How to Keep Children at the Center of Your Program
By Miriam Brookfield

What does it look like when children are learning? Play! Play is a child’s work.

How do caregivers take advantage of the power of play?
By implementing a play-based curriculum.

What Is a Play-Based Curriculum?
It can be described in a number of ways. It’s a carefully planned environment that is both stimulating and exciting. It has teachers who support children as they explore their environment, who talk with them, and who extend their play when required. Simply put, it’s a fun place to play, where children can learn without knowing learning is taking place.

A play-based curriculum is developmentally appropriate for all children; this type of curriculum meets children where they are, instead of requiring them to fit within the lines of a worksheet. A play-based curriculum can be accurately described as “observation based” or child-centered. These terms make sense because they recognize that children learn best when they are allowed to discover what they want to learn. It’s also worth noting that a play-based curriculum is most successful in an environment that has been arranged into learning/interest centers.

What follows is an explanation of how to implement a play-based curriculum, and the importance of observing children when choosing the activities that will best meet their needs. To understand these ideas is to know how to keep children at the center of your program.

Step One: Observe Your Children
The important first step involves observing children – watching them, learning about them, and really paying attention to the children and how they learn best. Without current and comprehensive observations, a play-based curriculum merely provides for the imagined version of the children in your care, instead of for the actual children and their actual needs.

While you’re working with children, pay attention to their holistic development. Observe their physical, intellectual, language, emotional, and social development. And while observing, be careful to only record what you actually see. Avoid making interpretations. Interpretations open your observations to questions and lessen their validity. I like to carry a little notebook in my pocket, so I can jot down my observations as they happen, and record exact examples of children’s language.

Observations combined with the weekly dramas or delights of the group – Jesse’s R-rated language and Cora’s enthusiastic singing – always provide a caregiver with plenty of ammunition to proceed to step two.

Step Two: Setting Goals – Both Short and Long Term
Observations are most valuable when they provide clear descriptions, free of interpretations or value-laden adjectives such as good, bad, or clever. Similarly, goals for children and curriculum must be observable and measurable. Perhaps your observations have revealed that three-year-old Tracy is still using her whole fist to hold a pen or crayon. Short-term goals for Tracy might be:

  • This week, T will have the opportunity to use different mediums to draw both indoors and out, every day.
  • This week, T will have the opportunity to practice her fine motor skills every day, during her preferred routine (snack).

A long-term goal for Tracy might be:

  • T will hold a pen “correctly” in three out of five observed incidences within six months.

Step Three: Planning Activities, Experiences, and Environment
As you plan the activities that will help achieve the goals you set in Step Two, consider what you have in your toolbox. Identify the areas in your curriculum that can be modified to support individual learning, and decide how to set up your environment so that you can offer as many experiences in as many activity areas as possible.

  • Fine motor (manipulatives and beyond)
  • Gross motor (including, but not restricted to, outdoor play)
  • Art/Messy Play (free choice art centers, as well as supervised goopy play)
  • Music and Movement (an all too often overlooked, but essential, curriculum area)
  • Language/Fantasy Play (extend housekeeping play to create exciting things for children to talk about, invite guests to the classroom, and take neighborhood walks)

On a given day, Tracy, who needs fine motor support, might be able to play with:

  • A fresh batch of puzzles with handles (fine motor)
  • A climbing game, in which children can retrieve ribbons or small objects from the top of the obstacle (gross motor)
  • Q-Tip painting (art/messy)
  • Adult led fingerplays, throughout the morning (music and movement)
  • New props in the housekeeping area, e.g., doll outfits requiring fine motor manipulation, jars with screw on lids containing interesting objects.
  • Finger food at snack time – dry cereal, cut up fruit, cheese cubes.

Once you’ve set up the environment, allow children to explore the varied experiences. There’s no need to prod a child into participating in any one activity because all play choices will support the appropriate learning. Also, except in rare circumstances, there’s no danger of any activity being inappropriate for any other member of the group. All of the experiences have been chosen to enhance a child’s development, so they will be helpful in enhancing anychild’s development.

Step Four: Implement
Having done the work to plan activities that will meet children’s developmental needs, a teacher gets to enjoy dessert: playing with children on the floor, learning alongside them, and making herself a resource for their education. Children arrive into the world and our programs are pre-programmed for learning. All children know how to play, and even if you have to dig deep, you’ll remember how to do it, too. Being on the floor with your children makes you available to answer their questions, and to pose plenty right back. You can also gather props or information to extend children’s learning. If a spontaneous bug hunt happens, grab the magnifying glasses from the science cupboard and let children’s own interests power their learning.

