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Project-Based Learning and Play-Based Learning: Blending the Two Strategies

Study after study has shown that student-centered learning leads to better outcomes compared to students who learn in more traditional settings. This is particularly true for students of color, low-income students, and English language learners.

Project-based and play-based learning are two popular methods of making learning more personalized and student driven. How can these two strategies blend together for a more fun, challenging learning experience? Read on for advice and classroom activities you can use in any grade level.

Play-Based Learning vs. Project-Based Learning

According to Michael Niehoff: “Project-based learning, by design, focuses on skill development (i.e. problem-solving and collaboration), deeper learning, inquiry, application, metacognition, student agency and creativity.”

Project-Based Learning

In project-based learning, the teacher might set up the parameters and requirements of the project, but it’s up to students to plan, execute, and troubleshoot all the details. In addition, project-based learning often focuses on real-world scenarios and skills. For example, students might put together a service project, create a prototype for a new product, or interview subject matter experts for a research project.

Play-Based Learning

According to the University of New Hampshire, “In play-based learning, teachers take an active role as intentional planners, observers, and guides. Play-based learning maintains the joy of free play while allowing children to connect authentically with content.” In other words, play-based learning isn’t aimless or divorced from learning objectives. Rather, teachers bring in elements of play such as communication, creativity, and critical thinking to help drive mastery.

How They Relate

In both of these types of learning, teachers provide some structure and guidance, but the execution and learning are primarily driven by students. Project-based learning is more likely to use traditional academic assessment requirements such as research, reports, business plans, presentations, or some other type of project artifact. Play-based learning, however, focuses on getting students to move, interact, explore, play games, communicate, role-play, and generally use their imaginations, with or without a final “product” at the end.

In the next section, we’ll see how you can combine the principles from these two strategies to create engaging, memorable learning experiences to reinforce real-world skills in students of all ages.

PBL in Action: Dramatic Play Centers

At the intersection of project-based learning and play-based learning is dramatic play. According to Kayla Topper, dramatic play takes place when students role-play and reenact real-world activities, jobs, or situations. Dramatic play not only activates many of the benefits of play, but also helps students practice important life skills they can use later on. After all, the first time you do something is always the hardest—so why not give students the chance to try a new experience in the safe, playful environment of a classroom?

Here are some examples of dramatic play you can use in your classroom. Depending on what grade you teach, you can make the activities more or less complex to provide the appropriate level of rigor. If you teach younger students, you might consider incorporating dramatic play as a center or station during center time. Kayla Topper recommends setting up a new scenario each month for variety.

Grocery Shopping

Turn your classroom into a grocery store! If you have plastic toy food, great. If not, you might consider collecting empty boxes and packages that students can bring from home, or print out pictures of common food items to set up in your “store.”

For younger students: Most of your students have probably been grocery shopping with their parents. But it’s a very different experience when you’re the one making decisions and paying for the food. For younger students, your primary goal might be to show them what it’s like to select food and handle money at checkout. Some students can role-play as shoppers, and others can be grocery store employees who stock shelves, accept payment, etc.

For older students: To add some complexity to the activity, include prices and nutritional information with the food students might buy. Students are responsible for looking up dietary requirements for a typical adult, planning out a week’s worth of meals, and staying within a set budget. This exercise will not only help students understand all the work that goes into feeding a household, but also give them a taste of a major budgeting item in their future.

Visiting the Doctor

The health care system can be tough to navigate, even for adults. Most of your students have likely been to a doctor’s office, but their parent or guardian probably took care of reporting symptoms, answering questions, filling prescriptions, etc. Students will certainly benefit from practicing these skills themselves!

For younger students: For younger students, you might set up a simple annual checkup scenario where one student plays the patient, another is the receptionist, another is the nurse, and another is the doctor. To add a little more complexity, you might give students symptoms of a few common illnesses, and it’s up to the patient to report them correctly and the doctor to ask the right questions and make the right diagnosis.

For older students: Older students will benefit from the same type of role-playing described above for younger students. You can add yet more complexity by having students research some of the most common health issues they might deal with based on their family history, and role-play different types of specialists they should be informed about. If you’re really brave, you might even add financial and insurance considerations to the mix, challenging students to weigh what kind of care provider they want to seek (e.g., primary care doctor, immediate care, emergency room) based on the urgency of their symptoms.

Election Day

Voting is a wonderful privilege, and one that many citizens often don’t exercise, especially in off-year elections. Give your students a feel for what voting is like and the voting procedures in your state.

For younger students: For younger students, you might set up a mock election where students vote for the best lunch meal, cartoon character, classroom game, etc. Make sure to impress on them the basic procedures of voting and the solemnity of the event by keeping ballots secret. If you want to expand the activity a bit, you might have students campaign beforehand to try to persuade other students to vote for their favorite choices. Ideally, you should end the election by enjoying the winning item, whether that’s eating the winning snack or watching an episode of the winning show.

For older students: First, have students research what’s required in your state to register to vote. You might even ask them to locate and fill out a voter registration card, and look up where their precinct is and plan how they would get there during polling hours. Then for “voting” day, you can turn your classroom or the school gym into a precinct. Some students will be poll workers who are responsible for checking people in, checking IDs, issuing ballots, and counting the votes. Other students will be voters, who are responsible for researching candidates and coming prepared with any voting requirements in your state.

Applying for a Job

Coming to the end of high school or college can be extremely overwhelming, because for many students, that means job hunting for the first time. Schools spend a lot of time teaching students essential skills and helping them identify their interests and talents. But what about the logistics of actually landing that dream job?

For younger students: There are lots of options to expose younger students to job hunting. For example, you might set up a mini-career fair where students pretend to be looking for a job and learn about different fields (from real subject matter experts, if you can swing it!). Or you might have students “interview” for different class roles or jobs. Or you can have students pick a job they’re interested in and host a pretend “networking” event where they tell each other about their professions.

For older students: Older students might benefit from simulating the entire job hunting process: taking a career assessment, creating a résumé and portfolio, gathering references, looking through actual job listings, and doing mock interviews. Doing so will help demystify the process, expose students to different types of jobs currently on the market, and maybe even give them some tools they can use when it’s time to start applying!

For more ideas and strategies to make your lessons more student driven, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Teaching Early Learners through Math and Literacy PBL: Teach your young students to love math and reading! Using a project-based learning approach, you’ll build engaging, hands-on lessons and assessments that encourage students to become curious, independent learners and problem solvers.
  • Let’s Play! Creating a Playful Classroom: Embark on a hands-on, experience-oriented journey designed to help you reframe your concept of play. Teachers of all grade levels will learn the power of play in education and how to create playful instructional experiences for your unique classroom community.
  • The Importance of Play and the Developing Child: Play is a vital part of learning and development, yet children have fewer opportunities for play than ever before. Learn the benefits of play, how to incorporate play into classroom activities, and create play activities appropriate for your grade and subject.
  • Computerless Coding: Play-Based Strategies and Tools: Teach your students essential coding skills—no computer required! Create fun games and lesson plans to teach students about algorithms, patterns, flowcharts, conditionals, and variables. That way, when they start coding, they’ll have the logical thinking and problem-solving skills they need to succeed.

In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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