Children learn and grow through exploration. For instance, as children play in block areas, they are simultaneously investigating concepts relating to shapes and their physical properties as well as balance, abstract representations, and problem-solving. They think creatively as they navigate challenges and try new things; they communicate with others and learn to share materials; they express emotions and expand on their direct experiences.
Teachers can set up challenges, like building the tallest tower or designing a home for a stuffed animal, that enable such play-based learning opportunities to unfold in the classroom. Research continues to demonstrate that play-based learning leads to gains in math, literacy, executive functioning, and social and emotional development.
As schools moved to distance learning during the pandemic, early childhood educators began to explore ways that play-based learning could occur with digital resources or within digital environments. To be effective, such educational media must remain open-ended, socially interactive, and flexible while requiring communication and removing external evaluation.
Most important, these digital resources must enable experiences and learning to unfold as a result of the child’s questions. Adults who engage alongside children must remain playful participants who listen, follow, and expand on the child’s discoveries rather than direct, instruct, and restrict the child’s explorations. Here are some examples of play-based digital resources
Digital Resources as a Launching Point for Play
PBS Kids produces high-quality educational media for children based on research about early childhood learning. PBS has also developed play-based resources such as videos, apps, digital games, and hands-on materials. Many of these have been curated and sequenced into lesson plans and curriculum units so that an engaging video or game can be the launching pad for learning. These resources are designed to encourage playful interaction by asking questions, pausing for thinking time, or prompting children to imagine how an idea relates to their own experience.
For example, there is a playlist of extensions for the show Molly of Denali, about a native Alaskan girl and her family. A child might watch a show and recognize something from their school, home, or neighborhood. Suddenly, a recipe, map, or diagram takes on new meaning as children decipher or create their own informational texts in pursuit of their own interests.
They might draw or write down ingredients like rocks, dirt, and worms, for mud pie on the playground. They might make a map of how they get from home to school or where they hid their favorite stuffed animal and then see if their friend can follow the map. Teachers might notice these efforts and introduce useful vocabulary or measurements. Other children might add missing ingredients or include additional routes to finding a treasure. There are numerous ways to use the resources to spark creativity and open-ended adventures in learning!
Digital Resources for Math and Science Discovery
Science exploration: First 8 Studios has designed a series of digital games and apps to support early math and science discovery. The most recent addition to this suite of resources is the Preschool Data Toolbox. This app provides six pre-made investigations and then allows for create-your-own investigations as well as making a data story.
The app supports children learning what kinds of questions can be answered through data collection, and then it scaffolds the data collection, representation, and analysis processes. Questions can arise from authentic experiences, and then data is used to answer these questions and tell stories about phenomena that children are noticing and exploring. In this way, the app provides an environment in which children and their teachers can play with data.
For example, children might notice that they feel nervous or excited about something coming up that day and decide to investigate their classmates’ feelings over the course of the day. They can record and graph feelings at various time points and consider what may impact feelings throughout the day, such as what activities they are doing, whether they are tired or hungry, or whether they are getting along with friends. They may even experiment with doing a silly dance or pose and seeing whether this changes their feelings.
The app provides ideas and a structure for engaging in such play-based explorations but also provides space for children to generate their own questions to explore, discuss, and expand upon. All of these graphs can be combined to tell a story about what was investigated and learned that incorporates the collected data. A teacher or other adult can (and likely must) help students with all of this, but they get to do so as playful co-participants and guides.
Math exploration: SolveMe Puzzles are another great tool to encourage math-based play. Incorporating puzzles in early childhood that build the foundations of these principles and remove the “magic” of abstract thinking can help students master more complicated math as they advance through elementary and middle school.
Online games from SolveMe Puzzles seamlessly utilize key concepts of algebra and bolster foundational numeracy as children solve puzzles that relate quantities but often do so without actual numbers. Children explore and deduce equivalence and balancing equations, as well as symbolic representation, as they play. Users can create their own puzzles to demonstrate understanding and engage others, and adults can scaffold learning as they observe and play alongside children.
When we think of play-based learning, we typically think of hands-on games and activities. Digital resources are often considered to be in opposition to such learning, as educators and caregivers worry about the isolation of the screen and the passive nature of engaging with digital media. However, digital media has the potential to be as active and playful as nondigital media. Just as a good book can spark the imagination and foster curiosity and exploration, so too can a well-designed digital resource.