Play-based learning: producing critical, creative and innovative thinkers

February 2015


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STEPHANIE MENZIES enters a plea to bring play back into the classroom.

then let me play

Go inside any primary school classroom and look for the ‘play’. Where is it? When did we become so serious with our students and forget to include play? It was only 15 years ago that we could go into any Year 1 classroom and find children playing with play-dough and creating the most spectacular creatures, painting a masterpiece or gluing together toilet rolls to make a spaceship. They were engaging with each other, negotiating, sorting out arguments and establishing friendships. They were imagining, exploring and inventing. It was through taking risks, discovering new ideas and putting these ideas into action that learning took place.

Now it seems such acts of play are a thing of the past. We walk into a typical classroom and find containers of maths equipment that only come out at maths time, musical instruments gathering dust while they wait for the designated timeslot to learn percussion and Lego in buckets under the reading shelves waiting to be used on rainy days.

We are reading a lot lately about having children ‘school-ready’ when they start school, especially so that the transition to school is smooth for the child. Why don’t we turn this thought completely around and ask schools to adopt a play-based pedagogy to reflect the Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum and weave this pedagogy thread throughout all levels of primary school?


Why don’t we play?

Our children have more structure and organisation in their lives than ever before. They get fewer opportunities for play within their classrooms, whether it is free play, supported play or purposeful play. We know the social, emotional, intellectual and cognitive benefits of play based-learning, so why aren’t we brave enough to put some free play back into our classrooms?

I once taught a boy in Nelson, who arrived on his fifth birthday with a bright, cheeky grin that instantly stole my heart. But it was difficult to engage him in any classroom activities. He wasn’t interested in the sand, the water, Lego or the Mobilo. After two weeks of trying to engage him, I visited the local recycling centre and bought an old typewriter and camera. I placed these objects in a tray with screwdrivers and left them out all day. The only rules I attached to them was that there were to be only four children playing at a time and they could only be played with before school started. He started coming to school each morning at 8.30am to dismantle these objects. I would take two minutes out of my morning preparation to go over and greet him, ask him about his family and make comment about the mechanics of what he was doing. We built up a positive connection which turned more into an attachment, and I found he would do anything I required of him in the classroom. We established respect for each other – him respecting me for taking time to get to know him and me respecting him for adhering to the classroom rules and expectations.

There are many reasons why we may not have play-based activities in our classrooms: a perceived loss of power; the amount of imagination required to come up with ideas; the organisation of time, materials, activities and spaces; the classroom may be noisy and messy; students may be talking, laughing and moving around, and you may feel that you are losing all classroom control and management.

But take a look inside an early childhood centre and you will find none of these things bothering the teachers. They set clear expectations of their students and have consistent rules and consequences set in place. They have already done the hard work; primary teachers just have to keep up their practices.

I found my love for play-based learning in a Year 1 class in Hokitika. I had 12 students, including identical boy triplets and identical boy twins.  Almost half of my entire class looked remarkably similar and was mostly boys! I was rummaging around in the caretaker’s shed looking for some paint one day and came across an old wooden carpenter’s table along with a dusty box full of child-sized tools. My dad cleaned them all up and sent me back to school on Monday with a box full of wooden off-cuts and shiny clean tools. I set the table up outside my classroom and placed the box of materials beside it. During maths I sent one of the groups outside to the table. I took a breath that lasted the whole lesson and let it out once they were all back inside with all fingers intact and eyeballs still in their sockets. Kevin had a permanent smile on his face because he was allowed to work outside in the sun, James was delighted at his creation of a futuristic space-ship and Becks was the envy of her class when she appeared with a wooden praying mantis including its wooden enclosure. These children had the opportunity to communicate with each other, share materials, practise patience, negotiate, create a masterpiece and have fun! 


Start now!

Our National Curriculum identifies several values and key competencies that we strive to teach our children. Almost all of them can be developed through play-based activities: innovation, inquiry, curiosity, and sustainability, respect, thinking, using language, and managing self, relating to others, participation and contributing.

I propose that we say, ‘enough is enough!’ Children in ALL years at primary school have the right to play, both within their classrooms and in the playground. We know that they become intrinsically motivated through play-based learning (and the need for rewards and star charts may no longer be needed). We know that one of our main goals is to motivate students to learn and we want them to continue to learn long into the future. We know researchers are linking the benefits of play on the developing brain. All around the world, children are engaging in pretend play that simulates the sorts of activities they will need to master as adults, suggesting that play is a form of practice.  So give them the opportunity to practice at school, right now in your classroom.

Digitally record the creations your students make and upload them to your class blog. Be prepared to let the child discard their creations when they are finished with’s often the process that is more important for the child than the product!

Give yourself permission to roam around the room observing the children at play, listen to their conversations, take photos for picture stories, sit down alongside them and engage in conversation, identify ‘teachable moments’ and run with them. You will soon work out the right time and place to intervene. Use your intuition, experience, knowledge, expertise and common sense to judge when the time is right.

In order to face the challenges of the 21st century, our children need to be critical and creative thinkers. The industrial age is truly over. We are now ensconced in the knowledge age with its unique challenges that are largely undefined as yet. Why not create a classroom environment to reflect a play-based pedagogy approach which encourages children to think outside the square and be creative? Why not arrange materials in provoking and inviting ways to encourage exploration, learning and inquiry?

We all know that play contributes positively to a child’s sense of well-being. It enhances a child’s natural capacity for intense and self-motivated learning.  It helps build creative and critical thinkers, and lets children test social boundaries. Play produces curiosity, openness, optimism, resilience and concentration. It enhances a child’s memory skills, develops their language skills, helps regulate their behaviour, advances their social skills and encourages academic learning to take place.

