Play-Based Learning in the Primary School


Mary Briggs & Alice Hansen

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    We wish to extend our sincere thanks to Cathy Styles and staff (Croftlands Junior School), Hank Williams, Sarah Lonsdale (York St John University), the McGregor Family, Victoria O'Farrell (Central Lancaster High School), Sara Bradley (Dallas Road School) and those other teachers who wish to remain anonymous for supporting the inclusion of their case studies.

    About the Authors

    Mary Briggs is an Associate Professor in the Institute of Education at the University of Warwick. She teaches on a number of different education courses with a specific research interest in mathematics education, leadership, assessment, and mentoring and coaching. She has worked in a wide range of settings including children's homes, special, primary school and universities.

    Dr Alice Hansen is an educational consultant. Her research interests are in mathematics education, using technology to enhance learning and teaching, and curriculum development. Her main focus is continuing professional development for practitioners, teachers and other educators in early years settings, primary schools, initial teacher training providers and other educational settings in the UK and abroad.


    In the UK and many other countries around the world there are a growing number of primary schools developing their pedagogical approach to the curriculum so that the children receive a broad, balanced curriculum that encourages high achievement and engagement. The development includes the use of ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ approaches to learning and teaching that put children and their needs at the centre. This book addresses many of the issues related to this pedagogic approach by focusing on play-based learning and teaching across the primary and elementary school.

    The book begins by presenting a number of biological, societal, educational and developmental views of play. These address the social/cultural, behavioural/physical, affective/emotional and cognitive/intellectual aspects of play. We also present the ‘planning paradox’ in relation to play which is one of the main issues related to a play-based approach to learning and teaching. The planning paradox states that there is a tension for teachers between the desire for children to feel a play-like freedom within more formal school-based learning, but that this is unsatisfactory if the child's and teacher's agenda differ. This book addresses this significant issue.

    The book centres on a number of principles of play. We know that every school context and every child's need within that context is different. Therefore we use guiding principles that work in all types of play regardless of the situation. The principles are introduced in Chapter 2 as roles for older learners. We use the premise that children have the capacity to be autonomous learners, creative learners, investigators, problem solvers, reflective learners and social learners.

    Building on the earlier chapters that outline what play for older children is and the roles that older children undertake within play, Chapter 3 identifies the types of play that are suitable for 5–11-year-olds. These are:

    • artistic or design play
    • controlled imaginary play/social dramatic play
    • exploratory play
    • games play
    • integrated play
    • play using the whole school environment and beyond
    • replication play
    • small world play
    • role play
    • virtual play.

    Play-based approaches to learning are synonymous with the early years phase of education, yet this chapter uses research to demonstrate how each type of play can effectively address older learners’ needs including their academic attainment. Each type of play is illustrated with a small practical idea.

    Chapter 4 draws together the principles and types of play by providing full case studies from primary schools in England where play-based approaches to learning are being utilised. It is our intention that the case studies will act as a catalyst for you to try play-based approaches in your teaching and will also ilustrate the principles and types of play outlined in earlier chapters.

    The planning paradox is revisited in Chapter 5. The tension that it identifies is critically discussed, with a focus on the role of teachers and other adults in a play-based approach to learning and teaching. We look at different models for play-based learning environments and the possible roles for adults and children within these. Practical advice for involving adults and finding other adults to help is given.

    In Chapter 6 we look at the issues around planning for play activities with 5–11-year-old children and how both adults and children can be involved in the planning and organisation of play environments. It includes discussion of the design and planning of environments, as well as the development of environments through spontaneous events in the classroom and outside as a response to children's interests and their ideas. This chapter raises questions about how we stimulate play with older learners and how we allow the element of choice within activities for the children.

    In a play-based approach to learning and teaching, assessment methods and strategies are different to the more traditional approaches often used. In Chapter 7 we address a number of significant issues that teachers often face in relation to assessing during a play-based approach. Aspects such as process vs. product, output vs. outcomes, and hard vs. soft outcomes are considered. We challenge existing widespread practice to ask who can undertake the assessment and look at the role children have in assessing their own achievements. We also look at a range of assessment methods that move away from traditional paper-based evidence and encourage you to try some of them. We take observation, a key assessment strategy used in the early years, and consider its application in settings for older children. Finally, we consider reporting assessment findings to parents.

    Inclusion is the availability of opportunity for all learners to make progress learn from activities through the removal of any barriers to learning and development. These may be physical, emotional, social, cultural, religious or cognitive. In Chapter 8 we consider how all children can be offered a rich and enjoyable experience that will support their development in the widest sense. We use speaking and listening as a tool for being a reflective and social learner. We look at issues that are more particular to children who have English as an additional language and more widely the social issues that impact on all members of a school community.

    Finally, Chapter 9 discusses how play-based approaches to learning and teaching can support children's transition from primary to secondary schooling. It provides a case study of how a primary and secondary school collaborate with a view to supporting the learners in both settings in a range of transitions (for example, from primary to secondary school and from secondary school into a career). Issues about using a skills-based curriculum, the impact of children's levels of confidence on ease of transition, and links between primary and secondary school experiences are explored.

    Overall the book supports teachers and trainee teachers in thinking about why and how a play-based approach to learning is effective in the whole primary school. It considers a wide range of school contexts, and offers innovative and practical advice for how a play-based approach to learning can be implemented as a school-wide approach or in a single classroom.

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