With playdoh, the children are creating a visual
display about their favourite animal’s habitat,
what it looks like and what the animal needs
to survive. If they make an error, it can quickly
be changed.
Using Legos and K’nex®, Eric begins designing
the Golden Gate bridge. As he nears completion,
he places a car on top and it collapses. He
rebuilds and talks with his classmates about
how he can improve his design to make it
more durable.
Play is interactive
• Vygotsky (1976) argued decades ago that
all play is social. Even a baby wants a play
partner, not to show him how to play, but
simply to have someone with whom to
interact. Play is the way children learn to
take their place in a social context. This
cannot be learned any other way.
A New Look At Play
One of the reasons there is such
resistance to play in school is the
ambiguity about the nature of play.
There are many different ways to
look at it. Playing a sport is not the same as
rough-house play. Playing house is not the
same as putting on a play. What then is meant
by the term play as applied to school?
For the most part, there is general agreement
that play is a spontaneous, free, joyous, and
satisfying activity that is not controlled by the
expectations and directives of others. Play is
an activity freely undertaken for the value it
brings in and of itself.
Authentic play has the following
Play is natural and instinctive
• All children play, no matter the
environment or culture. However, it is
tragic that for some children in the world,
play is replaced by work to meet basic
needs of survival. Play is as much a part of
the landscape of childhood as nurturing.
No one has to teach a baby how to play
with her toes, or provide instruction to a
toddler on how to play with blocks. Older
children too retain the play instinct as they
construct a clubhouse, make up a new ball
game, or explore musical instruments.
The teacher in the classroom creates the
environment for play and provides the
opportunities for children take the play in
their own direction.
At the science centre, students experiment with
cars and ramp. They create a ramp and race
the cars down the slope. After each car has been
tested, the children start over by changing the
slope and begin the next race.

The class had been discussing healthy foods
and plan on making a breakfast buffet for
the class to enjoy. In the group discussion,
Vida suggests creating a restaurant where
the food would be just like a ‘real’ restaurant.
The children enthusiastically embrace the idea.
They make decisions about the menu, where to
place the table and the chairs, where the cash
register will go, how they will take orders, and
how they will decorate the table to make it like
a ‘real’ restaurant. As they engage with each
other, they use language for different purposes.
They negotiate as to who will be the servers and
who will be the customers, who will count the
money, and who will clean up.
Play is repetitive
• Repetition is an important aspect of play
at any level. It is through repetitive actions
that children integrate new learning into
existing frameworks of understanding.
They need to see the predictability that
comes through repeating something over
and over. This is the process that solidifies
Boards and cars have been added to the block
area, and each day a small group of children
sets up ramps for racing vehicles. By repeating
the experience, they learned which cars go the
fastest, which ones go the slowest, and which
ones just won’t go straight at all. They also
learned that cars will fly off the ramp if it is it
too high. They discovered that when they set
the ramp on the rug, the vehicles slow down at
the bottom, but that cars travel a much greater
distance when the ramp is set on bare floor.
They worked out a system for a ‘fair’ start by
placing a ruler in front of the cars and lifting
it up. The teacher documented their learning
and asked them to share their discoveries with
others. Their reflections motivated the interest
of their classmates.
Play is inventive
• Play sets the imagination in motion. It
provides opportunities for the creative
power to grow and strengthen over time
and with experience.
Aaron is motivated by the story Galimoto
which tells of a boy who collects wire and other
objects to create a toy that moves. He chooses
to go to the technology centre that is filled with
nuts, bolts, wire, wheels to make his own toy
with wheels. He selects some materials and
sets straight to work. Aaron finds it challenging
to fix the wheels and have them move so he
asks for assistance. He returns to his creation
each day, trying to get the wheels to balance
and move smoothly.

