The Science of Playful Learning

Research from the interdisciplinary science of learning led our research team to develop their Active Playful Learning (APL) educational framework. APL instruction rests on a foundation of acknowledging students’ backgrounds and designing lessons that build on the skills and knowledge that they bring into the classroom. The next part of APL focuses on how learning occurs. Research tells us that children learn best when they are actively engaged in learning that is meaningful, socially interactive, iterative, and joyful. These principles coalesce in active playful learning, especially guided play. The third and final part of APL establishes a link between playful learning and outcomes in mathematics, spatial learning, language, vocabulary, and literacy.

This active playful pedagogy enhances learning through intentional instruction that activates students’ autonomy and intrinsic motivation while teacher guide them toward a learning goal.


By providing a child agency while learning, playful learning also supports growth in  a suite of complementary core competencies that the child will need to successfully compete as an adult – summarized as the 6 C’s – Collaboration, Communication, Content, Critical Thinking, Creative Innovation and Confidence. (Adapted from Nesbitt, et al. 2023)

The references that follow provide the foundation supporting the efficacy of this approach.


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Additional Resources

1) Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Nesbitt, K., Lautenbach, C., Blinkoff, E., & Fifer, G. (2022). Making schools work: Bringing the science of learning to joyful classroom practice. Teachers College Press.

Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice was written by teachers, school administrators, and scientists to create a model for active, playful learning that would work in classrooms. Grounded in insights into how human brains learn, the book examines how to co-construct and reimagine an optimal educational system for all children that is culturally responsive, inclusive, effective, and fun.

2) The Brookings Institution Playful Learning Series website.

The Brookings Institution Playful Learning series is a collection of resources (articles, posts, and discussions) on how learning through play can help give children the full breadth of skills to thrive in the 21st century. The collection provides information on how learning through play can harness the power of children’s imaginations and inspire active engagement and learning. Resources are updated to reflect the changing context of our education systems.

3) The LEGO Foundation Learning Through Play website.

The LEGO Foundation Learning Through Play website provides a wide array of resources for families, educators, administrators, and policymakers wanting to learn more about the value of playful learning and how to make playful learning a reality for all children. Resources include summaries of the latest research on learning through play and ideas for guided play activities that can be delivered in homes and schools.