Alliance for Childhood: Resources for educators and child advocates


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PBEL - Play Based Experiential Learning

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Children's play that is freely choosen and self-directed helps children absorb the world and make it their own.

Play has been described in many ways over the years. The description that we like best for free and unstructured play comes from the playworkers in the U.K. They say play is a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, self-directed, and intrinsically motivated. Play Based Experiential Learning combines elements of child-initiated, self-directed play (with appropriate support from teachers) and teacher-led activities that serve to provide developmentally appropriate content in hands-on, experiential ways. This type of learning provides the best of both worlds where children create their own play sessions that are enriched by the experiences brought by teachers. All of this happens in a warm and nurturing environment with teachers at the ready to build upon children’s interests.

 On a practical level play helps children develop a sense of understanding of their world. However, play is rewarding for children as an activity in its own right. The Alliance for Childhood highlights 12 key play types that children often engage in during their play sessions. These play types may occur alone or in various combinations. An important consideration for educators and care givers is how we can work to foster as wide a variety of types of play as possible in the learning environment. This toolkit will explore several of these play types through reflections and how they can be supported through play based experiential learning.

One easily observable characteristic of play is its relationship to hands on learning. In play and activities children use their hands all the time. From folding origami to baking bread to building a barn with neighbors, the human hand is capable of a huge range of complex and creative movements. But increasingly children touch the world with their finger tips and not their whole hand. They type, scroll down a screen, or push buttons on battery-operated toys. Their opportunities to grasp the three dimensional world have greatly diminished, and they pay a long-term price for this lack of agility with their hands.

In an effort to fill young children’s minds with knowledge we focus almost exclusively on keeping children from interacting with the physical world. Yet studies show that an unusually large part of the brain’s cortex is linked to the hand. When hands are engaged, the cortex is deeply engaged. This is true throughout life, but especially in early childhood. Young children are strongly motivated to touch the world and make it their own.

Although hands-on learning has lost a great deal of ground in recent years, there are indications that educators, parents, and others recognize its value. Adventure playgrounds that foster play with open-ended materials, including hammer and nails for building playhouses, are gaining new attention, and tinkering schools are springing up around the country. A “makers’ movement” is on the rise, and while it is often linked with high tech endeavors like 3D printing, it also encourages hands-on creative activity with a wide range of materials.

In early childhood classrooms, hands-on play and learning comes naturally to children. Sand and water play, building with blocks, caring for dolls, cooking, baking, and a host of other physical activities enliven the brain and develop a wide range of skills.

Reflections from the Field