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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

Formulas? There are none. There are only possible Strategies Part 2: Play is the Work of Children

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

In a recent article 'Fromulas? There are none. There are only possible Strategies' I unpacked some of necessary change in mindset needed to work with children in a more playful way such as a Reggio inspired or emergent curriculum approach. To take these ideas further I want you to think about and consider an important belief we (educators and families) should hold, 'play is the work of children'.

Why is this belief important?

If we don't truly value what children do outside of what the adult tells them to do or invites them to do we don't really value their individuality, their ideas and stage of development. Many hold this view of children before school starts. We see babies start to crawl, make their first sounds and words, laugh at a game of peek a boo etc. all understanding this is playful exploration. When children enter school, which is younger and younger now, our expectations change to learning letters, numbers and coloring in the lines. When we value children's play and use it as the building blocks for further learning, both unusual and traditional (letters and numbers) it can offer a deeper more meaningful experience for them and us. These are the fundamentals of play based education. We do this by constantly reflecting on different learning strategies and avoiding formulas or repetitive curricula.

For example,

Our three year old class are exploring gardens/gardening as well as fruits and vegetables. There are different ways the teachers can approach this.

  1. Loose parts: this can show children's interest. The things they make or use the loose parts for show us where their interests are currently focused. Testing the theory of the project.

  2. Fake food: this can support second language learners and teachers to develop language. An international teacher working with children and loose parts can be confused if they don't understand the language of children and what they are making. Fake toys (closed ended) can play a strategic role here.

  3. Real food: with real fruits and vegetables the children can explore using all their senses.

We also don't have to pick only one. We can use them all at the same time or differnt times. What is important is we think about our intentions, our strategies, and how it connects to children's play. It's about going deeper, taking it further and asking 'what's next?'.

In another previous article I wrote 'Are you making this mistake with your invitations and provocations?' I discussed the strategy of honoring certain children's play by providing provocations and invitations specifically for them to explore first/before offering it to all children. During outdoor time two children gathered leaves and wanted to take them back to the classroom. They said you can use leaves to create colours to paint and decorate. The Chinese teacher who observed this play designed an invitation for them to do this with the leaves and our left over cut fruit. The children who engaged in this play, were able to take their ideas further, see their hypothesis was correct and then show other interested children how to extract the colours, thus allowing them to move from learner to teacher, an expert to teach their classmates a skill they have developed.

Another example of this is with an art invitation offered to children. Using a flower template with five petals printed on water color paint paper, I simply left this in the room without instruction or asking anyone to go try it. It gradually peeked the interest of many of the students over the week. Now a good question to ask is "why give a template?" "Why not let them make their own flower with any number of petals?". My strategy here was to introduce the skills of using water color paints. I had noticed a muddied water colour pallet that had been heavily used early on in the year purely for exploration that wasn't being used any more. I used five different complimentary color shades to avoid the muddy brown results of offering every colour and when a student went over to play I noticed and joined them to show them the technique of making the brush wet, the paint wet, using it, cleaning the brush and then picking a new color. The children who learnt this were then able to show others. Again making them the experts. Sometimes children observed their friends, sometimes a child went back multiple times. Observing these small details can give useful theories about how to support children in future.

This is the important part! It's not a formula to follow. There are many different ways to approach these things and each teacher should reflect on the path they want to take. The key takeaway is to have a strategy. Have multiple strategies for different learning pathways in the day.

When I joined this class of three year olds for a week I also observed a growing interest in the world of symbols, particularly letters. They were making associations with the first letter in their name, and other words when encountering different letters. One boy was even seeing letters in his snack. "Look Ll" he said after leaving the crust on his bread. When I first entered the class the Chinese teacher told me the alphabet book is popular at the moment and the teachers recently bought some puzzles and games related to literacy. I moved this book from the library area to the "literacy area" where these games were. The idea of putting books around the room is a popular one but it is also in danger of becoming formulaic, something teachers do because the play based social media or teacher told them but in the end the result is just books decorating the areas of the room. How can a strategy support this act? My hypothesis was this book, that the children were already very familiar with, could help them understand letters better in combination with the games and puzzles in this area. When some children struggled to build the alphabet puzzle I suggested the book might help them. It did and we observed the benefits of placing books around the room and not only in the 'reading area'.

In each example I have tried to highlight the link towards children's play in developing strategies for further learning and how this makes play the work of children and teachers. Sometimes the strategy is to learn a skill by allowing children to freely choose materials, like the water colours painting flower. Sometimes it's taking an observed element of play and providing the support and materials for children or test their play theories, like the extracting colours invitation. Sometimes it is also supporting those traditional elements of education like literacy but again from the level and interests of children, not a workbook, set curriculum or worksheet.


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