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  • 26 Studies Say Play Is So Powerful It Boosts Early Academic And Social Skills

    Kids need play to thrive.
    by Dahl D. Bennett .
26 Studies Say Play Is So Powerful It Boosts Early Academic And Social Skills
PHOTO BY Shutterstock/Mcimage
  • Many studies have time and again emphasized the role of play in early learning among children, especially in their toddler years, but a recent study shows that it too plays a significant role in promoting equality.

    Play as a way of increasing inclusion

    A report by LEGO Foundation, authored by the LEGO Foundation’s Head of Evidence, Amy Jo Dowd, and Chair of Learning through Play, Bo Stjerne Thomsen, looked at 26 studies of play in disadvantaged communities of 18 countries. Their report showed that many pre-school education programs that target children from disadvantaged groups focused only on academic outcomes in early childhood but that studies provides “initial evidence” of the power of learning through play to tackle inequality and improve the outcomes of children from different socio-economic groups.

    In gathering evidence, the authors looked at play on two levels. On the macro level (learning programs on a national level), it aims to see its role in “realizing the potential of all children, and specifically in closing achievement gaps.” On a micro level (individual classrooms), it hopes to see if it “can be used as a way of increasing inclusion, with the aim of creating a more egalitarian society.”

    Kinds of play that addressed achievement gaps

    The LEGO foundation identified five characteristics that should be present in play. It should be joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative, and socially interactive.

    It also found that play enabled kids to progress in various domains of learning, including language and literacy, social emotional skills, and math.


    “When these elements are strongly present in play, deep learning is the result: learning that stays with children and gives them the skills and knowledge that they can apply to real-life situations,” the report read.

    In trying to find out which kind of play — free, guided, games, or instructions — helped closed the achievement gap, the report explored the different interventions used by teachers during play.

    On one end of the spectrum there is the structured, teacher-led approach, where “games are used didactically.” On another end, there is the guided and free play, in which “children have much more initiative, and where the adults define the outcomes and provide relevant resources (in the case of guided play), but children find their own solutions and are encouraged to reflect on play.”

    Free play showed greater learning gains

    The finding showed that interventions that include more free play and guided play were shown to be more likely to demonstrate all five characteristics of learning through play. “They also appear more likely to close achievement gaps,” the report read. It also added that “there are initial suggestions, across different countries, of the importance of child choice in leading, changing and contributing to play.”

    In countries like Bangladesh, Rwanda and Ethiopia, play interventions used a mix of instruction as well as free and guided play and these were applied across dozens, if not hundreds of early childhood centers in disadvantaged communities.

    According to the report, studies of these interventions show significantly greater learning gains for children in terms of their literacy, numeracy, motor and social-emotional development, compared to children in traditional early childhood centers, and the closing of achievement gaps between children of different socio-economic status. It added that these and other examples from around the world show that “even in resource-constrained settings, free and guided play are possible.”

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    In an article published in The Hechinger Report, play is often seen as a recreational activity and schools tend to focus on academic skills and standardized assessments. However, the report from the LEGO foundation shows that play is also essential in helping kids process feelings and changes that happen to their lives. 

    “This pandemic has brought to light that [play] is not a luxury, this is a necessity,” said Jen DeMelo, director of special projects at the non-profit organization Kaboom! “We need this. Kids need this to thrive.”

    However, while free and guided play in particular may provide unique benefits for children’s learning, and help to reduce inequality, “it takes time and training for teachers to be able to facilitate it.” The LEGO foundation thus recommends that more research is needed to know more about how best to support teachers and education systems in adopting a more play-based approach.

    Looking for play ideas that can boost children's brains? Click here.

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