How Does Play Lead to Academic Success?

By Jen Tatasciore, Director of Curriculum

Play is the heart of everything we do here at TCS. It drives our decisions around how we structure our spaces, build our learning experiences, and engage in each moment with our students and families.

 A quote by Albert Einstein that is often shared by Elena Jaime, our director of  Lower School, states, “Play (or imagination, depending on the quote) is the highest form of research.” We can glean so much about play from this quote that then ties to the reasons why we have chosen to center play here at TCS. 

If you’ve been lucky enough to have heard Elena speak on neuroscience and play during one of our presentations to the families this year, you’d hear the passion in her voice as she begins to describe the impact play has on children. So in preparing for this article, it felt paramount to connect with Elena to have her also share more about this topic. 

Below you can find excerpts from our conversation, as well as more information regarding play at TCS.

Q: How does TCS use play to teach reading, writing and math?

We take great pride here at TCS in creating multi-sensory approaches to learning in every classroom. Across content areas, teachers build spaces that invite students to engage in learning through the senses using auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and movement approaches to drive the learning experience. Samantha Chong, our in-house occupational therapist, recently led a professional development session for teachers to share the ways in which they are strategically building these approaches into their lessons. 

In addition, Elena shared, “In the research, multisensory learning nearly always leads to better recall in research studies: 50% more creative solutions on a problem solving test in one study, and 75% in another. So we see there is a strong connection between mind and body, especially for young children, in their learning. Information enters through multiple systems which creates stronger neural connections. And when students learn in this kind of environment, this is the effect on the brain. It literally builds infrastructure for learning.” You can find more information regarding this research from Eric Jensen’s book, “Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Potential in Every Learner.”

Q: How does playing help children academically? Social-emotionally? What are some of the long-term benefits of play?

Elena shared, “Human beings, in fact all mammals, learn to navigate their environment through play. Our brains are wired to engage in play, and the process of play builds the infrastructure of our brains. Executive function is one skill that develops through play. These important mental capacities such as problem-solving, following directions, working memory, focus and attention are some of the main indicators of future academic success, and play naturally develops them.”

“Play is social. Humans are social creatures who seek connection. A child’s prefrontal cortex is developing and will not be fully developed until they’re 25 years old. Asking a child to switch from play to another activity is a BIG DEAL. They do not have that skill fully developed. 

You may be wondering, how does that skill develop naturally? It develops through the child’s innate desire to please you. This is where our relationship with each child becomes very important; our faculty develop meaningful relationships with their students so that students are seen, heard, and feel like they belong.”

Q: What’s the difference between structured and unstructured play and what are the benefits of both?

Studies have shown that children are able to tune in more to academics after unstructured play time, like recess or fruit break. This time allows children the autonomy to engage with others or play independently in ways they choose. Through these interactions, children are naturally geared to engage in “sociodramatic play” or pretend, symbolic play which opens opportunities for children to think creatively, solve problems, engage in conflict and conflict resolution, and learn the power of language. 

Structured play, also referred to as “play with a purpose,” can be seen during academic lessons as activities that are directed by the teacher and geared toward a specific teaching point or focus. These activities are often multi-sensory experiences that include active engagement from the children. Benefits of structured play include motivated and engaged students, acquisition of new skills, application of content and skills, and retention in learning. 

Q: Are there times when TCS teachers don’t use play and instead use more “traditional” approaches? If so, what are those times and why is it beneficial to students? 

At TCS, one of our core beliefs in curriculum is that different teaching approaches have a time and place in the classroom – even those that stem from more traditional settings. We know that all students learn differently and can benefit from variety in the way teachers approach learning depending upon the skill. 

Practices that tie to traditional settings are reimagined to incorporate more play-based practices as well, resulting in an approach truly unique to TCS. 

Here is a story to help visualize what this might look like in action:

  • [Begin with a play/inquiry approach]: A fourth grade student arrives back to class from recess ready for their math lesson. The teacher has a problem on the board that incorporates a new skill-  multiplying by fractions- that the students will be learning that day, but doesn’t give the children any clues or assistance in solving the problem. The teacher’s goal is for the children to begin to consider all they already know about number sense, algorithms, and problem solving to see what they can do to potentially solve this problem without the explicit instruction from the teacher. 

The problem might look something like this: 

  • This weekend, we realized my dog’s food was running low. We had two cans left. I knew I needed to place an order on Chewy’s website immediately and the food would arrive in two days. My dog eats ½ a can of food in the morning and the evening. How might I make sure the dog has enough food until the new order arrives? 
  • The teacher has empty cans available for students who want to hold them to figure out the problem. Other students might begin to draw images to solve or add four halves together to ensure that they equal two wholes. Some others might even have learned how to multiply fractions in the past and attempt to solve the problem in this way. The idea here is that they begin calling upon their prior knowledge as they grapple with potential solutions. 
  • The teacher would then allow students to share their strategies in the way they approached the problem – opening new possibilities for all students of how the others see and play with numbers when solving problems. 
  • [Move to a more traditional approach]: Then, the teacher would directly teach the new skill, ensuring all students had a common understanding and introduction to the skill of multiplying fractions. Time to practice would follow, allowing children to apply the skill to more traditional computation. 
  • [Moving back to play-based approach] Then students might be asked to apply the skill in new ways – possibly creating their own scenarios for the problem for others to solve. 

This is how we engage all learners and know we’re helping students build understanding that is more than rote memorization, but instead meaningful and active learning. We believe it’s a strategic mix of approaches that brings the most success in the classroom.   

Q: How does TCS use play better than any other school?

TCS’s approach to using play is intentional and effective. It’s through play that we are able to nurture and to challenge students. In order to create an environment where students are nurtured and challenged, teachers have designed their spaces to incorporate play which ensures students engage through a lens of inquiry and free thinking. When play drives the learning, it also creates a space where all voices and ideas are honored, students build a strong sense of identity and self, creative thinking and expression is encouraged, and the ability to take and learn from risks is celebrated.

These moments are happening in all the small moments the teachers are creating, in addition to the big projects that are being designed and built. It’s through this lens that students are both building the foundational skills of reading, writing, math, science and social studies and learning how to apply these skills and this new knowledge to real-life situations.

Over time, we are building moments and spaces to help our children build the skills that allow them to go out into the world with innate curiosity, a thirst for learning, and the ability to ask critical questions. This then helps our children be prepared to help shape our world for good.