Teaching through Play Overview

Teaching through Play in Primary School

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Teaching through play refers to the way in which teachers use play as a pedagogical tool within their school setting, more commonly known as ‘play-based learning’.Teachers using a teaching-through-play approach use integrated pedagogical practices, promoting student agency and inquiry but remaining active in their guidance and support as the students direct their learning during play. Teachers recognise the complex nature of play and the varied learning opportunities that play provides, including how play can support the healthy development of children’s socio-emotional, physical and cognitive skills. Effective use of play pedagogies requires teachers to have a clear understanding of schematic thinking, functional types of play, and the role the teacher has in supporting student-led learning through play. Teachers draw on a variety of strategies spanning a continuum from adult-guided to child-guided play to respond to children’s learning needs as they arise within play in their classrooms.

Why play at school?

Play is recognised as fundamental to the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of children (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013; Armstrong, 2006; Gray, 2013; Riley & Jones, 2010; Robinson & Aronica, 2015). Furthermore, play’s use in the primary classroom context is identified as developmentally responsive and appropriate to student learning needs, as opposed to the traditional, highly structured instructional model (Copple & Bredekamp, 2008; Riley & Jones, 2010). All areas of the curriculum can be developed and strengthened through play. Teachers can do this by supporting children to see links between what and how they are playing, and their relevance to curriculum areas, in a natural and context-relevant way. For example, students who enjoy constructing forts and huts, and who are excited to extend on their large constructions can be supported to understand the design and build process (technology curriculum).  Students who are interested in playing firefighters can be supported by the teacher to learn more about the fire service, provided context-relevant language, and understand the role different people have in communities (social sciences). Children who are fascinated with bugs and who want to collect these can be supported to build bug hotels and learn more about what their bugs need for survival (Living World/Science). Furthermore, the key competencies and values identified in the curriculum are developed through play interaction. Children engage in problem-solving, thinking, sharing, turn-taking, and negotiating when playing with others. This provides them with multiple opportunities to develop the competencies and values outlined in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007).


When engaged in play, children develop higher-order cognitive and socio-emotional skills. This is because of several factors, including:

  • the intrinsic motivation that is required of children when engaged in play
  • the way in which learning can occur across a multitude of contexts and with a range of differing personalities (requiring children to self-monitor and regulate their own responses)
  • the need to transfer these new skills and sets of knowledge
    across these contexts

Furthermore, research shows that children develop a strong sense of self-efficacy and resilience from interacting and negotiating with their peers (Bandura, Barbaranelli, Caprara & Pastorelli, 1996). For example, socio-dramatic play, a type of play in which children engage in fantasy and narrative play, has been attributed to the healthy development of executive function skills (Guddemi, 2013) and language development (Moyles, 2012; Vedeler, 1997).

What teachers need to know when teaching through play

There are several key ingredients to ensuring the successful use of play as a pedagogy in the primary classroom. These ingredients include knowledge of schematic thinking and how this unfolds in play; what the functional types of play are; understanding how to set up the learning environment for play and the role the teacher has in supporting children to learn through their play.

Schematic thinking (Urges)

Schema is a term used to describe patterns of repeated behaviour children engage in when exploring and expressing their developing ideas and thoughts through play (Louise, Beswick, Magraw & Hayes, 2013). In New Zealand, these are commonly referred to as ‘urges’ (Brownlee & Crisp, 2016). Through observation of children engaged in play, teachers can identify the types of urges children are exhibiting and use this information to provide further resources, knowledge, and opportunities for skill development as children’s play unfolds. When teachers can recognise and acknowledge children’s urges, they can plan to respond to children’s thinking processes, offer support, challenge new thinking and ideas, and scaffold new learning as a result.


