Why Play Based Learning?


The New Zealand Curriculum is considered world-leading, perhaps only surpassed by Te Whāriki. This is due to these documents (especially Te hāriki) being developed not as an ideology document, but rather a document based on research. It is important that we, as educators keep referring to what we know is best practice based on how a brain functions. Nathan Mikaere-Wallis states that we will get better outcomes for students if we teach them at their cognitive stage, so it is important that we understand a child's brain development and what needs must be met in order for a student to achieve academically.

The understanding of the development of a human's cognitive stages has taken great leaps since the nineties, due to the use of neuroimaging. What we are learning is the more we know, the more there is to know. However, two of the biggest things we discovered in the 1990's was that the brain has the ability to be repaired (under the right conditions) and the brain is designed to be molded by the environment in the first 1000 days.

We have also discovered that there are key stages in a child's life that result in changes in the brain. Teacher, author and advocate for play-based learning, Bev Bos said, "Your childhood takes you by the hand for the rest of your life" and the work conducted in the field of Neuroscience supports this statement. As teachers, it is important to understand where a child has come from and where they are now in order for a child to be successfully lead. Research is starting to show that play plays an important part in ensuring successful development.


Nathan Wallis, and the Brainwave Trust, both speak of the brain being made up of four parts. They both acknowledge that the brain is a lot more complex than this but refer to the four parts of the brain from an education perspective.

The Four Parts of the Brain As Outlined By Nathan Wallis and The Brainwave Trust

Nathan Wallis and the Brainwave Trust explain the brain by breaking it into four parts.

  • Brain StemThe brain stem controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body, and it also controls basic body functions such as breathing, swallowing, heart rate, blood pressure, consciousness, and whether one is awake or sleepy.
  • Cerebellum The cerebellum is responsible for some functions in motor control, such as the coordination, precision, and accurate timing of movements
  • Limbic system The primary structures within the limbic system include the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, basal ganglia, and cingulate gyrus. The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain, while the hippocampus plays an essential role in the formation of new memories about past experiences.
  • Frontal cortex It is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language.

Wallis explains that the main parts of the brain that are working at birth are the brain stem and cerebellum. As the baby encounters experiences in their life it helps 'shape' the brain. What Wallis means by this is if the child is in a calming and caring environment the brain perceives the world as, generally, a safe place and thus starts to develop the limbic system in a similar way. However, if the environment is chaotic, unsafe, and abusive the brain forms slightly differently in order to cope with the environment. These are referred to as risk and protective factors. The more protective factors a brain encounters the better the chance it has of developing the prefrontal cortex to its full potential.

Risk/Protective Factors


Wallis states that the only way a child can access the frontal cortex is through the development of the other parts of the brain. The frontal cortex is fed information via the other parts of the brain and is the first one to 'switch off' in stressful, frightening situations. This is a normal evolutionary process that ensured survival, but Wallis argues, that if a brain is in a constant state of unease the frontal cortex does not get the opportunity to develop fully. Think of the brain like a house. The brain stem is the foundation, the cerebellum is the frame, limbic is the roof, and the cortex is the walls, carpet, kitchen, etc. One cannot develop without the previous being strong. Most of the physical growth in the brain is completed by five years of age.

Wallis explains that how quickly a child reaches cognitive milestones is not a reflection of intelligence, rather it is a reflection of birth order and gender. Research has shown, that in general, a first born child will reach milestones faster than a second born child. Research is also starting to show that girls will reach milestones faster than boys. Thus it is being suggested that a first born female could reach brain maturity up to nine years faster than her second born male sibling. Research shows that a brain is fully developed by about 25 years of age (although some research is suggesting that the pre-frontal cortex my fully develop in the mid-thirties). It is important to note that this research is based on quantitative data, but research, such as conducted by Dr. David Whitebread, suggestions that children, in general, are being asked to read and write too early.

At about the age of 7, the longitudinal fissure (the area where the left and right hemispheres join) strengthens and each hemisphere starts to take on a more dominant role, this is referred to as the lateralization of the brain. Wallis states this is when the brain is far more receptive to higher order tasks, such as reading, writing, and maths.

