Play and lifelong learning skills

Whether referred to as the Characteristics of Effective Learning (CoEL), Learner Attributes in the PYP or the Elements of Learning Power in the Learning Power Approach, science and research is showing more and more that “learning-to-learn” impacts on children’s life chances and progress both in and out of school (for further reading, we highly recommend James Mannion and Kate McAllister’s study and book, “Fear is the Mind Killer.”).

The “Learner Habits” we are referring to include, but are not exclusive to,

  • Developing curiosity
  • Self-regulation and perseverance
  • Collaboration
  • Effective listening
  • Conversation skills
  • Imagination, creativity
  • Open-mindedness
  • Making connections between learning experiences and prior knowledge


  • How can play develop these habits?
  • Can play offer a unique approach in deepening, broadening and strengthening these habits (as suggested by Professor Guy Claxton, lead thinker in learning-to-learn approaches)?

To begin to shape an answer to these questions, we warmly invite you to reflect on your own practice.

When have you noticed children developing any of the characteristics above through play?

Do you think that they would have been able to develop these characteristics so well in a context other than play?

Bearing the examples you have in mind, did you recognise children strengthening their ability to persevere, for example, through play? How did play provide a unique context for this?

You might also like to reflect on the short video below from, Anne van Dam, one of our “lead play thinkers” who will inspire and plan with our incredible international learning community PressPlay, speaks about the links she sees between learning-to-learn and play:

Part of our collective journey in the PressPlay learning community will involve becoming more consciously competent in our practice. So, now we have unearthed a few examples of play developing learner attributes, let’s dive into how we could go about purposefully developing them further through play.

So, how can we strengthen, broaden and deepen the CoEL or Learner Attributes through play?

Developing a growth mindset, grit and positive learning attributes don’t happen by chance - They develop with purposeful coaching, setting up a challenging learning environment and through thoughtful interaction and reflection with adults and peers.

Here are a few suggestions:

Commentate on the learning attributes you are noticing.

You don’t need to go overboard with this - You don’t want the children thinking you’ve turned into some “learner attributes robot”! But it really is worth starting to name and notice the fantastic learning habits you are beginning to see develop. This could be during play, after play, or, perhaps more powerfully, before play commences. This can be as simple as saying,

“There’s some great collaboration going on here. Look at the way you’re taking it in turns and sharing those blocks.”
“Wow! You’re really sticking at that problem together! It can be frustrating but eventually you’ll get there. Keep at it!”
“Take a look at this video of X’s learning yesterday? What are we noticing about them as a learner?”
Beginning to make a habit of noticing positive learning habits will have a huge impact on engagement, focus and purpose during play.

Co-create the learning environment with children

Giving children ownership over learning and learning environments inevitably impacts on engagement. Children feel valued when you give them voice and choice. In the process of planning an environment together, you will be developing planning skills, collaboration skills, humility when “your idea” isn’t used, conversation and reflection skills throughout and at the end of the planning process. So, a complete “learner workout”. You can also ask the children questions like,

“How could we make this area clearer?”
“What kinds of writing might you do in this area?”
“How could we make the learning more challenging?”
“Would you like a space in your learning environment where you can learn as a team and spaces where you can learn quietly?”
“What could we add to make play even better here?”

There might be some bumps along the way, but I guarantee the children will be more engaged with the play in their learning environment and will feel empowered by being involved in this process.

Once, I co-planned and built a pirate ship role play with the children in my class. Their parents reported that the next day, they were up at 6am, dressed as pirates, begging to go to school. This is the kind of engagement we are going for!

Plan in “review” time.

Through reviewing learning through play, children build up a picture of what challenging, collaborative, inclusive, deep play looks like. They can unpick learning, recognise what is effective, then begin to apply this to different learning contexts (therefore “broadening” their use of learner attributes). Structure in review can help. Ron Ritchhart and his team at Project Zero have a plethora of “thinking routines” that can help structure and deepening thinking. One thinking routine which works really well for review is “SAIL”: Share your learning / Ask questions / Suggest Ideas / Reflect on Learning and take aways. Using this process, children learn to listen, develop their questioning skills, learn to positively give and receive feedback and learn to listen and summarise ideas.

Becky Carlzon

I’m a committed, creative classroom practitioner, always seeking to improve my practice AND, I am constantly researching and collaborating with some of the world’s leading minds. These conversations and collaborations shape my thinking and this is fed directly into the conversations within our community. So, classroom practitioner and lead thinker- and it is from this stance that I co-“lead” and coach this amazing community