Early Childhood Education
Play and the Teacher’s Role
What do teachers do while children play? Do they sit or stand or watch? Get out equipment and toys? Sweep up leaves? Take a break? Play with materials with children? Take photos? Help settle disputes? “Free play” in early childhood settings usually means lots of choices of things for children to do. Teachers also make decisions about different ways of behaving and responding to children’s play.
When children are playing, most early childhood professionals watch and listen, whether attending to one child’s play or to a small social group’s play, because they are interested in what young children are able to do, how they express themselves to each other, and how they make sense of their daily lives, dreams, and fantasies. When children are healthy and feel safe, play’s the thing children choose to do. Play is intentional: the child is agent of her own actions; she controls the context and the plot. Play is natural for children and most do it competently. With plenty of time and support for playing, children learn new play skills—they become master players. Better than adults, children understand play and they use play to understand. Some suggest that play is the lens through which children understand the world around them. Play is also developmental in that children play differently and for different reasons at different times in their lives. During the period of early childhood, and especially when children are two, three, four, five, or six years old, play is the mode through which they learn, represent their ideas, encounter events in the natural world, and practice solving complex social and practical problems. Research makes explicit the type of learning that takes place during children’s play as contrasted to what is not learned when children perceive the context as “work” (Wing, 1995).
Play as Context and Reflection of Children’s Development
Before the child can read, she or he is a master of sign systems in play.
With his arms outstretched and fingers touching to fashion a circle, Dennis runs across the yard to a large cardboard box where two friends are waiting. His gesture is at first meaningless ... but Dennis’s friends can read it—they know he is a ninja turtle bringing pizza home. (Reynolds and Jones, 1997, p. 35)
Play is also where young imaginations are stimulated and talk flourishes.
Playing Dr. Jones, Aretha has a clipboard and pencil. She asks a group of girls “what is your last name?” Luanda responds “Dulce Cricket.” Aretha: “Dulce Christmas?” Luanda: “My name is Ca-gu-a. Aretha: “My name is Dr. Jones.” Luanda: “Hi Dr. Jones. My name is Ca-goo - I - ca.” (Ibid., 60)
Close observation of children’s play stimulates teachers’ thinking and makes clear that there are many types and purposes of play. William Corsaro’s research traces a direct link between children’s play activity as contributing to and shaping the life of the community (Corsaro, 2005). Vivian Paley’s writing (1986) shows, in vivid stories from her classroom, what a teacher can learn about children and their peer cultures; as well as what teachers can do to scaffold play by observing and asking questions to which she “does not know the answer.” Scholars who have dedicated their research to studying children’s play convey a variety of perspectives about the meanings of play. Today, most early childhood educators believe that play—and particularly fantasy play—gives children access to unlimited possibilities for action and meaning making.
Watching children at play and talking about it afterwards is not only a means to learn about children’s development. It is also a strategy some teachers use to remain alert to their own roles in supporting play and interpreting the multiple possible meanings and value of play for young children. Systematic observations of preschool children’s play that included a focus on what adults do while children play revealed that the art of teaching is like the art of play—there are multiple choices for action, and a teacher can know the consequences of his or her action through reflection (Jones and Reynolds, 1992). By asking questions such as “Has my intervention sustained the play?” “Has it interrupted the child’s play? If so, how?” teachers can learn to respect the child’s right to play and to respond to the unlimited possibilities of children’s preoccupations. Renewed attention to the importance of teachers’ observations seems to reinforce previous research findings that learning through play is indirectly affected by various teaching practices. This research does not necessarily point to a direct relationship such that teacher action → child learning. Rather, the indirect effect is that teacher support of good play → child learning by engaging in good play; the child’s mental construction is the result of activity and meaning making which happens through play.
Multiple roles for teachers
Effective teaching in early childhood settings cultivates children’s potential by inventing child-friendly play opportunities. In support of play, adults may act in one or more roles: stage manager, mediator, player, scribe, assessor and communicator, and planner.
Stage manager is an essential role. In an orderly, well-provisioned environment with plenty of time and space for play, most children will be able to initiate and sustain their own play. Teacher-as-stage manager considers the following: Are there program practices that interfere with good play? Should play spaces be closed in the early morning or evening? Are there rules that limit where children can use certain materials? Outside, do children have opportunities for gross motor play, construction play, and also pretend play?
Mediator uses problem-solving strategies to sustain rather than interrupt play. Teacher-as-mediator does not focus on rule enforcement such as “inside voices” or “only three in the doll corner.” The content of the play matters to the teacher, and he or she mediates to sustain the play, not interrupt it—“Jerry, tell Mariana why you’re so upset. Mariana, tell Jerry why you’re so upset. And then we can talk about how you want to solve the problem.”
