How Play is an Important Part of Learning

April 16, 2021

Play is fun for children, but it can also help reinforce educational concepts and facilitate learning. Through playtime and games, children immerse themselves not just in lessons but in fun, too! Harvard’s Graduate School of Education published a story titled “Playing to Learn” that detailed how play is an important part of learning and how Denmark and South Africa integrated playtime into schooltime.

Project Zero, a Harvard Graduate School of Education research center, in collaboration with the International School of Billund (Denmark), studied the “pedagogy of play.” What they discovered was that play, and maybe even how we play, can be influenced by culture, and playing can be more meaningful than just fun recreation. The article explained that “…a pedagogy of play is grounded in playing toward certain learning goals, designing activities that fit in and leverage curricular content and goals.” While not all schools have time for or have necessarily embraced playing as a complement to standard learning, parents can use playtime at home as a means to help children learn and grow.

Readability’s Founder and CEO Ameeta Jain talked to Dr. Kanika Kadakia on how parents can embrace the fun and educational importance of playtime.

AJ: Hi, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. My name is Ameeta Jain. I’m the CEO and Founder of Readability. And today we’ll be talking about time play and how it can advance your child’s learning and literacy. And to help us understand this area better and to understand the importance of play, we invited Dr. Kanika Kadakia, who’s going to share her expertise in this area. Welcome Kanika.

KK: Thank you.

AJ: Let me tell you a little bit about Dr. Kanika Kadakia. Her academic and professional research has centered on advocating for play-based learning and meaningful dialogue between children and adults. She started her career as a kindergarten teacher and has taught fourth grade, seventh grade and eighth grade. Currently, Dr. Kadakia authors children’s books and is an entrepreneur in the field of literacy. She holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis in educational psychology and a master’s degree in teaching. And she even has a bachelor’s degree in business administration, all from the University of Southern California. Thank you, Dr. Kadakia, for taking the time to help us understand why play is so important to advance our child’s learning and literacy. So, tell us what is the current state of play and why is it so important?

KK: Absolutely, so there’s been a number of studies that have been done on this topic. But one in particular that comes to mind was done in 2010 by Han et al. They did a study with two groups. One group received 30 minutes of instruction in vocabulary and this was for students, racially diverse and they are high-risk students. So that could be because they’re from low socioeconomic backgrounds or it could be because their reading levels were very low.

They took these groups of students and they split them up into two groups, one receiving 30 minutes of vocabulary instruction and the other receiving 20 minutes of vocabulary instruction, but then 10 more minutes of play. And that play was directly correlated to whatever vocabulary they were learning. And it could take the form of dramatic play, which is role-playing and fantasy or constructive play, which is when you are making things and creating things.

They found that both groups improved after receiving these series of vocabulary lessons, but the group that improved the most was the group that incorporated play. So, even though they had less time with direct instruction and vocabulary, they had that addition of play where they could actually engage with the learning content at a more deeper level.

They improved more in their expressive vocabulary, which is the vocabulary that you’re producing, speaking, writing. And that could have been something as simple as if the word is cook. Then they have props such as a bowl and a spoon and they’re stirring and they’re pretending to put on the stove and then move it and they would say the word cook, and they would act it out. And things like that have been shown time and time again of how allowing children to engage in play, to deepen their understanding of the learning content can have major impacts, not only in that specific learning content but even overall in their learning.

AJ: That is amazing, and I can completely see how that would be so helpful. You gave us one example like the word cook and then doing something in the kitchen to really deepen that learning. And for me it’s like that just is comprehending, that vocabulary word, right? Comprehension vocabulary really does lean into advancing a child’s learning. How can parents and educators incorporate play and do it successfully to help our kids advance?

KK: It’s the comprehension factor that comes, right? It’s not just rote memorization. To help their children comprehend what they’re doing, there are so many different ways that you can encourage your child to play. It can be role-playing, it could be free play.  There doesn’t have to be a goal in mind, there can just be, you know, go play where the child is initiating their own play and creating their own games.

They’re given blocks and they’re building and they’re doing all these wonderful things with just whatever they have at home. It doesn’t even have to be very structured. It can just be go play, it could be, you know, setting up playdates once it’s safe to do so with their peers.

Just taking out time in the day really and dedicating that time that this is just play, that’s one thing that parents can really do for their children, especially because they’re not getting those times anymore in school. And as much as teachers would love to do that, the pressures of standardized testing and reaching certain scores is just so high that that’s the first thing to go. If we can’t see that in schools as much, which hopefully it will come back, at least that can be at home where parents or caretakers are just really focused on providing those opportunities for play to their children.

AJ: I really love that. And as a parent myself, I remember when my kids were little. It was so vital to me that they had downtime. Even when they were in junior high and high school and they had all this homework, and extracurricular activities, volunteer work, I felt they still needed downtime, just time for them to explore their thoughts even and just think maybe just have some quiet time with a book. I do think it’s vital to a child’s overall wellbeing. So, what you’re saying to parents today is take it easy at home, right? Let them play.

KK: That is definitely a trend that we’re seeing that parents, including myself, even after knowing all of this we’re so inclined to structure every minute and to do all these things that there is no downtime. And like you said, even adults need this. It’s not even just something children need. Adults take those brain breaks too, whatever it looks like to go for a run or to listen to music or to read or to just sit or play.

AJ: Yes.

KK: Adults do this constantly to restimulate their brain and to have that space to gain a different perspective. That’s all helping our mental state and everything, right? So, play is vital at any age and any space in time for sure.

AJ: Well, I love my downtime, I need it for sure to recoup. I just wanted to add, there are studies right now that have come out that state that, because of COVID and distance learning, remote learning, that our children might be about three months behind. Do you have any last minute advice for parents on what they can do to bridge that learning gap?

AJ: There is a concern right now that the achievement gap is gonna become even wider after the pandemic. And that’s only adding to the fuel of when we get back to school, we’re just gonna get right back into the academics of things and all that. It sounds so counterintuitive but that’s really not the answer after all this. The answer is that we are all taking a step behind and we’re all going to come back into schools, maybe not exactly where we needed to be and that’s okay.

We don’t need to get right back into the structure of things and pushing our kids in school or at home to catch up, that will only be more detrimental. Hopefully, when we go back to schools, I’m already hearing that a lot of parents, a lot of educators are going to be taking more time to really take care of their students’ mental health and to pay more attention to that because if you don’t have that then you can’t learn or do anything, right?

It’s what I’ve been reading and what I’m hearing from colleagues that they’re going to be placing more emphasis on that. And, hopefully, that will also translate to just more downtime and more time to play and more time to just be. So, in terms of, you know, catching up with academics, hopefully, there won’t be such a push for that and we’ll see the opposite actually hold true when we go back.

AJ: Well, thank you, thank you. I think that’s a beautiful place to end, more downtime and to just chill out.

KK: Yeah.

AJ: It’s gonna be okay.

KK: Yeah, it will.

AJ: Thank you for joining us, Dr. Kadakia. You’re welcome back any time. We’d love to hear from you again and your expertise is so valued and we appreciate everything you do for our kids, thank you.

KK: Thank you so much, thank you for having me.

About Kanika Kadakia

Dr. Kanika Kadakia’s academic and professional research has centered on advocating for play-based learning and meaningful dialogue between children and adults. She started her career as a kindergarten teacher and has also taught 4th, 7th, and 8th grade. Currently, Dr. Kadakia authors children’s books and is an entrepreneur in the field of literacy. She holds a doctorate in education with an emphasis in educational psychology, a master’s degree in teaching, and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California.