The Impact of Play on Students’ Learning and Engagement


Christine Lee







Postdoctoral Researcher


Megan Franke



Children are naturally wondrous and curious, and it is these characteristics of childhood that leads to exploration and thinking of the real world that many educators believe makes young children capable of learning complex concepts. Play is one such activity that can build on children’s curiosities, observations, and thinking for inquiry. For young children, curiosity and wonderment often manifest as pretend play, where students play as things they do not fully understand. This study will examine how school-based play can 1) support students learning math and science concepts and 2) engage students to take action on current environmental issues and challenges of the marine ecosystem. The study will focus on teaching students the marine ecosystem and take place throughout the winter and spring quarters. Participants in this study are in the primary grade level classrooms (6 to 9 years). Data collection will include video recordings of play lessons, copies of students’ work throughout the marine ecosystem unit, pre and post assessments of students’ knowledge of ecosystems and spatial relations, teacher interviews, and field observations. We plan to capture and examine how play can not only lead to learning multiple subjects (science and math) but support self-sustaining student agency as they engage their local school community to find solutions for healthy ocean life.


Pretend play, or sociodramatic play, is a type of play where students can take on roles in an imaginary situation (Vygotsky, 1978). The proposed study is built on previous play-based research at the Lab School (STEP project), as well as literature and research that argues for the importance of play in schools. Despite the wealth of research documenting the importance of play, play has been gradually disappearing from elementary schools (Beisser, 2008; Ginsburg, 2007). This may stem from a perception that play and academic content do not belong together (Nicolopoulou, 2010; Viadero, 2007). In some schools, play activities like recess have been significantly decreased if not completely gone. However, we believe that students can deeply engage and learn science and math concepts when learning through play. Play is an essential and inseparable part of development and learning; and rather than viewing play and learning as a dichotomy, it is important that we view them as inseparable and productive activities.
In previous work at the Lab School (STEP project), we found that students playing as bees and particles not only learned about the science phenomena, but deeply reflected and engaged in productive science conversations. While pretending and playing these roles, children reflect on the real world, and engage in argumentation (Elbers, 1994; Perry & Dockett, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978). For example, a student can pretend to be a shark while another student can pretend to be a fish. The student playing as the shark can pretend to eat the student playing as a fish (since fish cannot eat sharks in the real world). By playing as these characters, students can reflect, understand, and act out how the marine food web works in the real world.
Findings from this study can reveal how play can lead to learning, but also how the unique characteristics of play can provide students with opportunities to deeply engage with what they are learning in school. Specifically, the study aims to examine how play can result in learning both science and math concepts. It also aims to document and examine how students develop agency in their learning as a result of engaging in play activities. These findings have the potential to re-think and change how the field of education view play by positioning it as an important and valid activity in elementary education.


The larger goal of this study is to inform the field of education why and how play should be a valued part of education. Play is often seen as an unproductive activity in the context of learning (Nicolopoulou, 2010). However, this study pushes against those beliefs and aims to show how we can integrate play into the classroom in productive and reflective ways. The proposed study is built on both previous work and literature that support the notion that play is learning, and that students who play are engaged in productive learning practices. Not only does this study aim to show how these play activities can help students learn about science and math concepts around the marine ecosystem, but it can shed light on how play can lead to student agency and engagement. Therefore, this study aims to examine how play or playful role-playing can 1) result in students learning and understanding in math and science concepts and 2) develop students’ agency and environmental advocacy.


Potential benefits include the importance of creating and implementing innovative ways to teach science and math to elementary students. The vast majority of elementary classrooms continue to value traditional modes of learning. As a result, activities like play continue to get pushed into the backseat of education. However, not only is play an integral part of development in elementary years but holds potential for teaching students complex and abstract concepts. It is important to continue examining how play can be used for learning in reflective and deeper ways, but to also advocate for more play activities in schools.


This research study will be disseminated/published in education related journals and/or conferences (Examples: AERA, International Journal of Play, Journal of the Learning Science). Additionally, after finding how play can impact and support students' learning of math and science concepts, it is our goal to reach out and work with other elementary schools (like the Community School) to expand the implementation of play based learning. As part of our collaboration, the PI and teachers plan to share the research with other practitioners through education and teacher conferences and journals like The Science Teacher. Additionally, we will be sharing our findings with teachers and parents at the school.




I will partner and co-design with the three teachers in the LTL primary level classrooms (rooms 9 & 10) at the UCLA Lab School and use data from all students in those classrooms who agree to participate. All data collected for this study will be part of the ongoing curriculum and take place during the usual science and math instruction time.