Exploratory play is the stuff of curiosity
and inquiry. It begins as soon as the
baby is aware that something shiny
is dangling over her head and she
reaches out to examine what it is. Exploratory
play is highly physical in the early stages as
the infant or toddler uses all of his body to
explore the world around him. By age four,
exploratory play is soaring. Children who
have been encouraged to explore freely and
without undue limits will continue to use
exploration as a means of learning about the
world in which they live. By the middle years,
as any teacher of the Junior Division knows,
there is nothing that holds more interest for
many at this age than taking things apart and
putting them back together.
Materials are an important part of
exploration. Children learn about the
characteristics of materials as they interact
with them and this knowledge is important
for scientific experiments. They learn about
the characteristics of shapes as they build
with blocks – an important learning for
understanding geometry.
With or without materials, children explore
position as they move themselves and objects
in different spatial configurations. Position is
Teachers need a trained eye to recognize what
is happening in play and the different forms
that play takes. They must have knowledge
of how play changes over the course of the
primary grades, and the connection between
these changes and overall development.
Essentially, there are three types of play
activity – exploration, pretend play, and
games with rules. Given suffi cient time to
develop an episode of play, primary age
children often integrate all three types of
play – they explore materials and ideas,
and bring their imagination to bear within
an implicit set of rules for participation. For
example, a group of eight year-olds is given a
new set of interlocking blocks. They explore
the properties of these blocks as they play
randomly with them. What can you do with
this material? Before long, the children
begin to build what they decide are going
to be transformers. As they create these
imaginative action figures, the children take
on roles appropriate to the theme, and the
pretend play blossoms.
The ability to sustain an episode such as this
begins around age five but the play becomes
increasingly more complex with time and
experience. By the primary grades, children
can sustain a play episode over a period of
days and even weeks.

relevant to movement and dance, as well as
Exploration flourishes in an emotional
environment that encourages initiative,
curiosity, and problem-solving. Placing
too much emphasis on the end product or
on using tools in the “correct” way causes
children to lose confidence in themselves and
inhibits risk-taking. Teachers will know when
to interject prompt questions or demonstrate
how some tools work so that the exploration
does not become frustrating for the child.
As the child matures, all five senses are
engaged in exploring and learning about the
world. Children use their senses so much, it
might be said that they are keen observers of
the world as a result. They absorb a great deal
of information as they watch the emergence
of the butterfly from the chrysalis, as they
listen to the seeds shaking in their pod, as
they smell the fragrances of the different
flowers, and as they touch a sample of snake
skin. They bring this world knowledge to their
reading and writing, and they use this ‘data’ to
make comparisons.
Children have been involved in some form of
inquiry from infancy as they explored their
effect on objects in their world. Inquiry is an
important component of the kindergarten
program and the primary grades as children
continue to experiment in an eff ort to discover
more about a particular interest that intrigues
them. By the end of the Intermediate Division,
exploration is the essence of scientific inquiry.
It is the process that enables the researcher
to find solutions for the many challenges in
our world, and the artist to create innovative
The Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8: Science
and Technology uses the words investigate
through experimentation. The Ontario
Curriculum Grades 1-8: Mathematics refers
to children developing problem-solving
strategies as they pose and solve problem
and conduct investigations. While exploration
is acknowledged in these curriculum areas as
an important component of learning, it is not
explicitly connected to the elements of play.
Pretend play is the genesis of creativity
pretend play begins around age two
when a toddler uses one object to
represent another – a block of wood becomes
a car as the toddler zooms around the room.
This is the beginning of symbolic thinking, an
essential component of higher-level thinking
Young children use what they know and
understand of the world around them as a
resource for pretend play. They will often
place themselves in the role of mother, father,
or baby. Even in the early stages, children
use their burgeoning imagination to rework
what they have experienced into new sets
of actions. Through pretend play, children
create new roles and situations. As the
ability to play develops, these new situations
become increasingly complex and beyond the
realm of their own experience. For example,
children give their favourite characters from a
storybook or TV series diff erent roles and new
Until approximately age four, pretend play
tends to be personal, that is, it revolves

