It is critical that educators recognize that when they
introduce play as a means of learning in school,
their role changes from instructor to facilitator.
As a facilitator, the teacher guides the learning
which is different than controlling the learning. This
is not a new idea. In fact, the teacher as facilitator is at
the heart of the inquiry method promoted by Dewey
over half a century ago. There are essentially three
roles for the teacher as a facilitator scaffold-builder,
pump-primer, and informed participant.
Scaffold building involves establishing
an inviting physical environment and a
comfortable social environment conducive
to risk-taking. The physical environment is
the first consideration. This involves placement of
furniture and equipment, as well as the arrangement
of learning areas. It also involves the display and
storage of materials, and the general appearance of
the classroom. Although the teacher has the ultimate
responsibility for the room, especially in terms of
safety, it is important for children to be involved in
some of the decision-making as appropriate, such
as designing a learning area, gathering the materials
needed, and deciding on how many comfortably can
be accommodated.
Given the amount of time children and teachers
spend in the classroom, every effort should be made
to ensure that the room is attractive and clean.
This is everyone’s responsibility and children need
to learn early on that it is unacceptable to leave a
mess for someone else to clean up. It is important
to think through the routines that will be needed for
learning areas and ensure that children are familiar
with them. When problems arise, it is important to
include children in the solutions. When play is in high
gear, the room well may appear like the inside of a
scrap box as children focus intently on what they are
creating. At the end of the day, however, things need
to be put in order.
Time set aside for clean-up at the end of a play period
is well spent. Valuable life-skills are being acquired
as children sort and categorize and put away tools
and equipment properly, wash up any mess that has
occurred, and carefully set aside a project that they
are working on. Changing the physical environment
is an on-going process as the teacher sees the need
for new materials and challenges. The following
anecdote, described by a grade one teacher, illustrates
this point:
Learning involves making connections.
As teachers observe, they may reflect on
possible connections between the play,
other classroom experiences, and curriculum
Scaffolding also involves establishing a social
environment conducive to building trust and risk-
taking. The social environment encompasses the
general atmosphere, as well as the quality of the
interactions among the members of the group.
From day one of school, educators work diligently to
create a classroom community where each child is
acknowledged and feels they have a place within the
room. In this community, children’s ideas are listened
to and valued, and they have opportunities to make
choices and decisions as individuals and as part of a
group. Children hear respectful language modelled,
see models of treating others with respect, and are
treated with respect themselves. Children are invited
to help others and are encouraged to seek help from
their classmates, as well as from the adult in the room.
These are the underpinnings of a classroom that
allows children to function as they play.
Part of the environment also includes establishing
the rules which are needed for managing a group
of children. These rules enable children to function
safely within the classroom and give them protocols
for accessing and using materials and putting them
away, and for maintaining a clean and organized
room. When children understand the routines and
follow a typical pattern every day, they feel more
secure and less anxious about what to do and what
happens next. They need to know the routines so that
their time for self-directed learning can run smoothly.

In a classroom that values children’s choices and
provides opportunities to make decisions, children
are involved in presenting solutions to problems
as they arise. (What can you do when someone
interferes with your project? What do you do when
you need help? What might you do when someone
hurts you in the classroom?)
Neuroscience research confirms what teachers have
always understood, that is the emotional health of a
child has the most profound affect on learning. Even
in the most comfortable of environments, stress can
overwhelm a child. It is play that provides a means of
One teacher might have considered it an indulgence
to allow this boy to play, and may have believed that
it would result in a greater problem with this child.
However, the boy’s new teacher recognized that a
power struggle would only serve to agitate the boy
more. The new teacher knows that play is not an
indulgence, but a benevolent way for children to
cope. It is also an important part of healthy living.

Physical Environment
Refl ect on the Following
Furniture and Equipment
Don’t clutter the room.
Consider the following:
• Is there furniture or equipment that is rarely used? Could this be stored
somewhere until needed?
• What could we do without?
• What is missing?
• How can the furniture be organized to promote talk and collaboration?
• Is there enough shelving for storage? How well is the storage space
• Are there enough tables for work spaces in the different learning areas?
Are tables of the appropriate height for the children?
• Are there quiet spaces for those children who need to be alone at times?
Select furniture that is:
• flexible, (can be used for more than one purpose -rectangular tables are
more flexible than round).
• moveable .
A storage shelf that is on casters can be used to define a special area such as
the quiet corner, as well as moved to serve as the front for a puppet show.
Materials and toys are the textbooks of play.
Have tried and true toys available that appeal to children of all ages and
stages (Lego, blocks, puzzles …)
Absolutely essential for any primary classroom:
• blocks of various size, materials, and features.
• containers for sand and water exploration.
Materials that are open-ended, multipurpose, and flexible:
• scraps and larger pieces of cloth, wood.
• modelling clay, and playdough.
• ribbons, wool, string, paper plain and patterned, of different sizes,
shapes, and thicknesses.
• found materials – stones, feathers.
Use of Time and Space
Lack of time and space is a major obstacle to play-based learning. Children
need time to engage, sustain, and develop complexity in their play. Don’t let
unrealistic expectations, imposed by administration or of your own making,
rob the children of play.
Make a commitment to play, and set aside a dedicated period of time daily
for self-directed play – no less than one hour of continuous time.
Encourage children to be creative in the use of space.
Are there areas outside the classroom that could be used safely for play but
still be supervised?