The Role of Play

Topic Progress:

One of my favorite quotes is from author Cynthia Rylant, explaining her process as an author.

Play is the greatest training you can have, I think, for being a writer. It helps you love life, it helps you relax, it helps you cook up interesting stuff in your head.

Or as Opal School student River, age 8, said:

When people play their ideas, and memories, and stories come pouring out into the world.


These two authors understand that we are wired for play. As human beings, play is our oldest and most natural strategy for learning and we use it to figure out what is going on in the world around us. Play allows us to enter into a state of mind that neuroscience researchers have termed relaxed alertness. Relaxed alertness is defined as the optimal state of mind for learning and remembering important concepts; a state of mind where the consciousness is so involved in its activity that self-consciousness can disappear and ideas and thinking can flow. At Opal School, when we talk about relaxed alertness, we talk about conditions where low risk and high challenge exist simultaneously. These are the conditions that we are trying to create during Story Workshop and it is why play is at the heart of what we do.

An invitation to play lowers the consequences for children, so they feel more freedom to make their own decisions, take risks, and mess around. This invitation naturally creates a structure that is welcoming, inviting, and full of possibilities. Studies have shown that children who are taught a skill or strategy, versus those who discover that same skill or strategy through play, learn equally quickly and successfully. However, the children who were allowed to play had increased motivation to stick with it and had reduced frustration, which led to greater engagement with the task.

As educators, we have an opportunity to tap into the power of play. There’s a saying “what fires together wires together.” We can literally impact the health of brain wiring by creating opportunities for play, opportunities to explore, to discover, and to encounter rich environments. The environments and experiences we provide have a tremendous impact on brain development because things that have meaning last. When we play we’re able to make connections that add meaning to new information.

 The Crisis in the Kindergarten report from the Alliance for Childhood says,

The power of play as the engine of learning in early childhood and as a vital force for young children’s physical, social, and emotional development is beyond question. Children in play-based kindergartens have a double advantage over those who are denied play; they end up equally good or better at reading and other intellectual skills, and they are more likely to become well-adjusted healthy people.

 In spite of all we know about the importance of play for developing minds, we notice this widening gap in our society between what we accept as places for play, and what we think of as environments for learning. Play is increasingly eliminated from classrooms, and sometimes from school altogether. Classrooms are steeped in rote learning designed to get students to perform well on standardized tests.

In her book, Talking Their Way Into Science, author Karen Gallas wonders,

In autobiographical accounts by scientists and artists, philosophers and theologians, when moments of deep insight and learning occur, these moments are described almost exclusively as occurring out of school, when a child or adult was in a state of unselfconscious openness to the world. The mind is open. Imagination moves into the moment and transforms it into a kind of learning that is deep, personal, and intangible. Why must most of those moments occur out of school?

At Opal School, we’re wondering how can we capitalize on the power of play to make learning even more real and meaningful? Story Workshop is one of the ways we are exploring those connections.


I want to share a video of a peek into a classroom of 4, 5, and 6 year-olds one day as they play during Story Workshop. As you watch, I hope you’ll consider the connections between play and learning.

The Geography of Story Workshop, Video 1, Chapter 2

Reflection Questions:

As you watch this video, use your notebook to capture your thinking.

What do you notice?

What do you wonder?

What surprises you?

What stands out to you about the role of play?

What stands out to you about the role of the teacher?


Current research is clear about the important role of play in learning for young children. I hope you’ll take some time to explore some of these organizations and growing evidence that supports a focus on play in our educational environments.

Center for Research on Play in Education


The Strong: National Museum of Play

The National Institute for Play

NAEYC articles and resources on Play and Learning

What About Play, video from Portland Children’s Museum Center for Learning

Towards a Pedagogy of Play, Project Zero

Playing Around at School

Course Discussion