Sociodramatic play is so much a part of
childhood that parents and teachers often
remain unaware of the complexity and depth
of the learning that takes place. It is not a play
as adults understand it but a sequence of make-
believe that is spontaneous and controlled by
the children themselves. It has implicit rules
that are understood by the players although
they are not able to articulate them. In the
older elementary-age children, sociodramatic
play evolves into improvisation, but is quite
different to preparation for putting on a play.
Improvisation evolves from each child’s own
background knowledge and experience.
Within the classroom, an area has been
created for a ‘radio station’ with microphones
and headphones. This has become a favourite
choice as children improvise various scenarios:
being the talk show host or the guest, reading
the news, providing musical interludes. The
action changes daily depending on children’s
focus and interest.
Games with rules provide the basis
for sports and recreational activities.
They also stimulate social and
cognitive development. The games
that we play with children have the general
features of all true play, that is, they are
spontaneous, enjoyable, and satisfy inner
needs. The difference is that games have
explicit rules. Up until age seven, children
tend to make up the rules as they go along.
At age seven as they experience a cognitive
growth spurt, children become very aware
of rules as any teacher on yard duty knows.
Grade two students are constantly agitated
because someone isn’t playing right.
Play is bound by implicit rules understood
by the players. Play is not a free-for-all. It is
highly active but never chaotic. Adults don’t
always see the rules but children themselves
clearly understand them. In pretend play, for
example, such things as staying in character,
performing situation appropriate actions, and
using language to further the actions make
play a safe and productive activity.
around what the individual child brings to the
play. They may co-operate in sharing space
and even toys, but the actions are personal
rather than collaborative. Collaborative play
happens when children join together around a
common theme with interrelated actions and
roles. Young children want others to join them
at play, but each player is working through his
own story. It is not until the primary grades
that children have suffi cient language and
social skills to truly engage in collaborative
Sociodramatic play is a unique form of
collaborative play. It is both imaginative and
highly social. An episode of sociodramatic
play is a sequence of make-believe in which
two or more players collaborate to construct
roles and actions around a common theme.
The episode begins when a player signals
a transformation, either through an explicit
statement or an implicit action. The episode
continues so long as two players remain
with the theme. It ends when all the players
abandon the theme or time runs out.
Gerald calls out, “You’re it! We have a new
dragon. Let’s run away to the new hide-out
so he doesn’t get us.” The children rush to a
new hide-out. Gerald is on the lookout, ready
to make a run when the dragon approaches.
They yell, “Run for it! Get away from the
dragon before he eats you!” The children run in
every direction until someone is captured and
brought to the dragon’s den. Then, someone
else takes on the role as the dragon.
An episode of sociodramatic play involves
four basic elements:
• theme: what the episode is about;
• action plan: a series of actions or rituals
appropriate to the theme;
• roles: theme-appropriate characters; and
• language: both language about the
episode and in-role language.

Games with rules, particularly sports, are
generally governed by external rules. For
this reason, some play advocates suggest
that sports are not true play. Playing sports,
however, has proven to be an effective way
of teaching valuable interpersonal skills such
as co-operation, teamwork, and tolerance.
The Right to Play organization, founded in
Canada and now operating around the world,
is dedicated to promoting education through
play and sports. It has as its motto, “Take
care of yourself. Take care of others.” There
can be many opportunities to participate
in self-directed play through sports. If the
expectations for sport games respect age-
appropriate behavior and the goal is not
necessarily who wins or loses, sports can be
an enjoyable part of a child’s play world.
When children take the soccer balls outside,
different games emerge. Two children set up
a target on the wall and practice kicking the
ball at the target. They decide what counts
as ‘hitting the target’, and how many points
are awarded for each target. Others begin
to organize a soccer game, deciding on the
goal line, what will serve as goal posts, and
who will be the goalie. One child takes over
and chooses the teams and some express
the feeling that the selection process is not
‘fair’. The game begins, and after a while one
of the goalies declares she wants to switch
roles. Another child takes her place. There
are arguments about a non-goal, but these
quickly fade as the desire to keep playing is
more compelling.
Each of these forms of play has something
unique to offer. In an article featured in
the New York Times (2008), Robin Henig
examines why children play. She challenges
the romanticized view of play and childhood
as “too squishy” and searches the literature
on animal play to find the essential purpose
that play has in primate development. She
concludes: “Animal findings about how play
influences brain growth suggest that playing,
though it might look silly and purposeless,
warrants a place in every child’s day … a
place that embraces all styles of play and that
recognizes that play is every bit as essential to
healthful neurological development as test-
taking, Spanish lessons, or Suzuki violin.” As
adults we may not understand the value of
play, but we can appreciate and respect the
place it has in the lives of our children.
A New Look at Learning
In order to recognize the vital role of play
in learning, teachers need to understand
the connection between neuroscience
and learning. Our profession is too often
one in which the entrenched practices of an
earlier day hold more sway than the valuable
research of our day. We would not tolerate
medical practices from a century or more
ago, yet we base many of our expectations
and practices in the classroom on just such
Neuroscience has tremendous potential for
revolutionizing what goes on in schools. As
McCain and Mustard (1999), play advocates
observe, “the merging of the neuroscience story
with the developmental story has increased our
understanding of how fundamental the first
years of a child’s life are in laying the base for
the future. We are beginning to understand the
linkage between the way the brain develops
and the neurological and biological pathways
that affect learning, behavior and health
throughout life.” (p. 25) So much has been
discovered over the years about how the
brain learns that it is truly astonishing that
education, by and large, makes so little use of
this knowledge.
For a century, psychologists and other social
scientists have developed learning theories.
New research on how the brain develops adds
to their findings. With knowledge of child
development and neuroscience, educators
are equipped to provide the very best
learning opportunities for children. While
teachers of young children have been most
open to applying this knowledge, educators
for all grades need to put it into practice. The
process of learning does not change when the
child moves from kindergarten to grade one,