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Beginning a journey into play


Leslee Allen

Leslee Allen, principal of Kaurihohore School, is an advocate and practitioner of play-based learning. In this blog, Leslee shares key considerations for teachers who are interested in beginning a journey into play. This is the second blog in a three part series about learning through play.

Nautillus image close up.

Play-based learning and the NZC
Learning through play can help schools realise the vision of The New Zealand Curriculum and support students to develop values, key competencies, and understandings across all learning areas. 

Learning through play also provides the opportunity to extend the use of our Te Whāriki curriculum into primary schooling. Te Whāriki encourages primary teachers to weave the principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum with the values, key competencies, and learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum as children engage in learning experiences. This will enable our young learners to experience joined-up transitions between settings.

Before I go any further, I think it is vitally important that I make it clear that the use of play as a pedagogical tool is nothing new, in the past it has been called by many names, developmental being one of them. Early childhood educators have always known the value of play and although as primary educators our journey may be a little different I think it is vital to acknowledge their expertise in this area. My journey since 2012 has led me to advocate strongly for play to make a comeback into our classrooms, not just as something we do in the afternoons, but something we understand deeply for the important role it plays in learning and a way of working throughout the day.

Before we leap in

Play-based learning is on the rise but with that comes the risk of bandwagon jumping. Bandwagon jumping happens frequently when the next new thing comes along, even though play is hardly the next new thing. Bandwagon jumping means that little thought is given to the why or how, with the most thought given to how to get to the end point right now.

I urge caution and reflection before anyone makes changes to how they do things in their classroom. Firstly because I believe you must have your own why, and this cannot be just because everyone else is doing it. Secondly, if we leap into things quickly, it is more likely that one or two negative comments from people who do not believe in play will lead us to backtrack just as quickly.  

Play as a mode of working is feared by many, there are many misunderstandings about play that have been blown out by a culture of National Standards and assessment. Through that fear, many will cast aspersions on our desire to use play as our primary way of working. We must know enough about why and how we are working so that we can confidently appease these concerns.

To be able to stand firm behind our practice and the importance of play, we must fully trust in it ourselves, and for that to happen, we have to allow ourselves time. Play could mean a dramatic change to the pedagogies in our classrooms today, and we do not want to get this wrong.

Know your why

Firstly our why. I believe it is crucial that we all have our own why and sometimes this takes time to just reflect, discuss, share, and find out. My why began with an inquiry into engagement and motivation back in 2012. This inquiry made me much more open to honestly appraising my own practice and led to us trying various ideas like discovery time, developmental groups, junk shed time, removing school rules, and Mantle of the Expert. All of these things served to show me the power of play and the capability of children. The inquiry also went hand in hand with some deep delving into the lack of oral language and vocabulary children were coming in with, and an ever growing diagnosis of processing disorders for some of our puzzling children. Because I was in a state of honest reflection I was entirely ready to meet my student x, he was the one that opened my eyes to the failings in our traditional new entrant programme.

To understand why this was such a breakthrough for me you have to know the me from then. I was convinced that believing children were capable meant pushing them into academic learning like reading and writing straight away because they could do it. I believed play belonged in early childhood education and would often become very frustrated that children had not even been taught to write their name. I lacked any real understanding of developmentally appropriate learning and had a lot to learn from my ECE colleagues.

I met student x at the right time. We had already started a little on incorporating playful approaches and I was ready to be very honest with myself and stop my deficit thinking in terms of the children and their readiness for learning and start thinking about what I could change. Student x had real difficulty with following instructions, answering simple questions, and appeared lost 98% of the time. Rather than just accepting that there were processing issues going on (although it did definitely go through my mind and we did make referrals) we took a proactive approach, implementing several oral language approaches along with a small play-based class to assist him and his peers. 

The results were really pleasing and now, although much older, student x is working well within expected curriculum levels, and probably much more importantly, has some great dispositions in place to ensure he will continue to experience success in life.

It is vital that you have a why, that there is a reason for being transformative. Truly reflective teacher inquiry will usually bring you to this place. Having a why will mean that you are deliberate in what you do, and that you are child focused and well placed to embed practice. It is also vitally important that you honestly acknowledge any deficit thinking, and develop a deep understanding of the role relationships really play in ensuring every child experiences success.He is my why, because he showed me, along with listening to Nathan Wallis and a lot of other reading, how implementing developmentally appropriate practice could benefit myself and my children.

Take it slowly

children in dress up.

Taking this process slowly, implementing one part of the puzzle at a time allowed me to form a strong trust in play and in turn a trust in myself. Because I have this trust in play and an understanding of why play is best for my children, I can stand firmly behind this when questioned. I don't have that flicker of doubt that I would have had if I had leapt into play headfirst and attempted to put the puzzle together all at once.

My advice is to start slowly, find your why and change one thing at a time. Do your research, see the power of play in action in your own classroom and in the classrooms of others, note all the wonderful positive things you see in the play so you can truly trust it. Talk to others, share ideas, reflect on what you are doing and allow the changes to unfold naturally because they are necessary and right for you and your children, not because others have told you that is the way to do it.

It is that old adage, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, how very true this is, taking this journey one step at a time will ensure you are deeply embedding each change.  

Have you seen ...

Number Agents blog
Leslee Allen regularly writes about play-based learning through her Number Agents blog.

Learning through play – What’s it all about?
This NZC Online blog explores what learning through play is all about and shares how some schools are designing a play-based curriculum. It is the first of a three part series.

student outcomes