Step Five: Observe
As you play with the children, continue observing. Some of the notes you make will provide data to evaluate your current goals, and some will equip you with the information you need to plan the next round.

Step Six: Evaluate/Set New Goals
Here’s where the data combines with the experience of being on the floor with your children, and works with the measurable/observable goals from Step Two. This enables you to evaluate the short-term success of the curriculum.

Sometimes your evaluation will acknowledge that the activities you planned weren’t as fascinating to children as you’d hoped they would be. Sometimes weather, illness, or other unpredictable elements prohibit you from implementing the planned activities. Sometimes you’ll continue working with the same child, goals, and need for another week or two. And sometimes, the activities are a success, and you are able to meet the goals. Either way, the process of evaluation encourages teachers to reflect upon the children, the program, and themselves. Over time this can’t help but improve care.

Step Seven: Resume at Step Three - Mix well and Repeat
And so it is revealed! A play-based curriculum – the wonderful power of play, harnessed by a teacher who observes children’s development and designs the play environment to support it.

Miriam Brookfield has experience working in child care in both the United States and New Zealand and is a graduate of Christchurch College of Education in Christchurch, New Zealand. Currently, Miriam provides training for early childhood professionals at Tennessee Tech University.

Self-Study Questions to Trigger Anecdotal Observation Opportunities
How does the child manipulate objects?
Does the child creep/crawl/roll/walk/run/jump/climb?
Is the child showing hand/foot dominance?


How does the child solve problems and use tools?

How does the child use equipment in each of the learning/interest centers?


How does the child express feelings?
Does the child ask for what she wants/needs? Does she use language at other times?


How does the child cope with separation?
How does the child deal with new faces, places, and other changes in routine?
Does the child demonstrate a consistent temperament?


How does the child interact with others?
Does the child have a close attachment to particular staff/children?


What activities does the child enjoy most?
Are there any activities the child consistently avoids?


Sample Schedule of a Play-based Curriculum
7:00 – 8:00 a.m.                        Arrival/greeting, rolling breakfast, free play
8:00 – 9:00 a.m.                        Free play. Diaper/toilet as required
9:00 – 9:30 a.m.                        Clean up, wash up, and snack
9:30 – 10:30 a.m.                       Indoor/outdoor free play. Diaper/toilet as required.
10:30 – 11:00 a.m.                     Optional supervised messy activity, free play
11:00 – 11:30 a.m.                     Optional circle time, free play, diaper/toilet as required
11:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.             Clean up, wash up, lunch
12:15 – 3:00 p.m.                       Nap, quiet free play, rolling snack, diaper/toilet as required
3:00 – 4:30 p.m.                        Indoor/outdoor free play. Diaper/toilet as required.
4:30 – 4:45 p.m.                        Optional snack
4:45 – 6:00 p.m.                        Free play. Diaper/toilet as required. Rolling departure.

Additional Resources Books
The Complete Learning Center Book by Rebecca Isbell
Early Learning Environments that Work by Rebecca Isbell, Betty Exelby and Garry Exelby
Helping Young Children Develop Through Play: A Practical Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers by Janet Sawyers and Cosby Rogers
Children’s Play: An Introduction for Care Providers by Vicki Mulligan
Literacy Through Play by Gretchen Owocki
The Art of Awareness: How Observation can Transform Your Teaching by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter

Finding the Time to Plan

  • Use nap time constructively. I could usually plan for my toddlers over two days of naps.

  • If you aren’t already getting some paid planning time, be courageous and ask for an hour each week. Alternatively, ask your director if she would supervise your napping children for an hour per week.

  • Jot down activity ideas to support curriculum goals as you think of them. Just as you write notes about children’s development in your pocket-sized notebook, write goals and activities as you go. This makes planning sessions so much easier.

  • Consider leaving notepaper in the children’s bathroom. One of my colleagues used to spend hours each week sitting and waiting for beginning potty users to do their thing, trying not to make them feel pressured. If you’re averting your eyes anyway, why not avert them onto your notepaper?

  • Take the time to set up a master document for planning. You can copy this framework, making each week’s plans so much easier to organize.