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Transferring skills and knowledge between contexts – implications for play-based learning?

In this reflection on a current research interest, recent doctoral candidate Jenny Zike addresses the issue of how what we learn in one context can transfer to another, and how this might affect early years settings.

In my experience working in schools and with primary teachers, I have found that we often wonder why children can successfully use something they have learned on one task and then seem to completely forget it in a slightly different situation. We know the child knows how to do this because we have observed them doing it before, so it can be slightly perplexing when they struggle to successfully complete a task that requires the same skill.

After all, they have learned this already, haven’t they?

The problem is that learning is not a very straightforward process and transferring skills, knowledge and strategies between different kinds of tasks can be difficult (Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Chen & Klahr, 2008).

As an early years researcher, I am particularly interested in the implications for transferring skills and knowledge learned through play to more academic contexts. In this post, I will outline the issue of transfer further and explain what this means for play-based learning. I will suggest some potential solutions for facilitating transfer and the benefits of learning in multiple contexts.


The problem of transfer

When I say “transfer,” I mean applying a learned skill, knowledge or strategy to a new, relevant problem or task (Chen & Klahr, 2008). We might even say that transfer is one of the ultimate goals of education because learning that cannot be applied to new situations where it would be relevant isn’t very useful (Barnett & Ceci, 2005).

For example, in maths, children need to transfer addition skills between different formats – using concrete materials, written sums and eventually word problems. The context might change from adding more stones to a child’s collection to adding money in a play or real shop. Using adding skills and knowledge about addition in new formats and contexts requires transfer. Additionally, we also often expect skills like problem solving and collaboration to transfer between many different contexts.

The problem is that transfer is difficult for all learners, but especially for young children (Chen & Klahr, 2008; Clerc et al., 2014; McGregor, 2007). How difficult this is depends on how different the new task is from tasks where the child successfully used the required skill or knowledge before. Similarities between learning contexts are important to successful transfer because the original contexts where children learn something provide cues that the learner associates with the new skill or knowledge.

Transferring knowledge and skills to new situations is not really spontaneous. Instead, cues in new problems or tasks remind learners of relevant tasks or problems they have experienced before (Wolfe et al., 2005). Therefore, if the new task or problem shares very few characteristics with tasks or problems where the child used the skill before, the skill might not seem relevant and the learner won’t successfully transfer it. Researchers use “near transfer” when the new task or problem is very similar to the original learning context and “far transfer” when the new task or problem shares very few similarities with the original learning context.

Research (Barnett & Ceci, 2002) suggests that transfer is more difficult when:

  • The physical space is different (i.e. learning something in the forest school and transferring skills/knowledge to classroom tasks)
  • The social context is different (i.e. transferring between individual and group learning or between learning with parents/carers and learning with practitioners)
  • There is a significant time gap between the last time the skill/knowledge was used and the new task/problem where we want the learner to use it again.
  • The knowledge domain is different (i.e. transferring relevant information learned in maths to art, such as knowledge about shapes)
  • The functional domain is different (i.e. transferring knowledge and skills learned through play to more clearly academic work)
  • The modality is different (i.e. transferring knowledge between different formats such as transferring knowledge about addition between concrete materials, written sums and word problems)


Transfer and play-based learning

The reason that I am interested in transfer between play-based tasks and more clearly academic tasks is because my doctoral study suggested that many children at the beginning of Primary 1 might not view play activities as learning opportunities.

In fact, many children reflected on learning in a narrow sense that seemed to contradict the holistic view of learning promoted by Realising the Ambition (Education Scotland, 2020).

Children in my PhD study differentiated starkly between play and learning, which many thought of as teacher-directed “work.” Many initially said that they could not learn outside because the teacher was not there, and the outdoors were not suitable for formal classroom activities like worksheets. Using language from the previous section, children recognised the functional difference between play and academic work. Therefore, it would probably be difficult for them to transfer new skills, knowledge, or strategies they learned in one context to the other because they did not see overlaps between play and academic contexts.

What is important to remember is that just because something is difficult does not mean that it is bad for learning (Bjork, 2018). Transferring knowledge and skills between play and more academic tasks is difficult, but this does not mean that play-based learning should be abandoned or that practitioners should ensure that tasks are always similar. After all, as practitioners, we know that play is a rich context for learning and research supports a balance between child and teacher-initiated play experiences alongside more formal academic experiences (Fisher, 2013).

Instead, we need to be aware of when we are asking children to engage in far transfer so that they can be properly supported to successfully transfer skills, knowledge and strategies to new and different contexts (Moser et al., 2015).

