The Great Debate: Academic vs Play Based Learning

  • November 9, 2016 /

Twenty years ago, schoolchildren spent their days building with blocks and creating imaginary worlds with crayons. Down the road, scholars embraced a simple idea: that starting sooner meant learning more. Schools swapped play-based activities for teacher-led, didactic instruction, hoping to prevent children from falling behind in crucial subjects like reading and math. The idea seemed obvious, but would later be described by experts as a “profound misunderstanding of how children learn.”

Two Schools of Thought

For all intents and purposes, children learn in one of two basic ways — the academic (skills based) approach or the play based (child centered) approach.  As a parent, nothing is more important than choosing the best approach for your child. We’re here to help you make the right decision. First things first — what’s the difference?

Academic (Skills Based) Approach

In this traditional, teacher directed and managed approach, children have little choice in what to learn. Teachers extensively plan activities, guiding the children in a structured, routine oriented environment. Designed to prepare students for kindergarten, children learn letters and sounds, colors, shapes and numbers, handwriting and other basic skills. Learning drills, worksheets and art projects fill the daily student agenda.    

Play Based (Child Centered) Approach

A main goal drives the play based approach: for children to develop social skills by teacher modeling. Teachers give children the autonomy to choose activities based on their interests, incorporating academic skills through theme based activities, often using theme based props. The typical classroom features multiple sections including a kitchen area, play house, reading nook, sensory table and block area.

Head to Head

The play based approach is the near total opposite of the academic approach. The teacher acts as facilitator of learning — rather than a lecturer of direct instruction. In the play based approach, student progress is monitored by participation in hands-on activities and observational assessments — rather than worksheets and drills. In a head-to-head matchup, the question remains — which is better?

Pros and Cons

In an ongoing debate with often contradictory results, researchers attribute a number of advantages to both schools of thought. For example, studies show the behavioral, social and emotional skills generally learned through the play based approach prove to be one of the best predictor’s of later school success. Studies also show children with social skills in place are better able to focus on their work when starting academics. Other studies attribute the same success to the early academic and attention skills taught by the teacher-directed approach.

The Shifting Trend

The trend over the last twenty years has, for the most part, shifted from the academic to the play based approach. The play based approach, for example, helps develop a love for school, builds creativity, and increases the motivation to try new things. Children in play based learning also develop their social skills — including communication, sharing, empathy and listening.

Research also denies that teaching academics earlier helps children develop cognitive skills any sooner. The academic approach may have the opposite effect — potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and souring the child’s desire to learn.

According to National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), young children learn best through direct sensory encounters – rather than a formal academic process. The NAEYC believes learning should be the outcome of hands-on experience, especially play.

The X Factor

Beyond choosing one school of thought over another, your child’s success depends heavily on other important factors including their persistence, confidence, self-control and self-esteem. Parental support is another critical aspect of student success. Aside from the learning approach, it’s best to choose a program with a positive atmosphere for your child to build confidence and boost self-esteem.

The Best of Both Worlds

Fortunately, today’s preschools and child care programs generally incorporate both curriculums, mixing teacher-directed activities with unstructured play-based learning. Our recent embrace of the best of both worlds makes your decision as a parent an easier one. Your child can thrive from both schools of thought — rather than one.