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3 Top Takeaways from the Hunt Institute Webinar: Ideal Learning Environments

Although we’re back to attending in-person events with our Early Learning Nation Studio, we’ll continue to recap top virtual conversations, town halls, webinars and virtual events from the Early Learning field. Stay tuned for more Top Takeaways, and visit our Early Learning Nation channel on YouTube for interviews with leaders from education, child development research, business, politics and more.


On Tuesday, August 3, The Hunt Institute’s Dan Wuori and Trust for Learning’s Ellen Roche cohosted a webinar spotlighting the role of play in ideal learning environments. “Play is a vehicle for learning rather than a distraction from it,” Wuori stated.

Three experts explored ways of letting play and make-believe take the lead.

The panelists shared practical insights for teachers, parents and caregivers to actively participate in and curate playful learning environments for kids. Here are our takeaways:

1. Play rules. Play in all its forms is beneficial as long as it is done safely, whether the activity is free-for-all or free and guided. “Children learn to play, and they play to learn,” Dr. Leong explained, “Play has embedded in it the practice children need for self-regulation, persistence and grit.” (Read more about Tools of the Mind.)

Playful learning encompasses the free and guided activities that children regularly participate in, and it is not just for fun. It requires intentionality and adds breadth to what a learning goal can be. In Dr. Hirsh-Pasek’s words, “Play is a liberal arts education for children. It embodies all the ways in which we learn that we’ve been studying for over 50 years. It helps make a whole human being.”

Dr. Jones urged everyone to think critically about our current educational system, citing, for example, the pressure teachers are under to get children to perform well on standardized assessments. “What is the benefit of all the pressure to read?… Everybody wants what’s best for their children. They want them to be happy and successful. But we think there’s only one way to do it and it’s cramming academics. If we have a generation of kids who can read but don’t like to read…I think that’s the worst kind of thing. If they don’t like to read, then what have we done, what is the purpose of all that?”

👉 Read more: Ideal Learning Environments for Young Children (Trust for Learning)

2. Play sets children free. Leong emphasized that stories and themes that arise in make-believe play become the context for teaching literacy and math. “To get to a high level of play,” she said, “you need guided interactions and a teacher who can help children develop the agency and autonomy and social skills they need.”

Partnering with schools, teachers and administrators makes it possible to create classroom cultures that put play at the center of learning. Dr. Jones currently favors a less-structured educational philosophy out of China called AnjiPlay. This approach replaces the traditional play environment by bringing in open-ended, loose parts materials. “If we think about freeing children in these different environments,” she said, “then their play will change, it will adapt to the materials that they have.”

Changing the surroundings and materials associated with play can invite new ways of for children’s learning and creativity to soar. According to Dr. Hirsch-Pasek, Playful Learning Landscapes come about through “building your environment kind of like a playground or a school, or what you see at a children’s museum.” (Read more about Playful Learning Landscapes.)

“Whatever it is that you love, curate your environment with those things and let the kids learn about the world by discovering it.”

3. Play is instinctive. How do you guide playful learning experiences? Start thinking like a kid again! “We all have to tap into our inner play,” said Dr. Jones, urging teachers to “remember the complexity and the joy of it.”

When adults wonder, What kind of learning is happening here? whether at the grocery store or a traffic light, they begin to notice the space and kids with a new perspective and responsive attitude.

Dr. Leong underscored the power of presence, saying, “The great thing about play is that it makes the current moment joyful and wonderful and full of good things for children, and we need to recognize that children live now and they are just not in preparation for tomorrow.”

The magic is in the moment of now, and “The magic isn’t just for the kids,” as Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said, “It’s for you too. You will be a better teacher, a better principal, a better parent and a better policymaker.”

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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