Play-based learning and the role of the teacher: when to intervene?
Play-based learning is widely accepted as a means of fostering development in early childhood education. With kindergartens becoming more academically focused, teachers are increasingly required to document and examine the role of play in learning and curriculum.
A key element supporting the “Educational program and practice” standard of the National Quality Framework (NQF) concerns itself with play. Element 1.2.2 states, “educators respond to children’s ideas and play and use intentional teaching to scaffold and extend each child’s learning”.
The Guide to the National Quality Standards stresses the importance of educators “joining in children’s play and co-constructing materials, such as signs that extend the play and enhance literacy learning”.
Conversely, the guide notes the importance of children “using their own ideas to develop their play”.
These two ideas demonstrate the difficulty some teachers face in deciding when and how frequently to intervene in children’s play in order to maximise learning. Research published by the Early Education and Development Journal in 2016 explored this issue. The article, The Role of the Teacher in Play-Based Pedagogy and the Fear of Hijacking Play, Early Education and Development by Angela Pyle and Erica Danniels, defined play as “freely chosen, actively engaging, opportunistic, pleasurable, creative and concerned more with means than ends”.
Within the context of play, two key forms have emerged in the kindergarten setting: “children’s pretend play” and “adult-guided play”. In the former, the play is child-directed and spontaneous and in the latter, play is enhanced by teachers acting as co-players, demonstrators or commentators.
Why is play important?
Early childhood educators know that play and learning go hand in hand. Play has been shown to facilitate learning with a number of studies concluding that play positively impacts emotional development and academic learning – sometimes in excess of that achieved through direct instruction.
Current research indicates that different types of play foster different developmental results. Child-directed play is determined as beneficial to a “socio-emotional development” while teacher-directed play is seen to show the most benefit in the area of academic development.
This evidence places play in a dichotomy where free play and directed play are somewhat in contention in the classroom setting, compounding the challenges teachers face in integrating curriculum with play.
What is the ‘continuum of play’?
The research by Pyle and Danniels, which was informed by observations of Canadian kindergarten classes in play, aimed to bring more clarity to different types of play, rather than just the dichotomous free play and directed play concepts that are widely acknowledged. As a result, the researchers identified a play ‘continuum’ beginning with the most ‘child directed’ to the most ‘teacher directed’ forms of play as follows:
Free play: children direct their own play narrative and choose resources involved; little to no teacher involvement
Inquiry play: play is initiated by children, but the teacher integrates academic structure at organic opportunities. An example given by the research was children building paper aeroplanes, leading the teacher to introduce concepts around flying and how to optimise the design of the planes to improve speed etc.
Collaborative play: a near 50/50 collaboration between the children and teacher to determine the context of the play, the theme and resources.
Playful learning: the teacher actively integrates learning concepts that would not arise organically through play; however, children are still able to influence the play narrative.
Learning through games: the most teacher-directed style of learning in the continuum where teachers teach complex skills such as maths or language in the form of games to make them more engaging. Students have limited involvement in the play narrative.
All forms of play are important
The researchers found that many kindergartens had a tendency to favour more structured, teacher-directed forms of play as teachers grappled with reaching learning and developmental outcomes.
However, all types of play should be seen as having an important role in developing children emotionally and academically. Pyle and Danniels concluded that understanding the continuum of play may help teachers in finding a greater balance between free and directed play.
Angela Pyle & Erica Danniels (2016): A Continuum of Play-Based Learning:The Role of the Teacher in Play-Based Pedagogy and the Fear of Hijacking Play, Early Education and Development
Guide to National Quality Standards: http://files.acecqa.gov.au/files/National-Quality-Framework-Resources-Kit/NQF-Resource-03-Guide-toNQS.pdf
National Quality Standards: http://www.acecqa.gov.au/Educationalprogram-and-practice