Children’s sense of agency fostered through self directed play, inspiring rich learning
Children attending St Pauls Junior School, in Nelson, New Zealand, are “in the driver’s seat”, the New Zealand Ministry of Education have noted, in a piece which provides guidance for those working in the Australian early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector with children aged three to seven, about embedding agency into the curriculum through self directed, open ended inquiry play.
Children attending the school have an open ended playscape with tyres, barrels, fabric and rope, which the school says is “a magnet for the children” who use the materials to make different types of structures of their imagining.
In the words of the school, “everything they see is an invitation to play.”
Assistant Principal, Maria McTague, said “play that is open-ended nurtures so much more of a child’s holistic learning than instructional, teacher-driven activity for this age group.”
Traditionally, Ms McTague noted, early primary education focuses on cognitive skills rather than social and emotional development. At St Pauls, she said, the focus was on play based learning because “between three and seven, you want to create confident, inquiring, open thinkers, with high-level thinking skills.”
Child led play engages complex thinking, expression and exploration, and also supports children’s transition to school, she said, adding that by engaging in a combination of self-directed and intentional teaching using invitations to play, children develop skills in persevering, concentrating and solving problems – qualities which are considered strong predictors of academic success.
The school embeds all areas of the curriculum in play, through a cross-curricular, integrated approach. Or, in the words of year two student Guiliana, “we learn by doing. You play, and you can build things, and if something is too hard, we just do it again until we finish it.”
The role of the educator
Ms McTague was keen to emphasise that the outcomes of the children’s play based learning, and its initial directions, are not predetermined by adults. Educators are coaches and guides who comment rather than instruct the play, using “discreet intentional teaching” and building on the learning experience the child brings with them.
“We are working to provide an environment where everyone is responsive to the children’s creativity, interests and passions.” she said. “We teach daily small group literacy and maths, but not at the expense of creative inquiry play.”
Seeing the learning
“In play such as the building and construction of forts and huts, children will demonstrate aspects of technological process and design alongside mathematical concepts such as position, orientation and simple measurement skills. Learning involves discussion and debate alongside communicating ideas in written forms in a range of genre.” Ms McTague said.
“Children have phenomenal learning abilities at this age and we need them to believe that.”
It is seeing this rich, complex and layered learning which is the key to the success of the initiative, rather than “learning in isolation”
Narrative assessment and learning stories are used to track the learning in relation to the New Zealand National Curriculum, making links to Te Whāriki (the New Zealand equivalent of the Early Years Learning Framework) . The approach taken by St Paul’s Junior School is guided by international literature on the importance of learning and teaching through play, constructivist education theory and developmentally appropriate practices.
Tips for other educators
The staff at St Paul’s Junior School offered the following tips to support other educators to engage in similar initiatives at their site:
- Value play-based learning for ages 3–7. It nurtures strong academic success in later years.
- Utilise natural resources to support children’s play experiences.
- Take a look at international research which provides the evidence for this approach and good ideas.
- Implement changes in teaching approaches and the environment gradually, in order to sustain the changes over time.
- Communicate and share the evidence for why play is important with your parent community – educate whānau on the benefits for children in learning through play.