Not all teachers are comfortable with the role of player. To effectively play with children the teacher listens to children’s play scripts and builds on them without taking over. Adults often coopt children’s agendas by using play to teach concepts. “Is your car going down? Is it going down the freeway ramp? Is it going fast? How many cars do you have? Is your car going up again? Ebony, can you answer my question?” (Jones and Reynolds, 1992, p. 52). In contrast, when genuinely sharing children’s curiosity and emotions, the player teacher effectively uses power to flow with their agenda for play. A teacher wanting to effectively co-play can ask herself “What is the name of this play from the children’s perspectives?”
Bobby, on his hands and knees, is crawling around on the floor pretending to be a lion.
Teacher: So now you’re the lion. Lion, don’t eat me!
The lion growls forcefully at a child playing nurse who is delivering prescriptions, small pieces of scrap paper on which she has written her name. She says, “Stop Lion!”
The lion chases somebody into another part of the room. The teacher brings the lion back. To two girls she says, “Let’s be gentle with our lion. Baby lion, please don’t eat somebody.”
The teacher shows the girls how to pat the lion on the head.
Lion: I’m a big lion now.
The lion crawls across the floor to a bed. There he curls up and says to the nurse:
“Get me better.”
The nurse gets her medical bag. She pulls out a stethoscope and listens to the lion’s heart. She announces, “He’s sick.” (Reynolds, 1993)
One teaching perspective on this child’s play might be “Bobby is annoying everybody today. He needs time away from the group to calm down.” Instead, the teacher in the above scene effectively integrated Bobby’s lion play script with neighboring hospital play. Perhaps she recognized that a lion’s roar might soften in the company of a caring nurse.
Scribe combines naturally with player when the teacher scribes words children dictate but cannot yet write themselves. “Will you write “popsicles” on my shopping list?” In this way teacher-as-scribe supports children’s early literacy and number learning through play. Children recognize the power of written words; a child-dictated teacher-scribed sign “Don’t knock over this hospital! Sammie and Rachel” is enough of a stimulus to caution others about moving around the blocks area.
The teacher as assessor and communicator documents children’s play through sketches, children’s words, photos, and taking notes. Representing children’s play in panels, storytelling, and online documentation are some of the many ways teachers can share the concepts and content of children’s play. Teachers may also discover that documenting play is a powerful way to communicate play’s meaning to parents.
Of all the roles for teachers in supporting and using children’s play to promote further learning and development, the role of planner is likely most essential to supporting children’s play. Observations of play generate possibilities for curriculum, and in the role of planner a teacher makes decisions about time, opportunities, and materials as they support or hinder children’s play. Teachers can decide to make changes in the physical environment, add props, discuss possibilities for a field trip that builds on children’s information, or focus on a shared interest as project work by a small group. As children assume roles and invent play scenarios with an imagined plot and story, they engage in hypothetical thinking. When children use materials, ideas, logic, symbols, and possibilities for action flexibly and spontaneously, they are playing to get smart, practicing initiative, divergent thinking, curiosity, problem solving, and critical thinking. “It is through play with materials and relationships, invention of classification systems, and solving problems in dialogue with others that young children develop the basic skills they will need to become effective contributors to the health of a changing world” (Jones, 2003, p 34).
Teachers who are committed to complex, sustained, and interactive dramatic play for the children in their care need opportunities to practice, as well as time for reflection, learning from one’s mistakes, and new action. Workshops, college classes, and team meetings are all opportunities to grow professionally as teachers learn how to support each other’s skill development in making good play happen.
Further Readings: Corsaro, W. A. (2005). The sociology of childhood. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press; Jones, Elizabeth (2003) Playing to get smart. Young Children 58(3), 32-36; Jones, Elizabeth, and Cooper, Renatta (2006). Playing to get smart. New York: Teachers College Press; Jones, Elizabeth, and Reynolds, Gretchen (1992). The play’s the thing: Teachers’ roles in children’s play. New York: Teachers College Press; Monighan-Nourot, Patricia (1990). The legacy of play in American early childhood education. In Edgar Klugman and Sarah Smilansky eds., Children’s play and learning: Perspectives and policy implications. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 59-85; Paley, Vivian (1986). Mollie is three: Growing up in school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Reynolds, Gretchen, and Jones, Elizabeth (1997). Master players: Learning from children at play. New York: Teachers College Press; Reifel, Stuart, and Brown, Mac H., eds. (2001). Early education and care, and reconceptualizing play. New York: JAI/ Elsevier Science Ltd; Van Hoorn, Judith, Nourot, Patricia M., Scales, Barbara, and Alward, Keith (1993). Play at the center of the curriculum. Columbus, OH: Merrill; Wing, L. (1995). Play is not the work of the child: Young childrens’ perceptions of play and work. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 10(2), 223-247; Zigler, Edward F., Singer, Dorothy G., and Sandra J. Bishop-Josef, eds. (2004). Children’s play: The roots of reading. Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.
Gretchen Reynolds and Elizabeth Jones