What is playful learning?
Playful learning is finding a place in between work and play where you are getting the child to learn a specific target. You have a goal in mind for what you want the child to accomplish and yet you sacrifice as few aspects of play as possible in order to meet that goal and in order to teach them those targets. The closer you get to pure play when you are doing this playful learning that is where the magic really happens. This is where the most productive learning happens and where you can deeply impact a child's knowledge and understanding of a skill or topic. The tricky thing about getting into that magic zone for playful learning is that young children can easily recognize the difference between pure play and work being disguised as play (Dietze & Kashin, 2011).
The best way to make sure that this does not happen and for the child to not feel as though they are being duped into essentially doing fun work is to give them as much control as possible. Make it as fun as possible and sacrifice as few aspects of pure play as you can. When I am working with preschoolers, for example, I bring them to my elementary classroom. The thing that I always say to them on the walk down is, “Are you ready to work and play?” I am asking them if they are ready to come down to my room where they will be doing some play activities but they are also going to be doing some work activities. The children are almost always on board for “meeting me in the middle”.
Playful learning involves several aspects of play: flexibility, nonliterality, positive affect, intrinsic motivation. If it is not fun, it does not count. If the child does not want to do it voluntarily, it does not count. If they are not actively engaged, it does not count. You have to have as many of these aspects of play as possible. Any or all of these aspects of pure play may contribute to the benefit of playful learning.
Meredith Poore Harold, PhD, CCC-SLP is a Speech–Language Pathologist with an academic research background. She currently works for a large Kansas City-area school district and owns her own private practice (www.meredithharold.com).