Using Play in Course Design Methods for Early Education

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Although kindergarten has a varied history across the Canadian provinces, all provinces now offer some form of kindergarten to all children. The historically different methods have continued and are still seen in the approaches to classroom design and curriculum development. Some of those differences are easy to see in the structure of the kindergarten offerings. Are they full-day or half-day? How old are the children who attend? And who is qualified to teach kindergarten?

One of the areas that isn’t so visible is the role of play in the curriculum. There is a current debate about how play should be incorporated in the kindergarten classroom revolving around the question: What is the role of kindergarten? On one side of the debate are those who believe that kindergarten should be a continuation of preschool, filled with informal learning and play. The other side believes that kindergarten should be a preparation for primary school, emphasizing academic learning.


The Study

This year, the Canadian Journal of Education published a study, “Examining Rhetorics of Play in Curricula in Five Provinces: Is Play at Risk in Canadian Kindergartens?” The collaborators, Shelley Stagg Peterson, Jim Anderson, Maureen Kendrick, Marianne McTavish, Kathy Budd, Debra Mayer, Laureen McIntyre, Burcu Yaman Ntelioglou, and Dianne Riehl, examined the curriculum documents each province has written for their kindergarten curriculum. They analyzed how play is discussed and how it could be incorporated in the classroom design.

Rhetoric of Play – Five Ways to Talk about Play

In creating their study, Stagg Peterson and her colleagues turned to the work of Brian Sutton-Smith who argues that in order to understand play we need better language to define it. In his work, he defines seven rhetorics of play or seven different areas of meaning for the word play. Stagg Peterson and her collaborators worked with five of Sutton-Smith’s models in order to understand the way play is being used in the kindergarten curricula.

  1. Rhetoric of play as progress: Children not only learn through play but also gain academic and cognitive benefits.
  2. Rhetoric of the self: Play is enjoyable, engages children, and is a natural activity.
  3. Rhetoric of the imaginary: Play is navigated by children and helps them to grow their creativity.
  4. Rhetoric of identity: Children create social relationships and identities through play and can change their identities and perceptions of self.
  5. Rhetoric of frivolity: Draws attention to the ambiguity of play and how it can encourage children to look at the world in new ways.

Each rhetoric shows a way that play can be employed in course design. They also highlight some of the benefits of play for children. Every rhetoric point to these specific benefits: Play allows children to learn. It creates enjoyment for children and leads to personal satisfaction and motivation. Imaginative play builds creativity. Play helps children understand identities and operate in social groups. It allows children to shake up conventional understandings and see the world in a different way.


Findings of the Study

In British Columbia, the researchers found that play is not specifically mentioned in any of the curriculum documents. It is implied with some play-based instructional examples in one section of the new curriculum. Because the curriculum documents are so new, the researchers wonder “if play is no longer viewed as a ‘modern’ way of learning.”

In Alberta, there isn’t a kindergarten curriculum document, so Stagg Peterson and her colleagues worked with the kindergarten program statement. That document references play 17 times, but the researchers are concerned about the individual teachers’ pedagogical views and how they implement play without a specific curriculum.

In Saskatchewan, play is mentioned eighty times in the kindergarten curriculum, and the curriculum references many of the rhetorics of play.

Manitoba also does not have a standalone kindergarten curriculum. The researchers found a positive view of play in the document A Time for Learning, A Time for Joy, and believe that it will directly influence curriculum development.

In Ontario’s most recent kindergarten program documents, Stagg Peterson et al found the word play used 166 times. The program developers view play as integral in kindergarten.

Recommendations of the Study

Stagg Peterson and her colleagues argue that kindergarten curriculum developers are pressured to focus more on academics, but “play needs to be pushed up into higher grades and recognized as a significant way for all learners to make meaning in the world.”

They created five recommendations for curriculum development:

  1. Use a framework for play that incorporates different, inclusive styles, with explicit references that emphasizes the role of play for all ages.
  2. Acknowledge the importance of play to children’s social and emotional growth.
  3. Don’t always make play about academic outcomes, but also the sake of enjoyment.
  4. Distinguish the socio-cultural differences of play.
  5. Create unique kindergarten curriculum documents that explicitly discuss play.


Ways to Incorporate Play in the Kindergarten Classroom

In their recommendations, Stagg Peterson and her colleagues focus on curriculum development, and their insight is important as we look at revising or creating new documents. But it is equally important to consider play in our course design. It has important benefits for kindergarten children, and should be thoughtfully and deliberately incorporated.

Most often, play is incorporated in kindergarten classrooms through centers or stations. These designated areas with specific sets of equipment allow students to choose where they want to play and what they want to do. During their center time, the focus is not on academic learning, but on the other rhetorics of play, and the student feels motivated to engage and continue with what they are doing. The centers allow the play to be child-directed. Kindergarteners are free to choose the area they want to play in, to move from one area to another, and to play in that area in any way they want.

The website, Early Learning Central, was created in partnership with the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, and provides a variety of help in incorporating play in kindergarten course design. They outline six possible learning centers.

The first three learning centers focus on academic areas, although their focus is still allowing students to play, explore, and create.

  • Discovery Center – Science: To explore science, the center can include water tables, sand tables, and bubbles. It can also include nature objects like rocks, leaves, and plants for the students to examine.
  • Math Center: The math center focuses on puzzles and ways to work with numbers and math concepts, like measuring tools.
  • Quiet Areas: The quiet area is usually a reading corner, although quiet areas can also include books or music the children can listen to.

The other learning centers have a more obvious focus on imaginative play and developing creativity.

  • Drama Center: The drama center can include dress-up clothes and other props so that children can engage in imaginative play.
  • Construction Center: The focus of the construction center is blocks and it can include blocks of any variety. But the construction center can also include people so that students can incorporate social groups in their play.
  • Visual Arts: The art center allows children to create art projects, and includes paints, clay, crayons, colored paper, glue, and a variety of found objects.

Writing about kindergarten in Finland, Timothy D. Walker explains that the kindergarten curriculum does not focus on academics. Instead, the children engage in group activities and play. He describes centers in a Finnish kindergarten that are similar to the centers outlined above, “one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where students could run a pretend ice-cream shop.”

As he bought ice-cream from the two girls running the ice-cream shop, he noticed that there were two different types of play happening in the classroom. One was spontaneous and freeform, where the students were in control and could play in any way they wanted, and the other was guided by the teachers. The ice-cream shop involved guided play. Walker bought his ice-cream with a fake 10€ bill, and the teacher helped the students to consult the prices and make change for Walker.

Walker’s commentary about his class visit and the two kinds of play reminds us of the importance of play and the many ways that children can be free to play without harming their academic progress.

As we work on curriculum development and course design, we need to remember how play impacts children and that we can encourage student motivation by creating space for all kinds of play.

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