The proposed study asks two questions. First, how can play help students learn and understand science and math concepts? Second, this study asks, how can play lead students to take action in relation to the challenges of the marine ecosystem (specifically how humans can negatively impact ocean life)?

The data collection for this study is part of the ongoing instruction in Rooms 9 & 10. The time needed from students is part of the planned science and math curriculum. The science learning goals are based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). We will look for the following science concepts in the drawings; Students will learn about different plants and animals in the marine ecosystem, learn about the importance of diversity in marine life, learn what animals and plants need to survive and thrive in the ecosystem, and learn how important and delicate the marine food web is. The math learning goals are based on the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM). We will be capturing students’ understanding of spatial relations. Specifically, we will look at how things are orientated in relation to one another, how they are orientated on the page, and how they show movement in space.

To answer the research questions, the PI will observe all lessons (field notes, video recording, and audio recording will be used), administer drawing assessments, interview teachers, and collect student work throughout the marine ecosystem unit. The co-designed play lessons will be integrated with the teachers’ typical classroom science/math lessons that make up the marine ecosystem unit. These typical classroom science lessons are not play lessons (ex: reading a book about whales or doing an art project on the marine food web), however, it is important that the PI observes and documents all lessons (both play lessons and typical classroom lessons) within the unit because it will capture the developing understanding of science and math concepts over the course of the study.

The PI will observe and only video record the play lessons on the marine ecosystem to analyze the conversations and interactions as learning develops. To measure learning, the PI will code and analyze drawing assessments (the same drawing assessment will be given before the unit begins and after the students learn about the ecosystem). The drawings will be analyzed to examine if students learned both science and math concepts.

The PI will also observe, create fieldnotes, and collect student work from teachers’ typical classroom science lessons. While observing these typical classroom science lessons (ex: the teacher may want to read a book with the class on marine animals or the teachers may want to do a small science experiment on the ocean ecosystem) the PI will observe and create fieldnotes (these typical lessons will NOT be video recorded). The PI will use an audio recorder only to help create the fieldnotes while observing typical classroom science lessons. Additionally, the PI will collect student work that was done during these typical classroom science lessons.

Finally, the PI will also conduct teacher interviews in order to uncover how students developed their understanding of the importance of the marine ecosystem after playing. The last play lesson in the marine unit is designed to ask students to critically think about how humans can impact the complicated marine food web and ecosystem. Through play, we hypothesize that students will empathize and realize the importance of preserving marine life. The teacher interview questions are focused on asking teachers to describe what is happening in the classroom related to the students’ understanding of the importance of the marine ecosystem. The questions the PI will ask are focused on what students are doing in the classroom as they continue to learn.


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As mentioned in the "Methods" section, the PI will observe all science/math play lessons and collect video recordings. Additionally, the PI will observe and audio record typical science lessons (ex: reading a book about marine animals), collect students' work, and create field notes. The PI will also conduct teacher interviews (group). To measure learning gains, the PI will also analyze drawing assessments (written test).


The analysis of all collected data for this research study will not only show how play can be integrated into curriculum for learning science and math, but also illustrate the importance of providing students with opportunities to play in order to engage and deeply reflect on what they are learning. To understand how play can support learning of science and math concepts, drawing assessments and collection of student work will help document how and if learning progressed throughout the unit. Additionally, observations of all lessons (both play and other classroom activities) will document and help us understand how play can impact and engage students in reflective conversations and practices.


The PI will obtain written consent forms from the three teachers in the participating primary level classrooms.


Any student/parent or teacher who wish to withdraw from the research study may do so at any time. Opting out of the study does not impact whether or not students continue to learn in the planned curriculum on the marine ecosystem. Students who do not wish to participate in the study may continue to learn in the classroom, and the PI will refrain from collecting any data on that student.




All data that is collected for this research study will remain in a locked room in an encrypted and password protected hard drive. The PI is the only individual with access to the collected data. Any data collected throughout this study (assessments, video, field notes, or audio) with names will never be shared or disseminated.
For students who do not want to participate in the study, in order to maintain their full participation in the class, the PI will mute out and blur out those students from all video data. The PI will use video editing software to ensure that students who do not wish to participate are not part of the data corpus.




The primary teachers have been working with the PI over the last 4 years on research projects related to play-based learning.


The PI will obtain written consent from the three primary teachers in rooms 9 & 10.


The Lab School personnel involved will include the teaching team in rooms 9 & 10.


Science (complex systems in the marine ecosystem) and Math (spatial understanding)


Information needed from the UCLA Lab School database include basic student demographics that will help illustrate the context of the study for publications/conference presentations. Basic demographics include age and gender of students.


No special requirements will be required for this project.








IRB Approved on 12/21/2018


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