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How Can Self-Directed Play Support Learning Objectives?

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

Last week, while I was watching a group of children outside on the play yard, I witnessed something amazing. A small group of children noticed the basketball hoop at the far end of the yard. They began taking turns trying to throw colored balls into the basket. They kept missing.

The children persisted and spent a good amount of time attempting to make a shot. At one point, one child said she needed something to make her taller. She looked around for something and found a crate. The children set up the crate near the basketball hoop and took turns standing on it and throwing the balls right into the basket!

This little scene involved so many skills and revealed many competencies. The children recognized a problem (the basket was too high) and found a solution (the crate). By collaborating and using critical thinking skills, they established a new game with rules such as taking turns, and even took safety into consideration (only one child on the crate at a time). Without adult intervention, the children happily honed their gross motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and balance, while they spent the rest of their outdoor time at their new activity. This is a perfect example of how unstructured, open-ended play supports children in meeting learning objectives. It was a joy to witness.

Early childhood educators struggle at times, wondering how to provide the required evidence of children's learning, while staying true to play-based pedagogy. It does not have to be one or the other. Children can and do meet learning objectives through play. The key lies in the teacher's own knowledge of those objectives, her ability to observe, and her ability to make connections between the observations and the objectives. To do this requires a deep understanding of the early learning objectives. With the objectives in mind, teachers can thoughtfully create learning environments in which children explore, tinker, test, hypothesize, and discover, all while stretching their knowledge and meeting new learning goals.

When children play with writing materials in the writing center, they are learning concepts of print and pre-reading and writing skills. They practice playing "office" or "school," and use their knowledge to write letters and numbers, make calendars, write stories, read books, or make their own books.

With open ended art materials, children learn fine motor skills, such as using scissors and pencil grip, as well as math concepts such as symmetry and shapes, colors, and patterns. They also build creativity and imagination as they design masterpieces with a variety of medium.

When children build with blocks, they learn about balance, foundation, height, width, and measurement. They use critical thinking to solve puzzles, make patterns, and sort a variety of manipulatives by attributes.

A science or discovery area in a classroom provides children with opportunities to play with STEM concepts such as light and shadow, color mixing, plant life cycles, or loose parts. Children learn the cycle of inquiry as they examine, hypothesize, test, and draw conclusions.

And of course, the dramatic play area is where children learn negotiation skills, perspective taking, cooperation, and collaboration, while they act out scenarios from real life, assign roles, create scripts, and make meaning of their world.

When teachers observe children at play, they can gauge their progress against the learning objectives. Where they see a child needing support, the teacher can provide more opportunities to practice that particular skill. For example, if a child has not yet mastered recognition of numbers one through ten, the teacher might add an activity with those numbers to the writing center and to the manipulative area. There need not be a choice between a play-based curriculum and providing evidence of learning. When teachers know what the objectives are, when they know what to look for within the child’s play, play is the evidence.

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