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Research supporting Play-Based Curriculum

What does the research say about play-based curriculum?


Play-based curriculum enables a variety of early childhood education best practices that are deeply rooted in foundational theories as well as the most up to date early brain development research substantiated by the American Academy of Pediatrics. 


Within early childhood education and theory, play is at the center, where we learn about children and their interests, and how they grow and develop. The framework of developmental theory was built upon observations of play and the interconnection with peers, adults, society and sociocultural contexts. Early childhood developmental theorists provide specific processes of learning, growth, and development throughout each stage of the early years.  These theories then inform pedagogy, method of practice and teaching, and how to best support learning and development. Play-based curriculum combines aspects from a variety of these early childhood development theories, including but not limited to, Piaget’s Cognitive Theory, Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory, Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Brongenbrennar’s Bioecological Theory, Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, as well as Reggio, Montessori, and Dewey’s Theories.

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Play-based curriculum has been studied in longitudinal research identifying links between play, cognitive and social benefits, and positive learning outcomes, and is substantiated by research from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Findings state that play leads to changes at the molecular (epigenetic), cellular (neuronal connectivity), and behavioral levels (socioemotional and executive functioning skills) that promote learning and adaptive and/or prosocial behavior. Play also activates norepinephrine, which facilitates learning at synapses and improves brain plasticity. Play enhances curiosity, which facilitates memory and learning. 


The AAP states that current understanding of early brain development indicates learning is better fueled by facilitating the child’s intrinsic motivation through play and that play provides ample opportunities for [teachers] to scaffold the foundational motor, social-emotional, language, executive functioning, math, and self-regulation skills needed to be successful in an increasingly complex and collaborative world. Play helps to build the skills required for our changing world. 

The recent findings at the molecular level combined with long standing early childhood developmental theories, the AAP was able to validate the benefits of play-based pedagogy with the following conclusions. Active play stimulates children’s curiosity and helps them develop the physical and social skills needed for school and later life. Free and guided play promote skills for building safe, stable, and nurturing relationships that buffer against toxic stress; and build social-emotional resilience.


Play facilitates the progression from dependence to independence and from parental [caregiver/teacher] regulation to self-regulation, through scaffolding of emotional responses. Specific benefits of play-based curricula for preschool education by the AAP include learning to resolve conflicts and develop self-advocacy skills and their own sense of agency and strengthening executive functioning skills [learning how to learn through play] which are foundational for school readiness and academic success.

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Berk, L. E., & Winsler, A. (1995). Scaffolding Children’s Learning: Vygotsky and early childhood education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. 


Bronfenbrenner, U. (Ed.). (2005). Making Human Beings Human: Biological Perspectives on Human Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.


Bronson, Martha (2000). Self-Regulation in early childhood. New York, NY: The Guilford Press


Mooney, C. G. (2013). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky (2nd ed.). St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. 


Yogman, M., Garner, A., Jutchinson, J., et al. (2018). The Power of Play: A pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics, 142(3), 1-16.

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