Guiding Play in the Early Years

Louisa Waring

The Role of the Adult in Childrens’ Play

Play provides opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning in a variety of ways, starting at a very young age. Play-based curriculum includes free play, which is typically child-initiated, unstructured, and sometimes spontaneous, and guided play where teachers provide time and space for freely-chosen play and adult-led learning experiences. As highlighted in Dr. Michelle Hill’s article, “Why Play?: Learning in the Early Years,” our programme is rooted in play as a vehicle for exploration and learning. Dr Hill states: our teachers aim to create a balance between play initiated by children and play enriched by pedagogical strategies that extend and develop children's knowledge, skills and understanding.” Our Early Years environments and curriculum supports the balance between independent play and scaffolded learning between child and adult. 

At ISZL, we achieve this balance by:

  • Providing long uninterrupted time periods for play
  • Creating and cultivating innovative, flexible learning environments indoors and outdoors
  • Teacher’s active participation in play and learning with children

Long Uninterrupted Time to Play

In Early Years, we value extended time for play which provides opportunities where choice is key and independence is encouraged. Students work with a variety of learning environments, teachers, and peers. During this time students are able to follow their own ideas, create, explore and challenge their own ideas. This time allows teachers to be able to pitch their learning to each child's needs, scaffolding their thinking as they inquire into new topics and expand their knowledge and understanding. For example, when students engage and explore with materials such as clay in our classrooms, you will not find 16 identical pinch pots. Instead the students are given time to explore the material, manipulating their own unique creations. Some may choose to make a boat for the storytelling table, others a self-portrait as students explore emotion and feeling. This is because we give students the opportunity, time, and space to explore and develop their own understanding and skills.

Innovative and Flexible Learning Environments

In the Early Years, we create environments that are tailored to the needs of our students and our curriculum. The indoor and outdoor spaces foster respect and trust between teachers and students, where the teachers take time to appreciate and highlight the unique identities of the individual students we have in our classes. The space is also flexible and focused on the curricular goals and learning outcomes within the IB Primary Years Programme. The programme structures itself into units of inquiry - one of which is entitled How We Express Ourselves. When walking into a learning space based on storytelling, one would see a book-making area filled with different sizes and shapes of paper, journals, and sketchbooks and a variety of writing utensils and materials. In the role play area, there would be clipboards, notepads, and dry erase boards for mark-making, a classroom library filled with literature that focuses on student interest, and a storytelling area with popular characters and materials for students to create stories orally. Materials and resources are placed in the classroom which are of high interest to the students to heighten engagement with their environment, their peers and teachers, and their learning. 

Teacher's Active Participation in the Learning of All Students

As teachers, we are researchers - using observation to better understand our students and further develop upon ideas and best practices. Being with students while they develop their understanding and knowledge gives us the ability to monitor and document students’ learning during play and recognise theories and interests. We ask probing questions to extend student understanding and offer scaffolded individualised learning experiences. While by the pond, students asked questions and built theories regarding the lifecycle of a tadpole. Our observations enabled the teachers to act and maximise student learning and understanding as we added nonfiction books about tadpoles and frogs and brought an aquarium with tadpoles inside so students could examine and continue engaging with the development of the creatures. “Moment-by-moment teacher actions, reactions, and interactions with children are key to their cognitive development” (Copple, Bredekamp 2009). 

At ISZL, we believe play is a primary tool for making meaning, learning, and exploring. I have seen the benefits time and time again of what play-based learning offers students. Free and guided play allow students to inquire, examine, and question as they make sense of the world around them. 

As an educator at ISZL, I am proud to support children by creating environments and experiences that enhance and scaffold student learning. We listen, facilitate, co-construct, and reflect to meet the needs of our students, choosing the moments to step into students’ play and maximise their opportunities for learning.

  • Early Years
  • Guided Play

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