Last week I had a really interesting discussion with two teacher friends about ‘play’, and in specific, the different kinds of play found at any given time in a kindergarten classroom. While at first glance, all play may look or sound the same (children engaged in meaningful and authentic activities, laughter, smiles, shared dialogue between children), it is important to understand that there are in fact, different types of play children engage in.
The Benefits of Play
The benefits of play can be examined for several reasons: i) it is the means by which young children express themselves and make themselves visible to educators, ii) play is uniquely individual, both its expression and purpose change over time and iii) the basis of play can be considered highly personalized experience for the child.
Drawing on my research at the University of Auckland, I have come to understand that not only are there different types of play children engage in but that these different types of play promote different experiences for children in the classroom. So what are the different types of play, and what is their role in teaching and learning?
What Are The Different Types of Play?
The first type of play is one which is commonly found in kindergarten classrooms (including my own) – curriculum generated play. This type of play connects learning goals with teacher created ‘play based’ learning experiences in order to teach or achieve standardized learning outcomes.
Curriculum-generated play – where children are provided opportunities for learning through play aligned with curricular goals can be problematic in practice as it fails to recognize that structured play and spontaneous play espouse contrasting beliefs, and result in distinctly different experiences for young children. By considering academic knowledge as having precedence, curriculum generated play leaves little room for young children to engage with issues of identity, status, and peer relationships, and as a result, can render much of the child and his or her expression invisible to educators.
In contrast, open-ended play places an emphasis on the interests and identities of young children by providing opportunities such as dramatic play with object substitutions, the use of symbols in learning areas such as writing, and participation in meaningful interactions with others by offering multiple opportunities for the negotiation and creation of learning content. Open-ended play provides young children with a platform to engage with experiences of gender, race, and class and legitimizes the expression and identities of young children.
So How Do We Balance Curriculum-Led Play and Open-Ended Play?
By recognizing that meaningful engagement and knowledge building occurs when we build on the relationships, interests, and experiences of young children, we can promote foundation and conceptual knowledge by tapping into their identities as learners.
In Ontario, kindergarten educators are guided by the learning outcomes of the Full Day Early Learning Kindergarten curriculum, but it is important to note that these learning outcomes are not separate from the social and cultural contexts of young children and their families, and as such, each must be honoured in our play based learning practices.
I hope this blog post has inspired you to recognize the different types of play found in early childhood settings (I often recognize both curriculum-led play and open-ended play in my own classroom), and to honour the place that each has in the teaching of young children.