Intuitively all early childhood teachers know that play is an integral part of young children’s lives, and that being able to play, both alone and with others, is a hallmark of children’s healthy development. We also understand that play enhances children’s physical, social/emotional, and creative growth, and we daily assess this growth by observing children at play.
We observe children playing both indoors and out—running, jumping, climbing, playing ball, and dancing—and we note their increasing abilities to move with confidence and control, to balance their bodies, and to utilize eye-hand coordination. As they build with small blocks and play with manipulative toys, we observe the gradual strengthening of their small muscles.
We observe individual children engaged in different types of play at different times, and we quickly notice that their play becomes more complex and more social as the year progresses. We are able to assess children’s growing abilities to direct their own play, to make decisions about materials and props, and to assert their own ideas and opinions about what they want to play. As children begin to play interactively, we see growth in their abilities to follow the rules of a game, to take turns, to share materials, and to begin to cooperatively solve problems that emerge during the play.
And finally, as we daily observe children drawing and painting, building and constructing, and engaged in the process of hands-on creative play, often with little or no intervention from adults, we observe how play supports their growing abilities to express themselves uniquely and creatively, to explore new materials, and to use familiar materials in new and more complex ways.
What other types of learning does child-initiated play support? Can play also stimulate children’s cognitive development, and therefore be useful in supporting the development of science, math, language, and literacy skills?
The Role of Play in Children’s Cognitive Development
By taking a closer look at children’s play, we see that it does more than stimulate physical, social-emotional, and creative development. Play is also the primary means by which children explore the world, investigate its properties, and build an understanding about how the world works. Think about a small group of children playing in the block area, building with wooden unit blocks. They begin by attempting to stack different sizes and shapes of unit blocks on top of one another. Using the rug as a surface, they arbitrarily place larger blocks on top of smaller blocks, rectangular blocks on top of triangular blocks, and place the blocks haphazardly, so that the tower quickly falls. One of them has an idea! Maybe, if we put on construction hats and look like real construction workers, the tower will stand up better! They quickly agree to try it, put on the hats, and begin to build again. No luck! The building still falls after only a few blocks have been added. Finally another child notices that the bottom block is “wiggly” on the rug and they move the blocks to the harder surface of the floor. This time, they are able to build a little higher than before. After a few more attempts they notice that smaller blocks seem to stay on top of bigger blocks more steadily than the other way around, and they start to choose the sizes of the blocks more carefully, placing the larger blocks at the bottom. Their building begins to get higher and higher. They are so excited about their success that they call the teacher over to see.
How Play Meets Learning Objectives and Goals
Through this play, children actively pose problems, explore solutions, and develop understandings of real world concepts of form and function. By comparing and contrasting information gained from each new experience to what they already know, they are actively constructing their knowledge of the way the world works.
At the same time, the children in the block area have already initiated a curriculum that addresses goals and objectives in the areas of Scientific Knowledge and Scientific Skills and Methods (Head Start Child Outcomes Framework.) Through their simple building play the children have been exploring the properties of materials (the rug, the hard floor, and the different sizes and shapes of blocks.) They have investigated cause and effect and drawn conclusions about significant events (whether or not they wear construction hats doesn’t matter; which size of blocks they choose does). They have noticed change and seen patterns (hard surfaces are easier to build on; large blocks work better at the bottom), and in so doing, they have begun to generate their own theories about how to build a tall tower. As they continue to engage in this type of block play over an extended period, even without adult intervention, they will continue to gain information about the properties of the blocks, generate new ideas and questions about what works and what doesn’t work, and gradually refine their theory of tower building.
How can the teacher take advantage of this role of play in supporting children’s cognitive development, and further build on it? How can the teacher initiate further play experiences that will deepen the science learning that has already begun, and also support learning in the domains of math, language, and literacy, and meet required standards in all of these areas?
Building a Curriculum Based on Children’s Play
The teacher can take advantage of the children’s high interest and engagement in the block play by planning an entire curriculum unit around the topic of “Structures” and incorporating her standards-based goals and objectives for children’s learning into well-planned building play experiences. In order to do this the teacher:
• Sets up the environment to stimulate building play;
• Provides drawing and writing materials for documentation of building play and concrete materials for children to use in making three-dimensional representations of their buildings;
• Creates time in the daily schedule for discussion and reflection on shared and individual building; and
• Uses teaching strategies that help children reflect on their building and think more deeply about the science involved.
Throughout these planned play experiences the teacher supports standards of mathematics (number and operations, geometry and spatial sense, and patterns and measurement) by introducing these concepts in a meaningful context. She also integrates language and literacy goals and objectives by helping children to discuss and document their building play, and by providing fiction and non-fiction books on the topic of building.
Setting Up the Environment to Stimulate Play
The teacher sets up the environment to stimulate building play by posting pictures of different types of buildings both familiar and unfamiliar to the children (including towers); posting children’s drawings and teacher’s photographs of their own buildings; and supplying a variety fiction and non-fiction books on the topic of building. These will all serve to peak children’s interest in building and provoke discussions about different forms (sizes, shapes, characteristics, building materials) and functions of buildings. By creating an environment that invites children to build, the teacher will also get more children invested in the building play, and will be able to individualize for children’s needs and interests within the context of a group topic.
