Playful learning is a powerful tool that helps teachers engage their students in richer and deeper educational experiences. When children participate in guided play – a type of playful learning that balances child agency with pursuit of a learning goal through educational activities that are supported by an adult – they master academic content and skills more effectively than when engaging in unrestricted free play or receiving direct instruction from an adult. Playful learning emphasizes student-centered, authentic instruction, which is not just for young children; in older grades it may be called project-based learning. While playful learning is a broadly applicable approach to instruction that can overlay any curriculum, implementation still requires teachers to have adequate training and classroom materials. Here we describe a small-scale professional development program that was implemented in partnership with kindergarten teachers in Ghana to support their creation of playful learning classrooms.

Playful learning is a powerful tool that helps teachers engage their students in richer and deeper educational experiences.”

Playful learning in Ghanaian schools

In Ghana, playful learning is written into policy, but related professional development is limited and there is a severe lack of funding for the materials needed to facilitate this approach. While the national kindergarten curriculum, released in 2019, clearly endorses play-based learning, its recommended strategies are inconsistent with authentic implementation of guided play because opportunities for student agency are relatively limited. The curriculum prioritizes large-group, teacher-led activities, including songs, games, and whole-class discussions, rather than smaller group activities that stimulate discovery as children work towards a learning goal. These existing practices in the curriculum help teachers make large-group instruction more fun, but they don’t support student agency, which contributes to even deeper and more joyful learning.

Early childhood education in Ghana
Learning through play and exploration

Responding to the policy-practice gap in Ghana

Meg Thomas led the implementation of the professional development program, working in close collaboration with Aaron Osafo-Acquah, Associate Professor of Basic Education at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. As she describes, the effort emerged from an interest in playful learning that celebrated Ghanaian culture and acknowledged teachers’ expertise:

“When I happened to meet with Aaron Osafo-Acquah, we discussed how to encourage Ghanaian kindergarten teachers to try playful learning. We wondered whether we might collaborate with a few teachers to develop a uniquely Ghanaian model of play-based learning. What would it take to get kindergarten teachers excited about a different way of teaching and learning?

We sought to develop a model of playful learning that was consistent with the national curriculum, deeply rooted in Ghanaian culture, and able to build on the strengths of Ghanaian teachers. Over the period of a year, we worked with 13 teachers from 6 kindergarten classrooms in an urban area in the Central Region of Ghana.”

The classrooms were in two public schools serving mostly learners from families with low incomes, and in one private school enrolling students from families with higher incomes. All of the public school teachers were college-educated with an average of 15 years of experience.  Although the teachers were interested in facilitating playful learning, even the experienced and college-educated teachers reported struggling to put it into practice.

While instances of joyful learning were observed in their classes, lessons were long, at about 45 minutes, and teacher-led. Each lesson included numerous “energizers” designed to meet learning goals while encouraging children to get out of their chairs to dance and sing. Teachers would also call on students to assist with activities. The children would hold up letters from the words they were learning that week, draw on the board, and act out words like “quick” or “quit.”

Children at Presby School in Cape Coast, Ghana experiment with magnets.

Bringing guided play to the classroom

The project team worked with the teachers to choose activities that were consistent with their goals and teaching styles. Then, using materials such as sand trays, playdough, watercolor paints and board books, teachers worked with their coaches to create activities aligned with existing curricula. Coaching built on teachers’ existing knowledge and curricular goals to shift instruction towards guided play.

As teachers began to implement more guided play, they developed a better understanding of how it supported learning. After several weeks, students no longer waited for teachers to show them what to do, but began to talk with one another about the materials they were provided. Teachers reported that the new approach helped students understand content more deeply and develop critical skills. In one classroom activity, for example, students were asked to practice counting metal bottle caps. After they were shown how a magnet could pick up the caps, they collected several bottle caps on one magnet and counted them, then demonstrated agency by experimenting with different strategies to pick up even more caps. The student-scientists remained focused on their task and talked with one another throughout the activity.

“When playful learning experiences are informed by evidence about how children learn, instruction is more engaging and efficient.”

After seven months, the teachers reported that the children had developed better social skills, and attendance improved as students became more enthusiastic about school. Anecdotally, teachers observed that playful learning was more efficient at meeting learning goals than the kind of instruction they had previously provided. Concepts that would otherwise take a week to cover could be taught in two or three days.

Supporting children to play
Learning through play

This proof-of-concept professional development project shows how education policy can spark innovation, but also how policies with the best intentions can miss the nuances of the underlying science. In Ghana, the policy enabled educational practice to change, but this was only possible because the project team provided teachers with vital support. This small-scale intervention showed teachers that, when playful learning experiences are informed by evidence about how children learn, instruction is more engaging and efficient. Moving forward, a larger-scale, more systematic approach to professional development and resource allocation in Ghana will be necessary if all kindergarten students are to benefit from the joys of playful learning.

A teacher at Presby School helps students move from counting to addition using dice and bottle caps.

Bringing playful learning to your classroom

If you are interested in implementing playful learning strategies in your classroom, consider the following tips, which are informed by the science of learning and this project in Ghana:

  • Agency matters: When both students and teachers have a role in determining what the class will learn and how they will learn it, students learn more.  
  • Culture matters: Playful learning that is rooted in students’ own experiences will result in a deeper understanding of the content because the material is personally relevant.
  • Joy matters: When both students and teachers are joyful, they are more likely to be fully engaged in the learning process.  
  • Connection matters: When students have time and space to communicate, collaborate and innovate together, they are more likely to want to come to school and focus on learning.


Elias Blinkoff and Meg Thomas recognize Allyson Masters, Charlotte Wright, Sophia Espinoza, Molly Scott, Katelyn Fletcher, Aaron Osafo-Acquah, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek as co-authors of this article. The authorship team further recognizes Aaron Osafo-Acquah for his leadership of the project described above. His contributions were instrumental to its success.

All photos are by Benjamin Mchie, Executive Director of the African American Registry.

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