Although it may be difficult and might slow down children’s performance on a new task, practicing using learned material in different situations is helpful to learning. This is because when learners practice using learned material in a different situation, they associate cues from the new context with that skill or knowledge, making it more flexible and ultimately making transfer more reliable (Wolfe et al., 2005). When learners encounter a new problem, they use knowledge, skills and strategies that seem relevant to the new situation (Norman et al., 2010; Wolfe et al., 2005), so recognising connections between different contexts where skills are useful is very important. If a learner has opportunities to practice using learned material in different situations, it is more likely that they will recognise when these skills and knowledge are relevant to a new task or problem.


Suggestions for practitioners

So, what, you might ask, does this mean for early years professionals who use play-based learning in their classrooms? Some points that I think are important to take away from this blog post are:

  • Variation is good for learning

By getting children to use skills and knowledge in a variety of play and academic contexts inside and outside the classroom, you are taking the first step to helping children create more flexible knowledge and skills. The intent of this blog post is not to suggest that we return to asking children to do worksheet after worksheet of maths problems in the same format. Variation is good for learning in the long run even though it often seems more difficult in the moment.

  • Transfer is difficult for young children

It is helpful to be aware of what might make transfer difficult for children. Some situations where we might not think transfer would be very difficult might actually be quite challenging for children. One research study even showed that young children struggled to transfer the skills required to solve a puzzle between a virtual puzzle on an iPad and a physical puzzle that used the same picture (2D and 3D are different modalities) (Moser et al., 2015). In the modern classroom there are many things that could make transfer difficult for children. Being aware of when we are asking children to engage in far transfer could help to understand why they were able to successfully use a skill in one task and can’t seem to use it in a different task. It also might help to predict when learners will need extra support.

  • Increase scaffolding for transfer between play and more academic contexts

Research suggests that young children might need more explicit explanation about how to apply skills and knowledge to new contexts (Wolfe et al., 2005). If you want children to transfer a particular skill or knowledge learned through play to a more academic context, you may have to show them how this works in the new context or at least provide cues to connect the two contexts. Cuing these connections could help children to remember the relevant knowledge or skill you want them to use (Veenman & Spaans, 2005). Even relatively superficial similarities like using the same characters in a play-based learning context and an academic context can serve as a cue to make connections between contexts (Chen & Klahr, 2008). You might start by making a connection to the play context and asking if any of the children can remember the target knowledge or skill and demonstrate how to use it in the new academic context.

  • Encourage children to reflect on play-based learning

Talking about learning through play could draw children’s attention to the learning that takes place and prompt them to make connections between learning in different contexts. Making these connections may encourage children to adopt more holistic views of learning. Research suggests that reflection can make knowledge more explicit and build a shared model of learning in the classroom (Efklides, 2008). This shared model of learning should be holistic, including both play and academic contexts as this will help support the development of reflective and self-directed learners who can flexibly use their knowledge and skills in a range of contexts.



Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and Where Do We Apply What We Learn? A Taxonomy for Far Transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612–637.

Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2005). Reframing the Evaluation of Education: Assessing Whether Learning Transfers Beyond the Classroom. In J. P. Mestre (Ed.), Transfer of Learning From a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective (pp. 295–312). Information Age Publishing.

Bjork, R. A. (2018). Being Suspicious of the Sense of Ease and Undeterred by the Sense of Difficulty: Looking Back at Schmidt and Bjork (1992). Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 13(2), 146–148.

Chen, Z., & Klahr, D. (2008). Remote transfer of scientific-reasoning and problem-solving strategies in children. In Advances in Child Development and Behavior (Vol. 36, pp. 419–470). Academic Press Inc.

Clerc, J., Miller, P. H., & Cosnefroy, L. (2014). Young children’s transfer of strategies: Utilization deficiencies, executive function, and metacognition. Developmental Review, 34(4), 378–393.

Education Scotland. (2020). Realising the Ambition: Being me.

Fisher, J. (2013). Starting from the Child: Teaching and Learning in the Foundation Stage (4th ed.). Open University Press.

McGregor, D. (2007). Developing Thinking Developing Learning: A Guide to Thinking Skills in Education. Open University Press.

Moser, A., Zimmermann, L., Dickerson, K., Grenell, A., Barr, R., & Gerhardstein, P. (2015). They can interact, but can they learn? Toddlers’ transfer learning from touchscreens and television. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 137, 137–155.

Norman, E., Price, M. C., & Duff, S. C. (2010). Fringe consciousness: A useful framework for clarifying the nature of experience-based metacognitive feelings. In Trends and Prospects in Metacognition Research (pp. 63–80). Springer US.

Veenman, M. V. J., & Spaans, M. A. (2005). Relation between intellectual and metacognitive skills: Age and task differences. Learning and Individual Differences, 15(2), 159–176.

Wolfe, C., Reyna, V., & Brainerd, C. (2005). Fuzzy-Trace theory: Implications for Transfer in Teaching and Learning. In J. P. Mestre (Ed.), Transfer of Learning From a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective (pp. 53–87). Information Age Publishing.