Many different schema have been identified and described across early years literature (Arnold, 2015; Meade, 1999). Common types seen in children’s play include:

  • Construction: The desire to build, create, make, or construct. This can be both big and small construction – from making small worlds for animals or insects, through to large construction with planks of wood, tyres, and ropes.
  • Enclosure: Filling up cups of water, climbing in and out of cardboard boxes, building fences or borders for animals all represent the urge to enclose items or oneself in play.
  • Transporting: Moving or carrying things from one place to another; moving one’s body from one place to another (e.g., putting items in containers and relocating them; moving across space using a scooter or bike).
  • Trajectory: The urge to throw, drop or move things through space diagonally, vertically, or horizontally. This is multi-dimensional, and linked to either moving one’s own body, interacting with things that are already moving, or making something move.
  • Transformation: exploring changes of state of materials, such as mixing water and dirt into mud, or changing oneself into another identity by creating and wearing different costumes.
Setting up the learning environment

The learning environment will reflect a planned response by the teacher to students’ play interests. It requires careful consideration, based on observational data, for play to be well resourced and reflective of the types of play students are engaging in, and their thinking behind their play. Teachers will, through observation, gather information on student interests, schema, and types of play and plan to provide resources, such as loose parts; instructional material, such as books, video, and artifacts; and appropriate space both inside and outside the classroom, to support students to explore further in their play. The learning environment can be organised into areas conducive to different types of play. Play that requires large space, such as construction play (e.g. fort building; roads and towers), trajectory play (e.g. throwing, chasing), water or mud play is ideally situated outside the classroom. Play that requires smaller space, such as small-world play (e.g. pretend play with small loose parts, animals, figurines, etc); dressing up; smaller construction play can be accommodated within the classroom. When considering how to organise the learning environment for play, teachers should consider the following factors:

  • Current schema observed in students play (e.g. construction, rotation, enclosure)
  • Current student interests emerging within the play (e.g. forts, Beyblades, insects)
  • How much room students have for this play (e.g. floor space versus desk space)
  • Where resources can be stored so they are easily located by students as required
  • Traffic flow between different types of play. I.e., can students move freely around play that can be left undisturbed? Or will students need to pack resources away when the play concludes for the day? Will students knock over construction by moving around it, or is it ‘safe’ to be left without incurring damage?
  • How can new and unknown elements be added into the environment in a way that is motivating or engaging for students? E.g. new loose parts, artifacts, the use of video or books.
The role of the teacher

Teacher involvement in play is seen to support children’s understanding and exploration of academic, social, and emotional concepts while maintaining a child-centredness to the play interaction (Aiono, 2020; Pyle & Bigelow, 2014). By using intentional teaching methods, teachers can support new learning that occurs because of play interactions. Intentional teaching ensures teachers choose from a range of teaching strategies that best suit their students and the context in which they are learning, while also meeting the responsibilities to support children’s learning across the curriculum. As an intentional teacher in play, teachers will use their knowledge of student schema to motivate and engage students to play, and resource and establish a learning environment that supports clear learning goals. Teachers will be able to identify examples of the learning areas, key competencies, values, and vision of the curriculum within students’ play, and respond to these observations by scaffolding to extend students’ knowledge and skills where appropriate. Drawing on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978), teachers will have an awareness of their students’ learning goals, strengths, interests, abilities, and needs, and will purposefully challenge, scaffold, extend, or support new ideas or information within student play (Chi, 2009; Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Singer & Berk, 2011; Briggs & Hansen, 2012). In addition, teachers will identify opportunities to incorporate new learning into students’ play, by providing new resources, information, books, or videos that model exploration promoting learning, curiosity, and inquiry. Teachers will draw on appropriate instructional strategies to support their students learning needs. This will include opportunities for child-led play, teacher-directed instruction, and/or a combination of both.


In Summary

It is important to note that there are a variety of ways to implement play pedagogy in the school setting. Each learning environment is unique and presents different challenges to the successful integration of play as a pedagogical tool. Schools wishing to draw on the benefits play pedagogy provides students should carefully reflect on their current policies and practices, identifying opportunities to increase the amount of time students have to engage in play while ensuring teachers understand their role and the use of appropriate teaching methods to support learning occurring across different curriculum areas.


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