Play is a core need for ALL children

Based on almost 60 years of longitudinal data, UNICEF identified 3 core needs for children to thrive particularly after war, disaster and the effects of poverty. Nutrition and love and care are well known but equally important yet currently under prioritised is stimulation.

The combination of toxic stress and a lack of stimulation can delay a child’s development by years.  Because humans develop so rapidly in their early years this effect of trauma has a disproportionately large effect on that child and their capacities going into adulthood . It is now clear that this early development deficit leads to significant reductions in opportunity and capacity in adulthood. When viewing this at the macro scale, the loss of human potential, GDP, and costs to healthcare from a lack of stimulation, factor into the $US billions of losses for nations. 

Whilst Play is important for children living with poverty and disadvantage, it also has an increasingly important role in the developed, over-protected, over-scheduled world of the West. For an average child in an average suburb in a developed country such as Australia or the UK, Play adds the unpredictable real world element to learning; it supercharges the brain in all the skills essential for our complex lives. And for the growing number of children living with toxic anxiety about their future, Play creates an oasis of low stress that can help them get back on the path of normal, healthy development.

Play should be a fundamental part of learning.

Things to remember about Play:

It comes naturally
  • Children have the urge to play
  • Children need to play
  • Play is self-directed and intrinsically motivated
Promotes Learning
  • Play promotes problem solving and problem posing
  • It unlocks imagination and curiosity
  • Play develops 21st century skills
Essential for wellbeing
  • Play helps children process what’s happening in the world
  • It is fun and safe 
  • Play is therapeutic
  • Play is fundamental to healthy development (Individuals and communities)
Types Of Play

There are lots of ways to play. Hughes, ( 2002) suggests there are 16 different types of play. When deciding how to set up for play, consider the following possibilities. 

Types of PlayExamples of what children might be doing
Social PlayListening, talking, sharing, taking turns, playing games, making up rules, teaching friends.
Object PlayManipulating objects, building,  connecting, combining materials.
Imaginative PlayPretending and imagining. Creative role play.  Being a singer in a band, teacher, father with a newborn.
Creative PlayCreative expression. Painting, singing, designer, dancing, writing or drawing. 
Sensory PlayExploring smell, sight, sound, touch and feel. Feel the surfaces of different materials, create sound and colours.
Active PlayBeing active with your body. Jump between objects, dance, roll and slide.

(Table adapted from Sewell, C. Wilson, J. Laing, B. and Veerman, M. (2020) Nüdel Kart Teachers Manual.)

Turning things around

Through the tireless work of so many since the 1970s, Play with caregivers and peers is no longer on the sideline but is now being taken seriously as a critical tool for human development and for economic and civic growth. Across the globe, longitudinal studies show that if a child plays in early life their overall development heads in one direction, and that direction is up (Gertler et al., 2013).

One longitudinal study showed that adding as little as 1 hour a week of stimulating play for young children increased adult earnings by 42%.

Reference: Gertler P, Heckman J, Pinto R, Zanolini A, Vermeersch C, Walker S, Chang S, and Grantham McGregor S, “Labor Market Returns to Early Childhood Stimulation: a 20-year Follow up to an Experimental Intervention in Jamaica”, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 19185, June 2013

What are “Loose parts” play?

Loose Parts is simply a name for stimulating materials that children can use to learn how the world works.  Unlike “normal” Playgrounds or most toys, loose parts are open ended and reusable in an infinite number of ways depending on the child’s needs for development. 

It is precisely because of their open-endedness that loose parts engage the highest forms of thinking and interaction such as creativity, problem solving, social skills and emotional intelligence. They are also excellent for psycho-social support to children from traumatised and disadvantaged backgrounds and can be tailored to the various contexts that it is used in. 

There is a reason why LEGO, MECCANO on one hand, and Matchbox cars and Dolls like Barbie on the other, are the world’s most popular toys. It’s because they have 2 key characteristics. Infinite possibilities for the former and imagination and role play for the latter. 

Nüdel Kart comes with over 200 loose parts to support play based learning
Nüdel Kart – a great example of loose parts for play based learning

Playground Ideas and Play

Playground Ideas (PI) is an open source resource that supports people in all countries to provide environments that help children reach their full developmental potential. PI now has over a decade of experience in creating and sharing resources online (manuals, designs, fundraising tools etc) to support communities at extremely low cost to build a play space anywhere in the world.

Our friends in Vietnam, Lan Bahn Uoc Mo, do great work in this space.
Our friends in Vietnam, Lan Bahn Uoc Mo, do great work in this space.

The team constantly updates and provides new materials and resources to support the changing world of Play, whether it’s a need for more “nature” Play or help in planning child friendly cities.

In the last 10 years, PI has grown exponentially from one Playground in 2007 to over 800 Playgrounds in 2019. It has now supported more than 3,600 community Play projects in 143 countries, enabling over 1.8 million children to access stimulating Play in some of the harshest and most desperate contexts on earth. 

But in some areas we were still failing…..our community-based model didn’t work for all organisations, governments and school systems. Custom-built Play spaces require a lot of time, volunteers and resources. We needed a simpler solution without compromising on meeting children’s needs. 

Enter Nüdel Kart

Playground Ideas has spent the last two years developing a new way to scale up Play simply and quickly across the globe without compromising on the deep, creative and sustained Play that children need. 

Developmental needs of children across the globe are remarkably similar; all children have often unrecognised but powerful internal tools to drive their development. With the assistance of Professor Anita Bundy from the University of Sydney and now the University of Colorado, Nüdel Kart has been designed as a deconstructable, mobile Play kart that can be reconfigured in endless ways to encourage self-directed learning and pair with the child’s urge to explore, experiment, imagine and Play.

Bundy operated the Sydney Playground Project, running multiple studies observing how children interact with different loose parts materials and seeking to understand how these materials improve aspects of children’s development (Bundy et al., 2011). 

Nüdel Kart has since been tested in refugee camps, private schools, children’s museums and even airports. It is inclusive and for all-abilities; it is non-gendered and non themed (no castles or pirate ships), so the children themselves can create a space that works with their individual needs and this can be started afresh every day as their skills and abilities change.

The Nüdel Kart aims to: 

  • Encourage child agency and intrinsic learning motivation
  • Evoke higher order thinking skills 
  • Support critical life skills such as problem solving, resilience and socialisation 
  • Support psychosocial development
  • Create close and caring relationships between parents, carers/educators and the child
  • Give children confidence and success in their own abilities creating a strong sense of wellbeing. 

Nüdel Kart encourages both infinite possibilities and imagination in a real child-sized and social environment with lots of children. It’s the combination of these elements that truly sets a child’s brain on fire.

Children learn through play. They learn to communicate, be friends, to think and change their mind. Play comes naturally to children. It’s instinctive and therapeutic. Play should always be a fundamental part of learning.

Marcus veerman, ceo and founder playground ideas