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The Wisdom of Play Based Learning

Betty Merner has been a faculty member of Meadowbrook Waldorf School for more than 22 years. She taught in public schools for 18 years before discovering Waldorf education. Following 15 years as a class teacher Betty became the school’s Resource Co-ordinator overseeing special services for students in need of extra support. Here she considers the results of a study into play based learning in light of her extensive experience of the Waldorf approach.

The HighScope Educational Research Foundation of Ypsilanti, MI recently published the results of its longitudinal study, the HighScope Preschool Comparison Study. HighScope followed the lives of 68 young people born into poverty from ages 3 and 4. These children were randomly assigned to one of three early childhood programs: the Direct Instruction model, where teachers followed a script to direct the learning of academic skills; a Play-Based model, where teachers responded to children’s self-initiated play in a loosely structured setting; and the Highscope model where teachers set-up the classroom and a daily routine within which children could create and do their own activities. The study followed these children until age 23 and looked at their success in a number of categories that affected their lives on a number of levels. By age 23, participants from the Play-Based early childhood models were shown to have “significant advantages over the Direct Instruction group”. Some of the results included:

  • Only 6% of children in the Play-Based groups needed treatment for emotional impairment or disturbance during their schooling compared to 47% of the Direct Instruction group.
  • Only 10% had ever been arrested for a felony compared to 39% of those who received Direct Instruction.
  • 31% of the Play-Based groups were married and living with their spouse compared with 0% of the Direct Instruction group.
  • 70% of Play-Based group attended or planned to continue on to college compared to 36% of Direct Instruction group.

Click here for more details on the effect of early childhood education on later individual social responsibility.


Last January, I heard Joan Almon, a Waldorf early childhood teacher now international consultant on early childhood education and executive director of the Alliance for Childhood speak at the Mariposa center in Providence, RI. She shared the results of the Highscope Study and explained why there was such a difference in scores. Play, she explained, is child-initiated. The activities, the challenges and the solutions are created and explored by the young child. This gives a sense of self-initiation early on, the know-how and intuition to solve problems. This translates throughout life in other situations that children encounter. In a play-based kindergarten children are taught not to look to the adult authorities around them for their next task but to create activities from the materials, tasks and people around them. They learn early on to become self-sufficient and they are less likely to blame their short comings on people or situation outside of themselves.

This study has put substance into what Waldorf early childhood programs have long advocated.  It is fundamental to what makes Waldorf kids ‘different’, why we have been told by the many high schools that our children have transitioned into that “Waldorf kids are our favorite students”. As the study concludes,”…the goals of early childhood education should not be limited to academic preparation for school, but should help children learn to make decisions, solve problems and get along with others.” The question that remains for us is: How do we make Waldorf Early Childhood education available to as many child in our community as we can? If we could make it available to every child in our community, can you begin to imagine what our community  would look like 20 years from now?

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Here is a wonderful 12 minute video Prescription for Play featuring Dr. Ken Ginsburg, pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of ‘Building Resilience in Children and Teens’, and Dr. Marilyn Benoit, former president of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Together they advocate for the importance of play in reducing the rising levels of stress, anxiety and obesity-related health by investing in time for free and outdoor play. Please help us share this message about the wisdom of play based learning.


One thought on “The Wisdom of Play Based Learning

  1. How I wish that all children could participate in play as you’ve described! Perhaps our leaders today would be much more involved in creative problem solving instead of dictates so common among many. When I was a student at Wheelock College in Boston, they were always reminding us that play is the business of childhood.

    I’m retired now but taught for many years. In my combined first and second grade, Choice Time for children’s self-initiated learning was an important part of each day. Each of five learning centers provided activities and materials to nurture a child’s excitement about learning. Concrete experiences serve as a background for understandings in the world around them. These provided an extra basis for abstract thought that would be a benefit throughout all academic areas. (Choice Time is appropriate for younger and older children.) The materials in each center were enough to capture the interest of the very brightest students and yet still be appealing to slower or younger children.

    See my entries about the importance of providing a Choice Time for all young students.

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