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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Learning Through Play

This post was brought to you by British Council Malaysia.

If you’re a parent of a primary-level student, you probably find yourself wondering if there’s any educational value in the games your child is playing. Do kids learn by playing and is there a way to capitalise on this to get your kid to learn English?

Different types of play

Play is said to be an integral part of growing up. Most parents won’t need to be told what the definition of ‘play’ is – they would probably agree that it’s when kids are running around playing together or playing games. But did you know that there are different types of play[1]? Generally defined as ‘a fun activity’, play ranges from free play (such as running around with other kids without much adult supervision), guided play (where adults scaffold, or help the children), games (with rules set by an adult) and direct instructions (an adult-designed activity setting constraints on play). While all forms of play are beneficial, in education, it is the guided play, games and direct instructions which we focus on.

Play in education

Arguments for learning through play date back as far as the 5th century BCE when Plato[2] highlighted the value of play when learning, as opposed to using force, as this empowers children to be naturally drawn to the subject matter, and not scared of it. It wasn’t until much later, however, that learning through play became a norm.

Modern approaches to play in education draw from theories developed by Vygotsky[3] who spoke of zone of proximal development (ZPD). In a nutshell, this notion refers to the gap between what a learner can do on their own, and what they can do with the support of an adult. Thanks to such guidance, a student is said to make progress much faster than working on their own. Vygotsky believed that through interactive and social play, children developed their higher mental functions.

Play in English Language Learning

In the classroom, we aim to help young learners to learn through play by tapping into their ZPD by focussing on tasks they can do with the support and guidance from a teacher. With time, students learn to perform tasks independently. Many classroom activities focus on play as a vehicle for learning.

Role plays are an example of a fun activity which allows children to develop their English language skills in a fun way. While younger children often come up with their own make-believe scenarios and act them while playing on their own, in class, teachers help set up such an activity, to ensure kids get the most language benefits from it.

An example from the British Council

As part of their course, students are asked to act out a role play based on a clip they watched, for example, Shaun the Sheep. They would normally be assigned roles, e.g., one person is Shaun, another the Farmer, another Bitzer etc. Students have time to think of an alternative ending to a story, for example what happened after Timmy was supersized? The teacher helps with a brainstorm, encouraging creative thinking and the sharing of ideas, they help students put their ideas on paper and give support with the language. Finally, the students have an opportunity to act out their play. As role plays are consistently done in several lessons, the students become more independent, and with time, learn how to use the language from these make-believe scenarios, in daily life, independently. Research[4] has shown that students greatly benefit from role plays, e.g., by improving their vocabulary, complexity of syntax, and pronunciation.

© British Council

Games are another great example of structured play, which helps students learn new language while having fun. Students learn by discovering, processing, and applying new information. They also have a competitive element which kids often find highly motivating.

Through repetition and experimentation kids synthesise language rules and develop higher-level thinking skills.

An example from the British Council

In the classroom, kids are learning to speculate. This is a new, abstract concept and involves using a sophisticated grammar structure called ‘conditionals’. It means students need to remember several rules at the same time to from sentences like ‘If I was the president, I’d give out free candy every Friday.” The activity is set up by having the teacher introduce the language using a recording from the Primary Plus magazine. In the recording, kids are talking about what they would do if they were president. Following an explanation of the rules, the children play a game. Online, this means reshuffling the words to form appropriate sentences, in the physical classroom, they are organising cut-ups. The activity is learner centred, engages students to work in a team and helps them remember the new rule. The competitive factor (who gets most correct, who finishes first) adds to the excitement and helps them learn without being stressed out.

Play does not take away from learning

Many research findings[5] show that parents in Asia may not see the advantage to imaginative play. Often, understanding the teacher’s perspective on the ‘fun’ activities done in class helps parents understand its value. If you’d like to know more about the British Council approach to teaching and learning, please book a free consultation with our friendly consultant.


[2] D’Angour,Armand. (2013). Plato and play: taking education seriously in Ancient Greece .American Journal of Play, 5 (3), 293-307

[3] Daniels, H.(2016). Vygotsky and pedagogy.New York:Routlegde

[4] Korat, O., Bahar, E., & Snapir, M .(2003). Sociodramatic play as opportunity for literacy development: The teacher’s role. The Reading Teacher, 56, 386–393

[5] Singer, D.G., Singer, J. L., D'Agostino, H., & DeLong, R. (2009). Children’s pastimes in sixteen Nations. American Journal of Play, 1, 283-312.


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