According to Wallis (2017), the research also shows that reaching cognitive milestones faster is not a sign that a child goes on to higher learning (university) or be happier as an adult. What determines success is the number of protective factors that a child experiences in their life as well as their disposition as a learner how they see themselves as a learner by the time they are 7 years old). Your brain is designed to focuses on negative feedback way more than positive feedback. Therefore a child who sees them self as someone who is not good at school work (maybe because they have not reached certain cognitive stages yet) will grow to an adult with the attitude that they can't learn. Intelligence is not translated in the genes, if it was we would have a whole cluster of geniuses. Typically, a families 'intelligence' is more diverse than when comparing against random strangers. This does not mean there is no genetic component, but it is not particularly heavily weighted and is more a mental state disposition rather than an intelligence state. Genes don't drive the development, experience does.

Wallis (2017) and Brownlee (2017) both state that there is nowhere in research that shows that trying to teach a five-year-old like a seven-year-old works. A fundamental flaw is to think that a child that can do something early is an advantage; if anything it is the opposite. You get better outcomes for a nine-year-old if you cater for the stages they were at when they were a five years old.


Using what has been discovered in the neuroscience field I thought it would be interesting to see how this aligns with other research and educational theories. Naturally, Piaget comes to the forefront of an educator, so I decided to align Piaget's work alongside the work around brain development and also brain wave development. I also looked at Bruner, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Vygotsky. The results are quite telling as all theorists are showing transitions to different stages at similar ages.

The implications are that teachers need to have a sound understanding of these theorists and the stages a child is working at. If a child has not grasped the concept of conservation, then they do not have the cognitive ability to do a math problem, such as as example 5 in the After One Year Maths National Standard. This is important for teachers to understand as asking students to perform learning tasks that are beyond their cognitive/developmental stage is unfair at best and damaging to a student's view of them as a learner at worst.

It is here that I believe that using play as a learning approach can help scaffold children in a positive way and help create the conditions for a positive disposition to learning.


First, let's define what play at school is. According to (Gray, 2013; Brewer, 2007) play needs to be;

  1. self-chosen and self-directed;
  2. process rather than product driven;
  3. contains structures or rules established by the players themselves;
  4. imaginative, non-literal and removed from reality;
  5. occurs between those who are active, alert and non-stressed.

"Play by definition, is, first and foremost, an activity that is self-chosen and self-directed. It is an activity that you are always free to quit. Activities that are chosen by teachers and directed or evaluated by teachers, is not play" Peter Gray

In order to understand the importance of play, we needed to understand the stages of play. Brownlee (2017) argues that play is innate, it is part of a human's biological makeup. Mildred Parten Newhall's 1929 dissertation outlined the stages of play as a theory and classified children's participation in play developed by observing American preschool age (ages 2 to 5) children at free play (defined as anything unrelated to survival, production or profit). According to Parten, as children became older, improving their communication skills, and as opportunities for peer interaction become more common, the nonsocial (solitary and parallel) types of play become less common, and the social (associative and cooperative) types of play become more common.

Parten recognized six different types of play:

Parten's Stages of Play

Schemas/Urges of Play

Brownlee (2017) and Gray (2014) state that play is a vital part of the human evolutionary process. Briggs and Hansen (2012) state that research identifies play is an important/necessary condition for many animals and, from a biological perspective, is important for survival. Craine (2010) argues that humans are no exception to this rule. Gray (2008) states "from an evolutionary perspective, the main purpose of play is education. Play is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals will practice the skills they need for survival."Play is nature's way of ensuring that young mammals will practice the skills they need for survival."

Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist, psychologist and psychobiologist, has researched the importance of play and where play occurs in the brain. Dr Panksepp stated that "a basic urge to play exists among the young of most mammalian species" and that humans are no exception. He also found that play is imporant to further develop social skills in adulthood.

Whilst one can easily argue that the purpose of this play is no longer needed, from a survival point of view, many argue (Briggs and Hansen, Brownlee, Grey, Craine) that it is still vital for normal social and emotional development. Cheer and Aiono (2017) state that neurological research now confirms behavioural, biological and developmental research garnered over 30 years ago on the importance of play to healthy childhood development.

If we look at the types of play, sometimes referred to as schemas or urges, we can see a purpose to the type of play that a child is participating in. These urges are a way for children to make sense of the world around them. Aiono (2017) states that the greater the opportunities that children get to play out these urges, the stronger the neuro pathways.

Gathering - Gathering or collecting items.

Transporting - Transporting can be the urge to carry many things on your hands at one time, in jars, in buckets and baskets, or containers.

Deconstruction - Breaking things comes before making things - for most children.

Construction - Creating and building.

Enclosure - The urge to fill up cups with water, climb into cardboard boxes or kitchen draws, build fences for the animals or to put all the animals inside the circular train track, it is the Enclosure/Container schema. Shelter and safety are deep within the human experience.

