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Play-Based Education: Teaching The Way They Learn

Hey Everyone,

Welcome back to the the OT School House for our first post about PLAY! (Yay!)

But before we get into play, can I share something with you real quick?

January was a tough month. Somehow, the stars aligned just right, and both Abby and I got supper swamped with assessments and IEPs. In fact just yesterday, I attended 4 IEPs starting at 8:30 and ending close to 5... It's been a long day.

So I must say, I am ecstatic that January is over!

But looking back on January, there is one thing I found myself saying over and over again during those IEPs. That phase was "play-based education."

Although, yesterday I slightly modified it to "academic based rewards" in an IEP where we were discussing the need for a student to use assistive technology. I must admit, as a team we have failed to provide this student academic experiences through play, let alone, play in itself.

Even at recess, this 5th grade student with autism simply walks around the playground, occasionally moseying up onto the play structure and then paces back and forth. Since finding this out, I have spent a few recess sessions working with him on how to climb the ladder, go up the slide, and now we are working on climbing the rock wall. These activities are much more meaningful to him than copying a sentence...

So anyways, I want to talk about play-based education today.

As students move on from preschool and kindergarten, too often the emphasis on fun academics dissipates.

This is unfortunate in general education classes, but even more so in our special education classes where many of our students are still functioning social-emotionally at a 4 year age, or perhaps younger.

They may have a higher vocabulary and write slightly neater than students that are younger than them, but they may still be at a stage where they are unable to understand the importance of work and thus simply refuse to do pencil and paper work.

When a student is at this stage and a teacher or therapist has a mentality that the only way a student can learn to add is though desk work, what you'll often find is an adult complaining about behaviors and a student not making much progress. And it's not fun, or beneficial for either of them.

It is in this circumstance that I try to educate the teacher and IEP team on play-based education and education-based rewards.


If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.

-Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Estrada


What is Play-Based Education?

Play-based education allows for the student's inherent desire to play, drive their potential to learn. By tapping into the student's intrinsic motivation for play, we can modify their play in real time to "squeeze" in the academics.

If that sounds a bit tricky, it's because it is. You have to know exactly what academic skill you are working on and then think on the fly during what could be a small group session.

Here's an example. A teacher has graciously welcomed you into her classroom to collaborate with her and the other adults in the classroom for centers that last about 20 minutes. So you and a classroom aide will have a group of 5 students and are asked to work on memorizing sight words. In many classes this center may look like a fill in the missing letter worksheet or simply copying the words.

In a play-based environment though. The students may use K'nex or magnetic letters to build and spell the sight words. Or, perhaps they play Hangman to discover the word. A good gross motor game would be to form the letters with your body; it could be made into a dance even. Design a dance move for each: S, K, and Y to help the kids remember how to spell sky

I know, it may sound corny, but the possibilities are only limited by your (and the students') imagination.

Before I move on, I want to acknowledge that play-based education does not work in all classes. There are some students who will try to take advantage of it and get out of work. In other classes, it may not be feasible with the staffing or logical with the students' learning style. That is why I don't recommend this for all classes. This is definitely something that works best for younger students and students that display delayed social-emotional skills.

Academic-Based Rewards!

This is pretty straight forward, so I'll make it quick.

Whenever possible, the teachers and I always try to make rewards for doing academic work a more fun version of the work they complete.

For instance, a student who is motivated by iPad time may get to play Writing Wizard on the iPad after completing a spelling test. The same might go for playing Prodigy on the chromebooks after completing a math lesson.

If you are in a pinch and are having trouble thinking of one, might I suggest Tic-Tac-Toe with any given numbers, letters, shapes, or spelling words. It's quite surprising how easy it is to get students to write words five times correctly when it's a game.

Hopefully, by using the academic rewards, your student will not only be more inclined to complete the initial task, but will also improve in academics from the rewarded activity.

So, that is all I have for today. I know not every student will benefit from the two tips today, but even if only one does, it was worth writing this post about play in academics.

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Until next time,


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