Play-Based Learning


Learning through Play


What might be learned during play

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions
  • Knowing is … appropriate action
  • Learner is … an intentional agent
  • Learning is … developing
  • Teaching is … varied according to conception of “play” – from abandoning to structuring




Play-Based Learning attends to what might be learned during play – a focus that, of course, is dependent on how “play” is defined. To that end, play is almost always considered to be agent-directed and intrinsically motivated. Commonly identified types/categories of play include:
  • Play – activity that is done for its own sake – thus, spontaneous, voluntary, unstructured, pleasurable, and flexible. Depending on age, play can involve interactions of body parts, with objects, with others, and/or with ideas. Subcategories include:
    • Unoccupied Play­ ­­– body motions engaged by infants and toddlers, typically with no deliberate purpose, but perhaps driven by feelings of pleasure and curiosity
    • Independent Play (Solitary Play) – playing alone, disconnected from, uninfluenced by, and likely oblivious to others
    • Onlooker Play – observing other agents at play, but not engaging in that play
    • Parallel Play – playing beside but not with other agents, often with the same toys or oriented by the same goal
    • Associative Play – playful interaction with other agents, but not necessarily for the same reasons
    • Cooperative Play – play involving other agents that is orienting by a common purpose
    • Make-Believe Play – pretending and role play that afford opportunities to test and practice wide arrays of culturally appropriate skills and identities while developing understandings of the inner dynamics of complex social situations
With specific regard to teacher-mediated play, the following categories and types are among those that have been identified:
  • Free Play – unstructured, agent-directed activity subject to subtle constraints and/or located within a planned space, designed to channel attentions and actions in ways that contribute to broad clusters of competencies
  • Guided Play – flexible activity within defined constraints (see, e.g., Learning Toys and Tools and Games and Learning) that is geared toward specific learning goals and that is typically supported by more expert knowers
  • Ludic Learning (Ludic Pedagogy) – from the Latin ludere “to play,” the incorporation into one’s teaching of elements designed promote fun and play
  • Serious Play – a range of play-based, problem-focused, and inquiry-oriented formats for learning that are intended mainly for adults and that are united across themes of flexibility in activity, toying with boundaries, oriented to possibility, and freedom from judgment – all while having fun
All types of play are seen to contribute to the development of physical coordination, social skills, cognitive flexibility, and emotional well-being.


As might be inferred from the categories and subcategories listed above – which actually represent only tip of a large iceberg – Play-Based Learning is subject to a wide range of interpretations. Because the foundational notion is so hotly contested, some commentators argue discourse is doomed to incoherence, and this criticism seems to be validated regularly as, for example, an advocate of Free Play simultaneously endorses school uniforms, teacher-centered lessons, and summative assessments. Of course, none of this is to say that the notion of incorporating play into formal education is a bad idea. On the contrary, it’s likely a very good one … but the matter is in need of more careful theorizing and investigation.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Insofar as it is properly included among Developmental Discourses, Play-Based Learning contributes to understandings of how different modes of play evolve and how manners of engagement within play might contribute to learning across physical, cognitive, affective, and social competencies.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While Play-Based Learning is undertheorized and under-researched, it still offers some important insights for educators seeking to understand the complementarities of structured and unstructured experiences.

Status as a Scientific Theory

In formal academic terms, Play-Based Learning is a relatively new area. There is an abundance of evidence that points to the value of Play-Based Learning in relation to matters of motivation and well-being, and rather less that affords insight in the contributions of play into robust understandings of complex ideas. Consequently, in terms of scientific status, it appears to be a promising but under-developed domain.


  • Associative Play
  • Cooperative Play
  • Free Play
  • Guided Play
  • Independent Play (Solitary Play)
  • Ludic Learning (Ludic Pedagogy)
  • Make-Believe Play
  • Onlooker Play
  • Parallel Play
  • Play
  • Unoccupied Play

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Play-Based Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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