Learning through play:  Insights from Measuring Early Learning Quality & Outcomes (MELQO) analyses

Abbie Raikes & Dawn Davis, ECD Measure

We’re increasingly recognizing the power of play for children.  Children learn best when they are supported to deeply engage with their surroundings and other people, when they are given the opportunity to explore and try things out, and when they can internalize and make meaning of what they are learning.  Learning through play can help promote equity in learning and contributes to children’s social and emotional development.  The LEGO Foundation has outlined five characteristics of playful experiences:  joyful, actively engaging, iterative, meaningful, and socially interactive.

Five characteristics of playful experiences: LEGO Foundation

Adults help create these experiences for children through facilitation of play practices, using free play, guided play, games, and direct instruction. The findings of our recent analyses described in this blog indicate associations between teacher’s facilitation of playful learning and children’s learning outcomes.

Around the world, countries are recognizing the power of play, with more integration of these ideas into official government standards on quality in early childhood settings.  As the importance of learning through play gains traction around the world, researchers can help by addressing key questions to build the evidence base, such as, how frequently do we see learning through play, especially in countries with few resources for early childhood education?  What can we say about the associations between playful learning and children’s holistic development?  And can learning through play reduce achievement gaps and support social and emotional skills?

One challenge we face in addressing these questions is that existing measurement tools to assess quality in early childhood education do not focus specifically on learning through play.  Many tools have items that are largely consistent with the ideas behind learning through play, such as ensuring children have access to play materials; time in the day set aside for play, both independently and with peers; and teachers who encourage children’s play.  But these items are not specifically designed to measure the learning through play constructs.  While the LEGO Foundation has a new initiative underway to develop measurement tools to assess the quality of learning through play in home and school environments, we can still learn about play quality now by reanalysing data from existing measures.  Using the Measuring Early Learning Environments (MELE) scale of the Measuring Early Learning Quality & Outcomes (MELQO) project, we identified components of the LEGO Foundation’s five characteristics of learning through play and play facilitation practices that were evident in MELE items related to pedagogy.

MELE defined play-based learning as exploring and using objects during lessons; children’s engagement in discussions with teachers; integrating lessons with children’s experiences; and allowing children some choice during the activity – showing a general conceptual alignment with the LEGO Foundation’s five characteristics of learning through play, but not a precise mapping.  MELE’s scale of pedagogy is a four-point description of various activities in the classroom, such as literacy, mathematics, and fine motor.  Starting with 1 if the activity did not take place at all; classrooms received 2 if only direct instruction took place during that activity; 3 if one type of play-based learning was observed during the activity; and 4 if more than one type of play-based learning took place.  MELE also included one item that addressed whether children had free play.

Providing an opportunity to look more deeply at learning through play, MELE’s play-based learning scale resonated with the LEGO Foundation’s description of guided play (when adults support children to achieve learning goals within a play context) and free play (children set their own goals and interests; receive few directions from adults).  The MELE codes do not give us enough information to measure all five of the LEGO Foundation’s characteristics of learning through play experiences.  However, we can index when only teacher-directed instruction was used.  As a result, we can use the MELE data to tell us whether classrooms had any instances of guided play during the observation, whether there was only free play, or only direct instruction.

Within a sample of classrooms from a low-income country in sub-Saharan Africa, we found that about half of classrooms had at least some guided play or some free play – good news for the increasing reach of play-based learning.  However, many classrooms were lacking in materials, including storybooks and fantasy play materials, and the presence of some guided play or free play does not mean that children are experiencing frequent play-based learning – we were not able to tell that from our data.

Importantly, we found that guided play may be especially critical for children’s learning.  Guided play, when adults support children during play-based learning to reach their learning goals, was associated with higher scores on learning and development measured by the MELQO MODEL tool, even after accounting for children’s home environments and teacher characteristics.  We were especially interested in understanding the context for play-based learning more deeply.  When compared with teachers who did not use guided play, we found that teachers who used guided play practices reported higher levels of motivation and higher levels of support from school administrators.

Countries all around the world are embracing principles of learning through play.  Our results suggest that many early childhood classrooms will benefit from having more resources to implement learning through play—by ensuring that classrooms have play materials for all children and teachers receive support in implementing learning through play practices, such as increasing their understanding of and adoption of guided play in the classroom.  If we can do more to promote learning through play, especially in contexts with few resources for ECE, children’s learning and development can be strengthened.  We can also investigate further the teacher and classroom characteristics that help promote learning through play, such as making sure teachers have the training, support, and materials to implement play practices.