There is growing momentum to prioritize play-based learning in U.S. education policy. In July, New America reported on three states that formalized their investment in play-based learning through legislation. These actions are the latest steps in an international movement to align education policy with the science of how children learn, as seen in Finland, India, Singapore, South Korea, and Ghana, among other nations. Policy advances towards play-based learning in the United States are seen at the state level. Efforts were led by New Hampshire, where play-based kindergarten was mandated in 2018. More recently, Oklahoma’s Play to Learn Act was signed into law in 2021. It indirectly supports play-based learning by preventing school districts from prohibiting the approach in pre-K through 3rd grade. This year, Connecticut required play-based learning for its public kindergarten and pre-K programs, as of July 2024.
Each state coupled their fundamental acknowledgment of play-based learning with vital mechanisms to support teachers’ implementation of the approach. For example, authors of this blog (Elias and Kathy) supported a collaboration between the New Hampshire Department of Education and colleagues at the University of New Hampshire to offer kindergarten teachers instructional coaching on guided play—a form of adult-facilitated, child-directed play-based learning that enables students to maintain agency during a lesson as they pursue a specific learning goal. Studies indicate that guided play particularly helps students master academic content and enhance executive function skills, such as the ability to switch between tasks. Oklahoma and Connecticut are similarly invested in professional development. The Oklahoma Department of Education led training on what they termed “playing with purpose” and how playful learning enables deeper learning of state standards. Connecticut’s legislation mandates training on play-based learning for preschool through 5th grade teachers, which complements existing efforts to align best practices in early childhood and elementary education.
While the passage of dedicated legislation represents the strongest endorsement of play-based learning by education policymakers, it is not the only step that states have taken in this direction. Additional research from New America describes efforts in other states to modify professional development programs and curricula in support of this form of instruction. The Nevada Department of Education supports cohorts of kindergarten teachers to share developmentally appropriate practices. These professional learning communities fostered play-based learning in local districts. Maine adopted an interdisciplinary thematic approach to literacy, science, and social studies in pre-K through 1st grade with activities that promote play-based learning.
Putting play-based learning policies in context
The importance of these recent policy changes for students and teachers is best understood in relation to an opposing trend in early childhood education: “schoolification.” When classrooms are “schoolified,” developmentally appropriate, whole-child instruction is replaced by whole classroom teaching focused narrowly on school readiness outcomes on tests in literacy and math. While these skills are important for students’ success in the classroom and beyond, focusing on early literacy and math alone is inconsistent with the holistic instruction that researchers recognize as developmentally appropriate practice. “Schoolification” was identified as a global epidemic in early childhood education in 2018. Recent evidence tracks its spread across many Western democracies, including the United States, England, Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark.
The dominance of “schoolification” in the U.S. is attributed to the standards-based accountability movement associated with the passage of No Child Left Behind. Under “schoolification,” research indicates that teaching in U.S. kindergartens shifted to prioritize rote instruction and reading and math over student-centered pedagogy and other subject areas. A recent New America blog describes what one kindergarten teacher shared with incoming parents, “Kindergarten is not how it used to be: Old school kindergarten comprised of finger painting, playing with blocks, and eating snacks. Kindergarten [today] is much more academically rigorous.” The same teacher referenced the importance of recognizing the alphabet, connecting words to sounds, writing sentences, and identifying numbers through 100, offering examples of those early literacy and math skills that are important, but should not be prioritized above other elements of holistic developmentally appropriate practice.
As policymakers and educators rush to respond to the pandemic’s truly concerning impacts on students’ reading and math scores, it is important to avoid imposing greater “schoolification.” This may occur in practice if intensive tutoring is administered with a narrow focus on achievement defined by assessments and without sufficient attention to intervention quality. The full breadth of the pandemic’s effects on students should be considered, including its detrimental impacts on young children’s socio-emotional skills.
The trend away from “schoolification” reflects a promising alignment between research and education policy. A growing body of evidence from the interdisciplinary science of learning points towards a more holistic approach to supporting students, teachers, and communities in early childhood education and beyond. For example, The Learning Policy Institute and Turnaround for Children identified five Guiding Principles for Equitable Whole Child Design. Education according to these principles centers positive relationships in classrooms where students are supported and accepted. They engage in deep learning that promotes a breadth of skills for success in the classroom and beyond. The Active Playful Learning (APL) framework developed by authors of this blog takes a similar approach. APL’s foundation is understanding the knowledge and experiences that all students bring to the classroom and helping educators use these funds of knowledge to inform instruction. In turn, APL promotes pedagogy that aligns with evidence-based principles describing how children learn. These principles specify that children learn best through activities that are active rather than passive, engaging instead of distracting, meaningful rather than disconnected from other classroom activities and students’ out-of-school experiences, socially interactive not completely independent, iterative with opportunities to learn through trial and error, and joyful rather than dull. Research suggests that playful learning, especially adult-facilitated guided play in which the child retains agency during the activity, supports a breadth of skills that children need to achieve their goals inside and outside the classroom. We call these skills or outcomes the 6 Cs of collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.
Continuing the momentum and minding the gap: Next steps for play-based learning
The legislation and policymaker actions described in this piece strongly suggest that momentum in the U.S. is finally shifting away from “schoolification” in favor of play-based learning, following a promising international trend. Yet policymakers and educators must remain mindful of potential pitfalls as this movement progresses. While beneficial for child development in different ways, all play is not created equal in terms of its ability to support an educational learning goal. Rather, play lies on a continuum. Guided play particularly helps students master learning goals set by their teacher relative to unrestricted free play and teacher-centered direct instruction. Broad endorsement of “play-based learning” in legislation is a valuable first step that deserves recognition, but additional clarification from departments of education and local districts on the efficacy of guided play is important. There is a related need for robust and consistent professional development conducted in collaboration with teachers. Research from our lab and others shows a considerable research-to-practice gap in the U.S. and around the world. Fortunately, the recent state legislation described above consistently prioritizes professional development through which the most effective approaches to play-based learning can be emphasized and implemented.
Early childhood education sits at a remarkable inflection point: Research, policy, and practice all align in support of play-based learning. The need to depart from the “schoolified” pedagogy of the past is clear. Moving forward, we must ensure that the best science guides how play-based learning is put into practice. When teachers, scientists, and administrators work together, they can tailor the evidence-based approach to the curricula already in place while also enabling joyful teaching and deeper learning.