Hi there young learner teachers!

If any of you follow me on social media and know my work today, you might be surprised to hear that I used to be a really traditional English teacher.  In fact, you might have even heard me say something like…“give me a blob of blutak and a deck of flashcards and I can create you a course.”  And I wasn’t exaggerating!  You see back then, I was all about teaching lexical lists and followed a rather rigid lesson plan framework that relied heavily on “What’s this? Listen and repeat!”.  

How times have changed!  

I believe that when it comes to young learners, we need to go beyond teaching just the language and move towards an approach that is responsive to the developmental needs of the child, their abilities, interests, help them build on their knowledge of not just the language but of themselves, the community they belong to and the world they live in.  And this all needs to be done in a way that engages them, involves them and develops their autonomy as lifelong learners. 

This may seem like an incredibly unrealistic challenge, especially for those of you who have classes for as little as 45 minutes x 2 a week!  But it’s so much simpler than you think.  

The answer is PLAY!  LET THEM PLAY! 

Most of us here will be familiar with the idea that “children learn through play” and thanks to the growing body of research into both the theory and practice of early learning, we have a much better understanding of how all aspects of a child’s development are interwoven and emerge through the natural inquiry process of play.

And yet, despite the general consensus among educators in favor of play-based learning, there is little agreement as to how this can be implemented effectively in the foreign language classroom.

If we agree that in the young learner classroom, all aspects of a child’s learning is interwoven, then PLAY, intentionally planned and implemented opportunities for play, is an essential element in any young learner lesson.

But what is play-based learning? 

It is hard to define a phenomenon as complex as play (Mastrangelo, 2009). The lack of consensus among educators regarding play and learning has made it difficult to establish what best practice is in the play-based classroom.

Rather than something we do, play-based is said to be

“a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations.”

(BELONGING, BEING & BECOMING, The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia)

A concise and useful definition from Dr. Peter Gray, says that play is an activity that:

  • is self-chosen and self-directed. Players are always free to quit. They choose when to stop playing.
  • is intrinsically motivated: the process is more important than the product. if an adult plans an activity ONLY to reach a specific outcome, it is NOT PLAY.
  • is guided by mental rules
  • is imaginative
  • is conducted in an alert, active, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.

However, It is also useful to understand the recently recognized spectrum or continuum of play (Pyle and Danniels, 2016) that highlights the role of both adult and child while learning through play.

  • child-directed activity: free-play, inquiry play
  • adult-guided activity: collaborative play, playful learning
  • adult-directed activity: learning games

Why adopt play-based learning? 

Play-based learning:  

  • allows for the expression of personality and uniqueness
  • Enhances dispositions such as curiosity and creativity
  • Enables children to make connections between prior experiences and new learning
  • Assists children to develop relations and concepts
  • Stimulates a sense of fun, friendship and wellbeing

(BELONGING, BEING & BECOMING, The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia)

Types of Play

Research into play and language learning in the Pre-Primary classroom reveal the importance of achieving a balance between adult-directed (teacher-led), which provides valuable and necessary language input and child-directed (child-initiated or free-play) activities.

Adult-directed play – through modelling language and behaviour, supportive interactions, creating fun routines, initiating games, etc.  


Child-directed play – that are free moments for children to discover on their own, experiment, create, interact with and support peers, make autonomous choices about their learning. 

So how do these 2 types of play work together? 

Here are some practical examples of how adult-directed play can be used to scaffold language to prepare the learners for child-directed play in that target language. 

In my class, adult-directed play happens at circle-time.  All the activities and games I introduce to my pre-primary learners are carefully selected.

I make sure they all follow a defined format with a clear structure, roles that the participants follow and the a script or language that is planned and used consistently.  These are often experiments, songs, stories or games.

Now, I’m 100% positive that every teacher here uses these types of teacher-led games in their classes.  I do, however, wonder how many of you are taking the next step and making space in your lesson plans for child-directed play? 

How many teachers are ready to do what Dr Sandie Mourao calls …

The Handover

This refers to the moment when the teacher puts the language into the hands of the learners, allowing them the time and freedom to experiment with it as they wish.  It is the moment when the children can use the words and phrases they know in new, creative and often surprising ways. When provided with the right amount of support and input through adult- directed play, children can transfer their knowledge to new contexts and use it in ways that are meaningful to them.  

In my lessons, this happens through “learning centers”.  The materials and resources used during the adult-directed lesson stages are made available for the children to choose from and use freely.  

This type of free-play is commonly accepted in mainstream education but, for several reasons, English teachers tend to shy away from it.  Sometimes this is due to the pressure to cover everything in the coursebook.  Others may worry that their students will revert to Portuguese when left to play freely in English.  There is also a prevailing idea that the teacher should be at the center of all the classroom activities and that free-play is somehow equivalent to the teacher ‘slacking off’.    

“There is a common misconception that young learners of English don’t know enough of the language to play in it, or that there isn’t enough time for child-initiated play. Often adult-led play in English sessions is favored and child-initiated play excluded as a result”  (Mourão, 2015)

I am absolutely positive that all these challenges can be overcome and free play with open-ended materials can and should be integrated into any good language programme children and teens of any proficiency level.

I’ll end by sharing with you some of the results seen while observing children during their free play time.

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Learners reproducing chunks of language as introduced by the teacher through games or stories like 2-year old Pedro reading to his frees during free-play.


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Learners repurposing chunks of language that they have learned and applying it in new contexts as seen in this video of Teressa who has used the lyrics of a song to make her puppet speak.


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Inventing new games with English using the materials introduced by the teacher through games (the monster) and stories (The Gorilla)


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Remember that free play isn’t time off for the teachers.  Quite the opposite. This is the perfect time to be monitoring, providing support where needed, modelling language and asking questions to help learners use and extend their vocabulary.  


Final thoughts…

To justify and early start, quality in foreign language education must be present right from the initial stages of learning. To ensure this, we need to start moving towards a play-based approach that combines both adult-directed and child-directed play.  In doing so, we are taking into consideration the specific characteristics of the pre-primary learner and their developmental needs. 

We know that many early childhood teachers struggle to incorporate play-based activities into their language lessons. Despite this, they are committed to adopting a more developmentally appropriate approach to teaching.

With these teachers in mind, we created an Activity Pack with some of our favorite and most successful play-based ideas to support and inspire you to start developing your play-based teaching practice.  Click on the image below to find out more!


  • Claire Venables is a qualified English teacher who has been dedicated to ELT since 2001. After a decade in Spain, she moved to Brazil in 2011 where she has worked in the creation and implementation of bilingual programs in schools, the development of teacher development courses, as a national and international speaker, materials writer, active member of the National Association of Teachers of English (BRAZ-TESOL). Despite her wide-ranging experience, she is and always will be most passionate about teaching children.