The Benefits of Play-Based Learning For All Ages

Key Points

  • Research has long demonstrated the importance of play and its connections to learning, brain development, skill acquisition, and social-emotional learning. 

  • Play has really become vital in the individual development of not only children but adults as well. 


Play-based learning is getting more attention all the time – and maybe rightly so. Research has long demonstrated the importance of play and its connections to learning, brain development, skill acquisition, and social-emotional learning. Indeed, play has really become vital in the individual development of not only children but adults as well. According to play-based learning researchers, this is really a matter of health and wellness.

With the current pandemic and alongside a host of other global challenges, play-based learning is key in addressing feelings of loneliness, vulnerability, social deprivation, isolation, and trauma, according to Dr. Angie Nastovska of The Playmakers Institute. “Focusing on just playing and embracing play is a sure and fun way to fuel our imagination, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and emotional well-being,” said Nastovska. “As a comparison, the okay for adults can mean relaxing, setting work and commitments aside, and just enjoying socialization in an unstructured, creative way.”

The concept that this is not just for young learners is vital, according to Nastovska. She said we are born with an innate desire and need for play. “Play is a way of knowing and a way of being. It’s an essential means for exploration, inquiry, learning, socialization and ultimately understanding our societal and cultural norms and patterns,” said Nastovaksa. “It is important for everyone because with playing, we nurture and foster personal expression, exploration and creativity. The benefits of play, said Nastovska, are that it can add joy to life, help relieve stress, supercharge our learning and also connect all of us to others and the world around us (See this Help Guide for more information).

Play is also an important part of our professional lives as well, said Nastovska. “Play can also make work more productive and pleasurable,” she said. Since play is so vital to emotional and physical well-being, researchers are now studying how it influences our career success and literacy. The world of work is experiencing deep fears and trauma related to workers being displaced by automation, artificial intelligence, and pure skill misalignment. Solutions are often focused on re-training and educational efforts, as well as newer concepts such as Universal Basic Income.

Play nurtures and fosters all things related to this ability to connect and relate to one another.

Dr. Angie Nastovska

But one group of corporate CEOs is looking deeper and offering research-based connections to career success and the concepts around play. “Helping kids play more will equip them to be relevant to the workplace and to society,” said John Goodwin, CEO of the Lego Foundation and the former CFO for The Lego Group. According to the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies, collaboration and teamwork are the most important workplace skills of the 21st century. Our ability to connect and relate to one another – across all backgrounds, education levels and personalities – is the means for future success, said Nastovska.

“Play nurtures and fosters all things related to this ability to connect and relate to one another,” she said. “So, if you want your child to get a good job, let them play more.” So, ultimately, this is a literacy that becomes part of the literacy lexicon of educators and our schools. Nastovska advocates that we have to adopt a systems thinking approach to this challenge of play literacy.

She sees this as both a literacy and priority challenge for educators and parents alike. Nastovska said that we have to get all adults in our kids’ lives to realize that play is not just fun and games, but rather as a vital aspect of our overall health, well-being and lifelong success. “Play might be one of the most important concepts and activities that we can impart on our children in order to prepare them for success both personally and professionally,” she said.

Nastovaks is challenging all parents to become more aware of the importance of play and to consult resources designed for parents and families as well. As one example, she cites the joint work of Playworks and the Alliance For A Healthier Generation who have compiled a list of helpful tips for planning and prioritizing play for parents and families who are interested in integrating more play into the routine at home. They are:

1. Create a Game Plan

Just like schoolwork and mealtime, we can plan ahead for play. As a family, discuss your goals for play time and establish a basic framework for how, when, and where play occurs (e.g., in the family room after dinner).

Short on time? Consider ways you can add movement and play to your regular routines like trying these Go for a Walk Games.

2. Engage the Whole Family

One of the best ways to encourage play and physical activity in children is to model those choices as an adult. Caretakers and older siblings can inspire younger children simply by engaging in play or movement themselves. Some of our favorite games to build connections are I Love My Neighbor and Charades Relay. Find more games that the whole family can enjoy in the Playworks Game Library.

3. Use Your Whole Space

Whether indoors or outdoors, make the most of your play space. Get started by mapping your space to establish boundaries and identify any potential safety hazards. To do so, draw out all of your space with your child on a piece of paper. Identify which zones are off-limits for safety (ex. kitchen or bathroom) or because other people need to be safely moving through the space. Your kids might be able to help you identify new small or large safe spaces to play, and establish what types of games they’d like to play where.

When playing games with tossable objects, it’s safest to find a space without much furniture, unless you get creative with a game like Popcorn. Outdoor space near the house might be better for games that use equipment, such as balls, frisbees, or hula-hoops. Be sure to always have kids point to the boundaries of the space before they start playing to establish and re-iterate expectations.

Get creative and modify game rules to fit your space. If you are playing a tag game, for example, include touching some of the walls or furniture inside of a room as an added step.

4. Reflect

Play can stir up a lot of emotion. When we pause to reflect after an active game, we offer ourselves and others an opportunity to process these emotions and communicate our needs. At the end of playtime, pause as a group to debrief or identify feelings so that everyone can leave the play space feeling heard and happy.

Here are a few of our favorite Playworks Debrief Questions:

  • What was challenging about playing these games
  • What would you like to do differently next time?
  • How did you practice (insert skill, ex. Physical Self-Awareness) while playing this game?
  • How did you communicate with others during the game?
  • What is a creative way you’d like to change the game next time?

Become part of the PlayMaker Play Initiative, which is a quarterly series around different topics of play. This quarter, the focus is on Play-Based Learning For All Ages. 

Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

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1 Comment

Manju Retnan

Play-based learning is gaining popularity, and for good reason. The play has been linked to learning, brain development, skill acquisition, and social-emotional learning for a long time, according to research. Play, not only for children but also for adults, has become extremely important in their growth. This is actually an issue of health and wellness, according to play-based learning researchers.
One school in Bangalore Harvest International School gives more importance to play-based training for all age groups. For more details:

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