more. Careful observations of children at play
usually reveal important information about
what they are able to accomplish at this stage in
their development, and what they are ready to
learn next. The role of the educator is to advance
children’s knowledge and thinking through adult-
guided activities during the play. An important
way to view this balance of support during play
was introduced by Ann S. Epstein in her resource
The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the Best Strategies
for Young Children’s Learning.
Play-Based Learning
As adults, we don’t often deconstruct play to
consider the various interconnecting physical,
emotional, and/ or intellectual demands of
the activity. Viewed superficially, play may
look, sound, and feel like nothing more than
disorganized, often noisy, fun. In fact, there is
more learning that happens in play than meets the
eye. Children problem-solve on multiple levels,
extend their own thinking or that of a friend,
decode social behaviours and expectations, and
Child-Guided Experiences + Adult-Guided Experiences = Optimal Learning
Children play in their zone of actual development
and push themselves to move to the next step
in their learning. They reinforce the skills they
have mastered through repetition and practice.
In this example, the children chose not to make a
shopping list for the store, possibly because it is
slightly too difficult for them to do independently.
The educator must decide whether her goal for
this group is to have them write independently,
using the strategies they have already developed.
First, the educator must determine what the
children know about writing and what they can
be expected to accomplish. If the task is too hard
or the children are not sufficiently motivated,
the educator may choose to leave that goal for
another opportunity (child focused), or to model
the task (educator directed) to show them what it
would look like. However, if the educator decides
this is an ideal guided learning opportunity, she
may choose to initiate the task from either the
(Adapted from Epstein, The Intentional Teacher. p.5)
Child Focused
Educator Focused
Not entirely child-
Educator is not
necessarily passive.
Generally follows the
interests and actions
of children, but with
strategic educator
Generally follows the
goals of the educator, but
learning is also shaped by
the participation of the
Not entirely educator
Child is not passive.
The children in the home
centre choose to take the
dolls for a walk to the
grocery store.
The educator observes
that the children in the
home centre are going
grocery shopping and
suggests they write a list
of what they are going
to buy.
The educator joins in
the play at the home
centre. She suggests that
they should go grocery
shopping and that it is a
good idea to make a list
of what is needed.
Children in the home
centre tell the educator
that they want to make
a grocery list. They tell
the educator what they
wish to record and the
educator writes it for
Possible Zone of Actual
Zone of Proximal Development.
Task is too difficult.