Why not be that brave teacher who says ‘I’m going to bring play back into my classroom’? Maybe your next PD session could be a visit to a local kindergarten to see the learning that is taking place...through play.


Stephanie Menzies recently completed her Master of Education degree, with her final assessment on play-based learning. Useful websites for play ideas include, and


10 ways to bring back play, have fun and promote learning:

  1. Buy old suitcases at the op-shop and fill them with various manipulation toys: Lego, Duplo, Meccano, wooden blocks, magnets and an assortment of magnetic and non-magnetic materials. Bring them out at different times of the day and let your pupils spend 15 minutes creating.
  2. Keep a plastic cube full of natural materials. Children love having a handful of shells, some pieces of branch, some stones and a glue-gun. Trust me on this! Give them these things and stand back and watch the creativity and learning that takes place!
  3. Collect a box of mechanical junk from the recycling store and add several screwdrivers and Allen keys. Set the box up somewhere in the classroom for the children to go to before school, or on rainy day lunch times.
  4. Bring out the woodwork table and tools you will find hidden in the back of the caretaker or sports shed.  Add a box of wooden off-cuts (not treated wood) and you have created an amazing builder’s paradise!  Keep this table just inside your door so you can easily put it outside each day. Offer it to your colleagues’ students to use outside your room.  I found I never used to get in trouble for the noise my students made when I offered it to other classes!
  5. Introduce glue-guns to your classroom along with a large basket full of recycled cereal boxes, perfume boxes, toothpaste boxes, egg cartons, etc. I suggest you use cool glue-guns which can be found at your local supplies store.
  6. Alternate between having a sand or water tray in your room. Along with learning science and maths concepts, children also have the opportunity to practise their social skills.
  7. I can’t think of anything better to use ice-cream containers for, than to fill them with play-dough.  It is easy to make, can last a couple of weeks and children of most ages enjoy playing with it. Don’t be scared off by the ‘germ-brigade’. Dirty play-dough doesn’t kill, and children over five don’t tend to snack on it!
  8. Why not include a painting easel into your room and give it the respect one gives a classroom computer. Use watercolour paint cakes with a jar of water and a cloth nearby and let children come and paint when they feel like it.  The world will not stop spinning if you let a child spend 10 minutes painting her masterpiece during silent reading.
  9. Have a box of dress-ups in your classroom. A Year 6 teacher may allow his students to use them every time they present something to the class. This infuses the presentation with laughter and helps put the more nervous students at ease.
  10. Wooden blocks should be in every classroom at every level in primary school. That’s a no-brainer...all children, at any age enjoy building with blocks.

Post your comment


  • As a parent this is so encouraging to read but more parents need to be educated on what under 7 year olds need in terms of their learning. I found an interview Nathan Mikaere-Wallis did on Radio NZ National about what 3-7 year olds need to learn - great listening!

    Posted by Abby, 24/11/2016 8:20am (12 months ago)

  • This kind of article annoys me. I do all of this stuff and it is a battle (and a huge expense from our own pockets) because we have pressure to get children to national standards in reading, writing and maths with a very prescribed way to do it. It is soul destroying. Teachers know their tamariki need to play more but our hands are tied with having to collect evidence to prove you are working on national standards. We have very very measured and overly assessed target groups in all of these areas, We spend hours planning how to fit everything in, entering data, and blogging evidence. We are exhausted and unhappy - you try being creative under these conditions. We hate it and we want them to play more - WE KNOW they need to play. It IS NOT because we don't like mess and noise and fear 'losing control' thank you Stephanie. You are directing your criticism at the wrong people. Go tell the minister of ED and leave teachers alone. By the way health and safety say our play dough has to be changed every 3 days and on a class budget of $150 for the entire year any donations from you to buy blocks, lego, glue guns, the sticks that go in the glue gun, puzzles, sellotape, tools, water colour paints, dress ups, water trays, sand trays, sand, painting easels, ingredients for playdough making etc etc etc would be very welcome - I have all of this stuff for my tamariki out of own pocket and I have spent about $1000 of my own money so far this year. School budgets for this kind of thing are getting cut more and more. I find this article judgmental, full of assumptions and patronizing.

    Posted by Katrina Fricker, 12/06/2016 8:12am (1 year ago)

  • great article!!!
    Feel like nz teachers should be standing on roof tops calling this out!!!
    If you want to do play i recommend 'learning through play' facebook page it has some amazing resources and inspiring teachers on it.

    Posted by kate, 09/06/2016 10:28pm (1 year ago)

  • Why not visit your local kindergarten and observe play in action and chat to the teachers. I am a senior teacher for a kindergarten association (senior teacher is like dp of a school)
    I believe the teachers would welcome the opportunity to talk through what we do each and every day

    Posted by David, 09/06/2016 10:00pm (1 year ago)

  • I love the idea of play based learning. We are in the process of developing an ILE for the new entrants in our school where play based learning will take centre stage. I am worried about National Standards and a backlash from the community who believe that children need to sit still, be quiet and learn the 3 R's as soon as they turn 5, I firmly believe that the play based approach has long lasting benefits for all children entering school. Thank you for writing and article that extols it's virtues.

    Posted by Brigitte Holmes, 07/05/2016 10:00pm (2 years ago)

  • Hi,
    This is very interesting indeed. I am a Year 1 teacher, and looking to bring play based learning into my classroom. Problem is, I am not really sure where to start and would really love some help with this please!

    Posted by Karroe, 19/09/2015 9:23pm (2 years ago)

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