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Back to School? How Play Teaches Learning Skills

SchoolMy first career was as a 6th grade English and Social Studies teacher and I remember that first day of school; within hours or even minutes, there was an obvious difference between students: some kids could do things for themselves and others needed (or wanted…) things done for them. These things ranged from unplugging the top of a glue bottle to sharpening pencils to picking writing topics. I saw huge parallels between these self-care skills, school skills and social skills – kids with high self-efficacy tended to have it across the board.

A huge piece of a child’s feeling of self-efficacy is trained at home. (And I admit that even though my 6-year-old is perfectly capable of opening her own tube of yoghurt, I find myself automatically snipping off the top for her sometimes!) But an important article in the play therapy literature shows that it’s never too late to boost a child’s skills of self-efficacy.

One large piece of this study is the idea that what a child believes about him- or herself largely becomes true – in this case, if a child believes he or she can do something, the child is more likely to be able to do it. That does for glue bottles and juice boxes as well as English and Social Studies! So the researchers asked kids how they felt about their abilities – they measured their opinions of kids’ own self-efficacy before and after a brief play therapy intervention (and compared the measures to kids who didn’t receive play therapy).

First, teachers list students whose “coping mechanisms did not facilitate learning behaviors,” the article writes. These included children who were “shy, withdrawn, using self-defeating coping mechanisms, easily frustrated, acting out, unwilling to take risks, seeking attention, and not excited about learning,” the authors write.

Thirty-one referred kids received 6 sessions of play therapy while another 31 kids stayed in their classrooms. Here’s what happened:

In one case, whenever the classroom was noisy a child would fall asleep. In nearly all of his actions he “portrays a child who is acted upon by the environment rather than the other way around.” Play therapy helped him realize that he could exert his self on his surroundings, as well. For example, in the 6th and final session of play therapy, the counselor saw this child shaking water off his hands and when she remarked that he must not like how the water feels, the child corrected her, saying, “I like how it feels, but it’s just that I don’t want my sleeves to get wet.”

He didn’t blindly accept the counselor’s interpretation. In the first session, his play showed animals being tricked and not knowing how to be successful. Later, “Bad guys turn good, horses that are trapped gain wings to get out of trouble, and bad kids do good deeds.”

This child’s experience was representative of the group. Overall, teachers saw improvement in learning skills in 68 percent of the children who were treated (and a slight decline in children who were not).

The researchers suggest that gains might have been due to the idea that guided mastery can increase feelings of self-efficacy. Guided play helped children take ownership of their environments – they learned to make their own stories – and through this process, they gently rewrote the stories they told about themselves. The ability to effect the environment of play may have been behind increases in these kids’ abilities to effect the environment of school.

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Image: Flickr/ElizabethAlbert cc license

Back to School? How Play Teaches Learning Skills

Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D.

After a first career in teaching, Kristi Pikiewicz earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She now works half time as a psychologist at the Mackintosh School and half time in private practice in Boulder, CO. She lives with her husband, a pack of labradors, and young kids just outside Boulder.

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APA Reference
Pikiewicz, K. (2014). Back to School? How Play Teaches Learning Skills. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Aug 2014
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