The Journey into Play Based Education

As an early education major, it was drilled into my head that play is what young children should be doing. I heard things like, “It is the work of children to play,” and, “Play is the child’s best teacher”. All. The. Time.

As a student of education, I thought it was great! I bought into it completely. Still do, in fact. I’ve sung the praises of play in school for years now. But the truth is that it’s so easy to talk. It sounds so easy to pull off. Just follow the kids lead. The learning will happen. Let them experiment! Explore!

I had no idea what I was talking about.

I completed 600+ hours worth of student internship time. Both of my placement sites claimed to be “play based”, and I thought they were too, at the time. I’ve since learned that there’s a whole spectrum of what’s accepted as “play based education” by the early education community.

On one end of the spectrum is teacher-led “themes”, where the teacher plans a weeks worth of play activities they think the children will be interested in. The best teachers observe the children to actually learn their interests and plan with them in mind. Others plan themes out for the year in advance regardless of the children’s personal interests.

At the other end of the spectrum is child-led curriculum, where teachers provide a rich environment and then observe children’s play and ask thought-provoking or concept development questions to help children learn and grow. Through my own research and limited experience, I had determined that this is the direction I lean in as a teacher; The research says that the best learning happens when children are interested and engaged, and they will never be as interested or engaged when the teacher is calling all the shots. Project learning and Reggio Emilia are favorite philosophies of mine for that reason.

Both my internship sites leaned in varying levels toward the theme direction, however my current teaching position falls at the very far end of the child led side. There are no teacher directed lesson plans here. Or any lesson plans at all really. Every piece of the day holds learning opportunities, and every child discovers them at their own pace. Sounds great! Right?

I was So. Not. Ready.

Concept development, the main teaching tool in this kind of setting, is like an art form. I used to watch in awe as my internship teacher interacted with children. She could take literally anything they were already doing, and turn it into a learning experience. It was amazing. I’d think, “When I grow up, I want to be that kind of teacher!”

Well I passed her class with a 4.0. I graduated with a BA in early childhood…. It’s time to start being that teacher.

The thing is, I’m a structure person. Lists are my best friend. I was bullet journaling before I even knew it was a thing. I can wing it, but that’s not where my best teaching happens. Not to mention, lesson  planning and intentional teaching are two more concepts that were pounded into me in every single early ed class I took. I can’t imagine a life without some kind of planning.

That said, I believe that even child-led education should be intentional. My challenge as a new teacher is figuring out how to marry these concepts that seem so opposite on the surface, and yet so important. Perhaps if I worked at a more structured center, there would be policies and procedures that would help me through this process. But I don’t, and there aren’t.

I want to be the best teacher I can be, and these kids deserve the best, so I am tackling the challenge myself.

I’ll be documenting my efforts toward that aim here. Concept development methods, lesson planning, and assessment are all issues I’ll be incorporating. In the mean time, does anyone else struggle with this? Or have you got it all figured out? I’d love to hear of your experiences with play based, child led education!

3 thoughts on “The Journey into Play Based Education

  1. Misha says:

    I think we are kindred spirits. The need to feel organized or prepared for anything that will happen is something that I just had to let go over time teaching in a Reggio environment. It was far and away my greatest struggle, and still is today.
    That being said, the greatest tip that I was ever given is that, in a child-directed environment, students provide the lens, while teachers negotiate the content. Teachers know that children do need to practice reading, writing, mathematics, self-regulation, etc. but telling them “it is time to practice reading, writing, mathematics, self-regulation, etc.” can have the opposite effect. Instead, listen to the students and use their focus to engage them in those things.
    My students this year loved red-tail hawks, so we did everything through the lens of red-tailed hawks. We read books about their ecology. We counted feathers. We learned to write “red-tailed hawk.” We made quill pens from their plumage. We even designed huge red-tailed hawk wings they could wear on their arms in attempt to give them a chance to fly (which thankfully did not work).


    • alittlelightsite says:

      It is so funny you say that students control the lense while teachers control the content. I’ve worked the last couple of days writing a post about exactly that! But not with those words. I might have to quote you 😉 I certainly have not mastered this skill, but the next post will break down my efforts to get better. I’ve only read about reggio, never seen it in action, but I’m always eager to learn more. Any experience or reference you have to share is welcome here!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Misha says:

        I’ll let you have it this time, feel free to quote me if you like. Next time I might charge you, though. 😉

        Can’t wait! I’ll be scanning my feed for it.


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