Inquiring into Play – Part I

 Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
~Fred Rogers

Play is a topic I always enjoy returning too and it’s something that has been popping up on my digital radar a lot in the past month or so. I also recently discovered a blog that encourages educators to “inquire within“. I really appreciate this sentiment because as an educator I think it can be easy to get lost in your work teaching or researching and slowly let the inquiry begin to fade away. So I’ve decided to use a recent Washington Post article by Alfie Kohn discussing his thoughts on How children’s ‘play’ is being sneakily redefined to inquire within and “aloud” about some of my thoughts on play.

Kohn made five propositions on the subject of play (the first three are listed below in bold), all of which I found very thought provoking, so I decided to split my thoughts and questions about them into two post (post #2 coming soon!) to allow more room for inquiry and discussion.

1. “Play” is being sneakily redefined.

I have seen classrooms where “play” has slowly transitioned into planned, curriculum-inspired and teacher-directed activities. Instead of allowing children the freedom to express their ideas and creative energy, we’re asking them to funnel that energy into specific activities that we, or our curriculum books or state standards, have labeled appropriate and productive for children’s learning and development. Our focus has shifted (although maybe this isn’t such a recent shift?) to achievement and results, to finding ways to demonstrate how our children are scoring and some would argue, to label children so that we can categorize them and even, at times, create hierarchies of knowledge.

In a course for my master’s program we have been discussing the merits of critical educational psychology (Bird, 1999) and the need to integrate different cultural values and practices into our views of education and childhood (as well as the assessments that we use) (Burman, 2010). I want to problematize the idea that we can so easily use standardized objectives and measurements to determine a child’s level of development and learning and their related opportunities for play. Do these achievement-oriented activities that are now labeled “play” and related assessments truly support the diversity of contexts (e.g., cultural, linguistic) that children are bringing to the classroom? If not, how can we better incorporate that diversity in the classroom while also allowing Kohn’s “pure play” to regain its place at the center of classroom activity?

2. Younger and older children ought to have the chance to play together.

After traveling through Italy and seeing multi-age early childhood classrooms influenced by the views of Montessori and Reggio Emilia, this idea of having younger and older children playing (and learning) together definitely resonates with me. Although I know there can be difficult challenges with trying to manage a classroom and the learning goals of children in a mixed-age class, with the right support, I think it can be really beneficial for both the younger and older children involved. Which makes me wonder, what would it be like in school if there were more interaction between grades? What if collaboration between a first and fifth grade class or a preschool and an upper grade class, was the norm?

3. Play isn’t just for children.

Thank goodness! I would be quite disappointed if play were just reserved for kids. I think the idea that “play, or something quite close to it, should be part of a teenager’s or adult’s life” is not as problematic as how we make play a daily part of our lives, whatever our age. When we’ve spent so much time separating “play” from “work” and even “learning”, it’s challenging to try and remind employers and ourselves about the benefits of play and to find ways to integrate play in our day-to-day activities. And how do we encourage the children we teach to value play in this way?

What do you think of Kohn’s first three propositions? What are your thoughts on play? I’ll try to post thoughts on the last two propositions soon!


Bird, L. (1999). Towards a more critical educational psychology. Annual Review of Critical Psychology, 1, pp. 21-33.

Burman, E. (2010). Discourses of the child.  Deconstructing developmental psychology (pp. 67-84). London: Routledge.


4 responses to “Inquiring into Play – Part I

  1. Many teachers have learned to “hide the play” through creative vocabulary. “Individual Center Choice” etc vs calling it “Play”. Sometimes teachers must structure the centers more rigidly to allow at least an ounce of free form activity into a young child’s day in school.

    Schools and teachers are coping with increasingly rigid timetables and schedules. Limitations and regulations, such as four Kindergarten classrooms having to be on the same page at the same time in their math instruction time, create hostlie environments where fear is ruling the classroom vs an atmosphere of creative, free, happy, relaxed exploration.

    We are under a constant barrage from parents and often, sadly, administration who may not understand what “Play” actually means. On top of all we do in the classroom each day to facilitate and coordinate the work of Young Children in school, teachers must often additionally fight the battle for play on two fronts.

    “You play at home, not at school.” Many are not able to make the connection that the play IS the work and the curricular opportunities that can and do occur during this dynamic time in a child’s day.

    Teachers need help to communicate the importance and critical role play brings to any classroom. Support from parents and administration is essential to insure the preservation of this critical part in a child’s day.

    Thank you for being such a strong advocate and voice for children and teachers!

  2. Wow, I can only imagine how tough it would be to keep four Kindergarten classrooms on the same page at the same time in their math instruction time! It’s so sad that fear of meeting standards and regulations, and producing test results has become such a driving/common emotion in some schools.

    A NAEYC article I plan to reference when I get around to Part II of this post speaks to the same issue of parents pushing for achievement-based activities over what’s seen as “only play.” I think It’s tough for parents (especially new ones) to sort through all of the different media and research on what their child needs at various ages and in which settings (e.g., home, school).

    I agree that teachers and educators need help to communicate the importance and critical role of play in the classroom! I try to advocate for play in my own local and virtual networks but would like to do more. Have you found any approaches of working with parents, administrators, or other teachers that work well?

  3. Hi Maggie,
    Glad to have found your blog! I believe that we that understand the role of play in childhood have a duty to educate those within our influence, whether it be colleagues or parents. I have always found it difficult to articulate the intrinsic connection that has allowed me to allow children to lead me in their play, and to take their cues in which to provide them a rich environment for exploration. From infants to school age children, it is important to understand that how we set up the environment and facilitate the environment for our kids is what makes the difference. I, personally do not use curriculum books – I believe that they do not allow children to learn on their own terms, as they should in early childhood. I have read my share of curriculum, even have written and have published some myself over the 25 years I have been in this field, but I still think that they should be used as a tool and not the car that drives children’s experiences. In California we are BIG on curriculums. We call them foundations and all the assessments being developed (which is what California ECE people are going to do with the 52.6 million dollar windfall they scored yesterday in the RTTT competition) will be partially based on these books and how well teachers implement and reach for these foundations in their classrooms.
    My biggest beef with assessments is that they do not allow children to be unique individuals. Just like in public school – we are requiring children to all fit into the same mold. Early childhood education use to be the only realm where children were free from such a horrid system. It seems to me that those days are gone.
    Sorry I got carried away here….but as you can see I am quite passionate about this topic. I plan on continuing this conversation with anyone I can – it is important to keep the dialogue going.

  4. Hi Kari,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and continuing the conversation with me! I agree that the environment is key in creating a learning experience that is supportive and open to play. After visiting schools in Reggio Emilia, I’ve subscribed to their view of the environment as the “third teacher.” Do you think there are ways that assessments (especially portfolio-based, formative assessments) can be used in positive ways? Do you think there are (enough) helpful resources out there for teachers who want to use their curriculum book(s) as a tool instead of the basis for their teaching?

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