The teacher introduces a variety of building materials for children to explore including different sizes, shapes, weights, and textures of blocks. She is careful to include wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes, soft foam blocks, cardboard blocks, interlocking blocks, and other types of open-ended blocks. The greater the variety of materials available, the wider the range of children’s building experiences will be, and the more information they will have on which to base their generalizations and theories about building.
She adds props for children to use with their buildings, like small people and animal figures, construction and traffic signs, and construction costumes and hats. These props serve to stimulate more complex building, will stimulate and support social/emotional and creative goals and objectives, and may also draw in some children who prefer a socio-dramatic approach to their building activities.
Documentation of Play Experiences
Drawing and writing materials will be provided that support children to observe their buildings as they draw them and focus on the physical aspects of their constructions. She also supports children’s representations in a variety of media. For a “Towers” focus, the teacher may supply long pieces of paper so the children can represent very tall buildings. She may tape these pieces of paper to the wall so that children have an easier time of representing the height of their structures. Placing paper and markers next to all building play areas in the classroom will invite children to draw plans (blueprints) for their buildings as well as representations of finished buildings.
A camera is an invaluable tool for documentation of children’s building play since the photographs can be used in a variety of ways. They can be used as props during group discussions to stimulate language and introduce building vocabulary at a variety of levels like top, bottom, door, window, foundation, roof, and scaffold; as well as providing a written record of the many and various structures that children build over time. In a “Towers” focus, photographs provide a permanent record of tower heights for example. This ongoing perspective allows children to compare and contrast building play experiences from different days and among different groups of children.
A variety of small concrete objects and collage materials like straws, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, and recyclables, as well as pieces of clay and tape for holding things together are invaluable in supporting children’s play construction of three-dimensional representations of their primary buildings. By using secondary materials to represent the same structures children encounter new challenges, gain new information about building materials and their properties, and generate new ideas about how to handle them.
Time for Discussion and Reflection on Play Experiences
Short periods of time set-aside during the day for children to come together are frequently built into the preschool schedule. In a play-based curriculum some of this time will be needed for individual children and small groups to share with the rest of the class what building play they have been engaged in, to share successes and challenges, and to invite ideas from one another for dealing with building snafus. This is a good time for the teacher to share photographs, drawings, or even concrete materials so that children have visual props for describing their experiences or can even demonstrate aspects of the building play they are describing verbally.
Teaching Strategies in a Play-based Curriculum
In order to focus on specific goals and objectives throughout the domains and to maximize standards-based learning, the teacher will be an active, engaged participant in all building play. While children are building, she will observe, support, and extend their play by asking open-ended questions related to the concepts being explored. For example, the teacher may have asked the original tower builders, “What have you discovered about what helps your tower to stand up?” or “Do you think the shapes of the blocks you are using make a difference?” Once she has added a variety of building materials to the area she may encourage children to think about whether hard or soft blocks work better for making tall towers or which textures work better at the top or bottom of structures.
The teacher will want to plan specific activities that extend learning into the domains of math, language, and literacy. In a building unit she may introduce an activity in which children measure their towers in a variety of ways; by counting how many blocks they contain (rote-counting, counting objects, one-to-one correspondence), or by using standard and non-standard measurement. Children’s multiple representations of their buildings will provide teachable moments for comparing, contrasting, matching, sorting, and sequencing activities. Fiction and non-fiction books on the topic, as well as the children’s own documentation of their building play, will provide multiple opportunities for introducing goals and objectives in the areas of alphabet knowledge, book knowledge and appreciation, print awareness and concepts, and phonological awareness. Ongoing discussions about children’s building play will support listening and understanding, and speaking and communicating.
The teacher will be the primary documenter of children’s discoveries, successes, and challenges and will use this documentation in a number of ways to remind children of previous building experiences for comparing and contrasting different play episodes or for guiding group discussions. The teacher will also be able to use her notes as a foundation for individualizing building experiences for children at different developmental levels and for assessing each child’s progress in the domains throughout the unit.
The teacher may make suggestions about ways for children to extend their building play or to represent their building experiences in new ways. For example, by providing new materials that children may not have thought of, such as small pieces of clay or tape for holding small constructions together.
And ideally the teacher will combine different pieces of documentation to create a record of what children are doing and learning during the unit for the children themselves, and for parents and other interested adults. In a building unit the teacher may make a poster using photographs and drawings of specific structures children have made, adding their dictation about how they made the structures, as well as her own written goals and objectives for children’s learning in the domains.
Play is an active, child-initiated process that supports children’s learning throughout the domains of physical, social/emotional, creative, science, math, language, and literacy. By taking advantage of the highly engaging nature of children’s self-sustained play, and using this as a jumping off point for a deeper exploration of the science concepts involved, teachers can generate curriculum units that both integrate child-centered play and maximize children’s learning throughout these domains. By thoughtful planning and the use of significant strategies to enhance children’s play experiences, they can integrate specific learning goals and objectives for the group and for individuals, dramatically enhance children’s learning, and meet standards for preschool outcomes in all areas.
Cynthia Hoisington is an education supervisor for A.B.C.D. South Side Head Start in Boston and an early childhood consultant and professional developer. She is currently working with WBGH on the Peep and the Big Wide World Explorer’s Guide to Early Childhood Science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Bredekamp, S. & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.) (1992). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children Vol. 1&2. Washington. DC: NAEYC.
Chalufour, I. & Worth, K. (2003). Exploring structures with young children (the Young Scientist Series). St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.