Trajectory - The urge to throw, drop and other actions that are all part of the Trajectory schema. Some other Trajectory actions are things like climbing up and jumping off (Trajectory of ones own body), putting your hand under running water (interacting with things that are already moving) and the classic, throwing and dropping (making it happen). It can be diagonal, vertical or horizontal... this is a multi-dimensional urge, after all learning is based on movement in the first years of life.

Connection - Joining train tracks, clicking together pieces of lego, running a string from one thing to another... the urge of Connection. Putting things end to end, tying things together to make a ‘convoy’ of wheelbarrows, trucks, friends.

Enveloping - Putting things into things is an urge, to have a sheet over your head, wrapping things in fabrics or with tape and paper, all actions seen in the Enveloping schema.

Patterning and Ordering - Do you find yourself positioning things neatly into alignment on your desk, ordering the books on the self, getting creative when you plate the dinner or even just tidying-up. Perhaps you see your child lining up their cars, making sure the whale is next to the cow or turning all the cups upside down? It is about sorting, classifying, and seriating.

Role Playing - Children role play to explore their place in society, as well as examine social justice (good versus bad).

Rotation - Anything that goes around anything that is circular - wheels, turning lids, watching the washing machine on spin cycle, drawing circles, spinning around on the spot, being swung around. These are all experiences of the Rotation schema. Starting with rolling when babies learn to move off their backs to spinning round and round and falling down dizzy, children have a pattern of the circular to unfold. Low, horizontal tyre-swings extend this, wheeled vehicles, a spinning wheel, retro wind-up gramophones...

Orientation - The urge to hang upside down, get the view from under the table or on top of the dresser and other actions that are part of the Orientation schema. In order to 'know' what it is like to hang upside down or see things from a different point of view, you must take yourself into those positions. It is looking at things from another angle.

Transformation - The urge to Transform can come in many forms; holding all your food in your mouth for a long time to see what it turns into, mixing your juice with your fish pie, water with dirt, or mixing the bread dough. It's only natural that once you have explored and learnt about a raw material you should want to do further testing. Turning something into something else, watching the properties morph and change: soil and water mud pies, clay and water sculpting, flour, butter, etc.

Climbing - Children are going to climb - some more than others. It is about position yourself to a higher state. Seeing things from a different perspective.

Brownlee argues that a teacher has to look past the content of the play and look at the method. A child gathering and patterning tiger toys is not about his/her love of tigers, rather it is the urge to gather and pattern. She also argues that these urges are biological and in the past helped prepare children for adulthood. The ability to gather, throw, judge distance, follow the social rules of the group, orientate oneself to the desired destination, build shelter, to organise and categorise, etc helped ensure survival and were practiced in childhood.

Research Supporting The Importance Of Play

The use of play in primary schools is not new thinking, in fact as far back as 1950's the New Zealand education system has advocated for the importance of play in the primary school environment.

Wallis (2017) states that "the more play you have under the age of 7, the more intelligent you will be." There is nowhere in research that shows that trying to teach a five-year-old like a seven-year-old works. A fundamental flaw is to think that a child that can do something early is an advantage if anything it is the opposite. This link is a National Radio interview on the 8th of May, 2014, where Wallis speaks about what 3 to 7-year-old children need.

Menzies (2015) states, "We all know that play contributes positively to a child’s sense of well-being. It enhances a child’s natural capacity for intense and self-motivated learning. It helps build creative and critical thinkers and lets children test social boundaries. Play produces curiosity, openness, optimism, resilience, and concentration. It enhances a child’s memory skills, develops their language skills, helps regulate their behavior, advances their social skills and encourages academic learning to take place."

Early Childhood Education Professor, Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, is an expert on young children’s play. He says that play 'seems like a frivolous area of study, but play is one of the most important things children do. It is one of the best predictors we have of later social and intellectual development.'

Aiono and Cheer (2017) state that numerous research has defined pretend or socio-dramatic play as the most beneficial play for children. This type of play has been shown to have the strongest links to executive functioning development. This type of thinking develops flexible and abstract thinking, it also helps develop self-control. This play also allows children to build on their knowledge of what is known, as well as what could be, as well as developing.

This is also supported by Guddemi (2013) who states, "Mature, sustained socio-dramatic play is the most important type of play. This is when executive functioning develops." Wallis (2017) also supports similar thinking as he states that research has shown that conversations with another person, especially using imaginative play, is the most complex task for the human brain.