The Inquiring Nature of Play

The Inquiring Nature of Play

With the recent uptake and growing popularity of play-based learning in the school context, teachers find themselves reviewing and reflecting upon play and its relative existence to similarly popular teaching approaches, such as inquiry learning, maker space, STEM/STEAM, Genius Hour and project-based learning.  As children shift into middle primary-school, the embedded use of inquiry learning models become the focus, with play viewed as something junior students do in preparation for more formal research-based inquiry experiences. The use of play as a pedagogical tool across the school year levels is somewhat problematic to conceptualise in and of itself, with play seen as something quite separate from these other more formal versions of student-led learning.

One reason for this could be the siloing of play as something kids do, rather than how they think.  Many schools adopting play pedagogy report to be doing play-based learning as a timetabled portion of the school week.  These same schools also do inquiry learning, or have timetabled slots for ‘maker space’ and working around this, the scheduled delivery of literacy and numeracy instruction.  Play-based learning is viewed as a program to offer children, the learning outcomes of which sit outside and disconnected from other learning scheduled for the school day.

This approach misses the very point of harnessing play as a pedagogical tool.  When we recognise play as being much more about the thinking processes (i.e. dispositions) children engage in, than what they are doing as they play, we can begin to truly understand the value integrating play has in our children’s education experience.  If we recognise the thinking processes inherent in play, we begin to understand the power play has for the developing child.  Play is the outward expression of ones internal inquiry about the world around us, and our place in it.  It is a child’s first and primary investigative experience.

The Inquiring Nature of Play

In recognising play to be a cognitive experience, we can then start to see its place in relationship to the many other approaches used by schools to grow children’s dispositional thinking.  Many schools who make the shift to implementing play pedagogy have already well-established inquiry learning models as a way to support the development of children’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  Unfortunately, as with play, inquiry learning models have been misinterpreted away from the origin of the pedagogy.   Used as a trojan horse to ensure content coverage, or matrixed into can and can’t do assessments of dispositional thinking styles, teacher-led content is often camouflaged as student-led inquiry by using playful themes and loosely defined ‘hands on’ style learning.  Topics and content remain selected by the teacher, and tied to the need of ‘covering’ curriculum.

By definition, inquiry learning is “…based on the constructivist theory of learning, which puts emphasis on the skills, attitudes, and understandings that students develop as they discover and construct new knowledge for themselves.” (National Library of NZ, 2022). As play grows in popularity and implementation in the school sector, schools utilising inquiry based approaches in conjunction with play-based learning find themselves at a cross roads.  Those who interpret play as another thing children will do in the school day, ask questions such as ‘how do we fit this in to our timetable?’ and ‘how do we know children will learn what they should be learning’? These schools struggle to conceptualise the cognitive basis of play, viewing it more about getting kids to do play, rather than how to establish the conditions for play that provide opportunities for critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, curiosity and inquiry.  While many of these schools will acknowledge the need for children to have the dispositions inquiry based learning and/or play offer children, they see these as needing to be directly taught, rather than developed over time through repeated, meaningful and relevant learning experiences. Often the inquiry based approach within these schools rely on teacher-selected inquiry topics, and limited-choice learning opportunities for inquiry, focused on the teaching of research methodology and project-style, product-focused outcomes.

In contrast, those schools who recognise that play is about how children think, rather than what they do, in turn, recognise that play is inherently inquiry-based learning.  As a result, they consider ways to ensure the environment is rich in resources that enable wonderment, curiosity and problem-solving, diverse thinking and collaboration. Teachers recognise that play is not the absence of guidance or teacher-support, and they plan thoughtful and well-timed responses that meet their students’ learning inquiries.  These responses may not necessarily be direct, or teacher-led, but they are nevertheless intentional and informed from observational assessment data collected during children’s play.   In addition, these schools recognise that the teachers’ role in this process is not about fitting it in to the timetable, but more the need to ensure a considered and complex integration of teaching strategies that promote the very nature of inquiry learning itself.  During play, teachers in this role will model, scaffold and support students to grow their inquiry skills by:

  • asking thought-provoking questions
  • promoting the investigation of interests and ideas widely and deeply
  • making sense of information to build new knowledge
  • developing a solution or formulating opinions to problems, challenges or other peoples’ ideas
  • presenting or sharing their new understanding with others,
  • having a valuable learning experience that leads to taking some form of action, and;
  • reflecting on what they learned and how they learned it.

Competent and experienced teachers using play as a pedagogical tool will ensure they support key inquiry learning dispositions as children’s explorations unfold.  If implemented with this in mind, there is little need to separate play from inquiry within the school timetable.  They are one and the same, with the teacher understanding the very purposeful and intentional nature of their interactions with children as they engage in play, and the way in which they establish a culture of curiosity and critical thinking in their classroom space.

The Inquiring Nature of Play

In summary, play is more than what children do, when given the opportunity to lead their own learning.  Our role as educators, drawing on play as a pedagogical tool, should be to observe (notice) and reflect on the thinking associated with the play unfolding in our rooms and to recognise the inherent inquiry behind the play behaviours in front of us.  As we learn more about the inquiry our children are undertaking through their play, we can identify how best to support this in our response.  This could include ensuring appropriate and diverse resources are available for children to use,  assisting children to make real-world connections, modeling and scaffolding new skills as needed (be they social or academic), and growing children’s metacognitive awareness about how they learn and make sense of the world around them.

Ultimately, play is the outward expression of a child’s inquiry about the world around them, and how they make sense of this world and connect with it.  In understanding this, educators can successfully draw on play pedagogy to support student-led inquiry in their school settings.

For more information on the evidence based practices associated with effective play pedagogy download the Play Based Learning Practice Implementation Checklists (PIC), available at Massey University’s Early Years Research Lab website here:

To engage in professional learning and development (PLD) supporting the effective implementation of play-based learning across all school year levels, visit Longworth Education here: