Technical Appendix


The definition of ‘play’ and its relationship with the curriculum, the role of adults and the children themselves varies considerably. Adult-guided activities may involve a ‘playful’ element and child-initiated activities are structured by their environment and experiences and may involve adult interaction.

Play can perhaps be broadly defined as an enjoyable activity that is pursued for pleasure or its own sake. It is likely to be intrinsically motivated. It can be contrasted with activities that have explicitly defined learning outcomes, or games, which are likely to have clearer rules or a competitive element.

Play-based activities might be solitary or social, and involve a combination of cognitive and physical elements. Games, of course, may be chosen as play. Activities might be adult-guided, for example through the suggestion of a scenario for pretend play. In other cases, activities will be largely child-initiated (“free-play”), with adult involvement focused on the provision of props, or the design and management of the learning environment (see Physical environment).

Some examples of play-based learning may overlap with Self-regulation approaches or Social and emotional learning strategies. For children with social, emotional or behavioural problems, some play-based interventions have been developed. These programmes explicitly aim to improve social and cognitive skills by teaching children how to play.

Search Terms: pretend play; play-based activities; play-literacy approach/interventions; guided play activities

Evidence Rating

The lack of consensus about different kinds of play and the role of adults and how activities are structured make it difficult to compare findings across different interventions. Play and guided play activities are usually included in most early years interventions, but it is difficult to estimate the impact of the play component.

There is one systematic review (which does not pool effect sizes) of limited quality. Overall the evidence does not provide sufficient evidence for specific guidance for practice, though the importance of language development; interaction and talk appear to be important. Overall, the evidence appears to be very limited.

Additional Cost Information

Most early years settings are equipped with indoor and outdoor play facilities, so the additional cost of play-based interventions is low. Specific additional resources and materials may be needed, such as for dramatic play, and training for staff in developing their understanding of how to develop children’s learning from play activities is likely to be beneficial.


Barnett, W. S., Jung, K., Yarosz, D. J., Thomas, J., Hornbeck, A., Stechuk, R., & Burns, S.
Educational effects of the Tools of the Mind curriculum: A randomized trial open_in_new
Early Childhood
Bodrova E., Leong D.J.
Curriculum and play in early child development open_in_new
Tremblay, R.E., Boivin, M., Peters R., eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development and Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development
Cavanaugh, D. M., Clemence, K. J., Teale, M. M., Rule, A. C., & Montgomery, S. E.
Kindergarten Scores, Storytelling, Executive Function, and Motivation Improved through Literacy-Rich Guided Play open_in_new
Early Childhood Education Journal, 1-13
Kuschner, D.
Play and Early Childhood Education open_in_new
J.E. Johnson, S.G. Eberle, T.S. Henricks & D.Kuschner (Eds) The Handbook of the Study of Play, 2, 287. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education
Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M.
The impact of pretend play on children's development: A review of the evidence open_in_new
Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1
Lin, Y. W., & Bratton, S. C.
A meta‐analytic review of child‐centered play therapy approaches open_in_new
Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(1), 45-58
Marcon, R. A.
Moving up the Grades: Relationship between Preschool Model and Later School Success open_in_new
Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1), n1
McGivern, R. F., Hilliard, V. R., Anderson, J., Reilly, J. S., Rodriguez, A., Fielding, B., & Shapiro, L.
Improving preliteracy and pre-math skills of Head Start children with classroom computer games open_in_new
Early Childhood Services: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Effectiveness, 1, 71-81.
Roskos, K. A., Christie, J. F., Widman, S., & Holding, A. (Abstract arrow_downward)
Three decades in: Priming for meta-analysis in play-literacy research open_in_new
Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 10(1), 55-96
Roskos, K., & Christie, J.
Examining the play–literacy interface: a critical review and future directions open_in_new
Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 1(1), 59-89

Summary of effects

Meta-analyses Effect size FSM effect size
Roskos, K. A., Christie, J. F., Widman, S., & Holding, A., (2010)
0.49 - Median
Single Studies Effect size FSM effect size
Barnett, W. S., Jung, K., Yarosz, D. J., Thomas, J., Hornbeck, A., Stechuk, R., & Burns, S. (2008)
0.22 - Picture Vocabulary Test
0.11 - Expressive Vocabulary Test
-0.10 - Letter–Word Identification
Cavanaugh, D. M., Clemence, K. J., Teale, M. M., Rule, A. C., & Montgomery, S. E. (2016)
0.57 - Literacy skills
McGivern, R. F., Hilliard, V. R., Anderson, J., Reilly, J. S., Rodriguez, A., Fielding, B., & Shapiro, L. (2007)
0.72 - Letter recognition
0.87 - Number recognition
0.55 - Quantity knowledge
Effect size (weighted mean) 0.43  

The right hand column provides detail on the specific outcome measures or, if in brackets, details of the intervention or control group.

Meta-analyses abstracts

Roskos, K. A., Christie, J. F., Widman, S., & Holding, A. (2010)

In this literature review, we examined 30 years of play-literacy inquiry through a quantitative lens in order to identify, assemble and summarize studies of sufficient methodological strength to form a corpus of research that encourages meta-analytic thinking. First, a multi-phase search of the literature was conducting yielding 192 studies that addressed pretend play and early literacy variables. Subsequent screening resulted in a total of 16 studies that met inclusion criteria, constituting a corpus of primary research that quantitatively measured play-literacy relationships in early childhood educational settings serving children ages 3—7. Next, several content analyses were used to describe and organize the corpus as a resource for meta-analytic thinking. The first round of analysis focused on developing a survey matrix that organized the particulars of individual studies into categories of information conducive to a meta-analytic approach. The second round probed for the theory of change used to explain the relations between pretend play interventions and early literacy skills. The third round entailed creating an effect size type matrix. Notably, most of the corpus studies showed modest to large effect sizes on a selected set of dependent variables which points to the potential of meta-analysis for better understanding the practical significance of the play-literacy relationship in promoting the acquisition of early literacy skills.