Bringing back the magic of play this new school year

Joan Almon once said, “People who play well, really live life well.” Almon, who co-founded the Alliance for Children and was a play advocate, spoke not just for children when she expressed this sentiment, but for adults as well. In early childhood education, we know and are often told about the benefits of play. It’s so powerful that it supports development across the learning domains. It’s so powerful that there’s even a national institute devoted to its science. Yet despite knowing this deep power exists, early childhood educators and administrators often find themselves in tricky situations when it comes to communicating the power of play. Just how do we showcase for families, licensors, and other stakeholders the learning and development that’s happening? How do we wade through the paperwork, requirements, and standards to tap into this core need that is innate to all of us?

The path to play doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, embracing play’s power is about making modifications to our thinking, practice, and approach often and incrementally. It’s about trial and error. It’s about picking apart what isn’t working and why. It’s about learning how to play ourselves.

Defining Play

The National Institute for Play defines play as a state of being that is often unique to the individual. Play is self-motivated and can be anything from enjoying a game or sport to typing to collecting to just about anything that allows a person to become absorbed, relaxed, and have fun. Play involves losing track of time. As educators we’ve all had those moments when we’ve become so engrossed in an activity with our group that we suddenly realize we’re late for lunch or music or outdoor play. Have you ever stopped to think during these moments, “Wow, we were really playing!” Often, we rush the group to the next activity, maybe feeling surprised by being pleasantly absorbed, but perhaps not striving to capture the experience again.

Most licensing requirements for child care centers stipulate that a center’s daily schedule must include a time for free play and the schedule in general should be flexible enough to accommodate children’s individual needs and the dynamics of a group. Such guidelines are important because they recognize that children require a great deal of time to engage in any activity meaningfully.

In the book Balanced and Barefoot, pediatric occupational therapist Angela J. Hanscom explains children often need at least 45 minutes to enter a state of deep play. During this time, children are deciding who to play with, what they are going to play, and how they are going to play. Additionally, the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education outlines recommendations for outdoor play that stipulate: Infants should be taken outside 2 to 3 times per day, toddlers should be allowed 60 to 90 total minutes of outdoor play, and preschoolers should be allowed a minimum of 60 to 90 total minutes and up to 120 minutes for moderate to vigorous activities. Such observations and recommendations make clear the importance of play to children’s emotional and physical development.

Strategies to Support Children’s Play 

Tapping into the full potential of play-based learning involves creating an environment in which play is allowed to exist naturally. Here are a few suggestions for how you can foster play in your setting.

Play-Responsive vs Playful Activities 

In the pursuit of play-based learning, educators may initially feel the urge to fill the day with “playful activities.” Suzanne Axelsson, author of The Original Learning Approach encourages educators to instead consider what is called a “play-responsive” approach.  

Play-responsive may be understood as teaching that responds to children’s play. This involves slowing down and resisting the urge to transition children to the next activity before they have had the opportunity to fully engage in play. The educator assumes a more passive role of interacting rather than intervening in the flow of play progression. Not only does this provide educators with the opportunity to observe children’s growth and development, it also sets the stage for vital relationship building between provider and child. 

Balance Between Free Play and Structured Play

Knowing that a productive learning environment requires a balance of structure and freedom, educators may question how to be play-responsive in a manner that provides children with the security that comes from structure. Axelsson recommends the following approach:

  1. Determine an approximate amount of time: While children’s interest will ultimately determine the length of time dedicated to an activity, use the knowledge you have of your young learners to establish an estimated amount of play time. Remember to be flexible, as children may require more or less time than anticipated.
  2. Teach first and set expectations: The traditional components that we are most familiar with remain present. Teach, demonstrate, and set expectations regarding safety and responsibility. 
  3. Step back and observe: Here is where the interaction, as opposed to intervention, comes in. Observe children closely and allow the play to take place. 

Simple as this seems, providers may find a play-responsive approach to involve a fair amount of adjusting their usual pacing. Giving children time and space is essential in order for them to effectively learn through play and provides children with the opportunity to develop confidence and a love for learning. Play helps children develop traits such as perseverance, persistence, resilience, risk-taking, and problem-solving.

Meeting Children’s Play Needs

Children have a variety of needs to be met when playing. Some examples of these play needs are space for physical movement, fine motor exploration, the presence of visual and/or auditory stimuli, and preferences for social interactions. Consider ways in which your space accommodates children’s individual needs. What are some of the ways they may find enrichment in the environment? 

Play is deeply connected to curiosity. Consider allowing children to follow their curiosity throughout the setting. Rather than limit play and learning to one location, allow children to move around the setting, taking materials with them and perhaps choosing to incorporate items from other areas in their play. Axelsson refers to this as “cross pollinating.” If organization becomes a concern, incorporate procedures and expectations for group cleanup times throughout the day.

Define Expectations and Boundaries

Each educator will have different levels of comfort in regard to structure and play. Rusty Keeler, author of Adventures in Risky Play: What Is Your Yes?, encourages providers to ask themselves what they can say yes to. Examine your expectations and boundaries in advance, and communicate these clearly with the children. Reflect on expectations regularly to determine if the limitations need to remain where they are or have room to be adjusted.

Reaching an Understanding Within Your Learning Community

While learning through play does produce measurable results, the tangible aspects do not necessarily match what families and administrators are familiar with. Prepare your community for the results and evidence of children’s work. 

  • Early and proactive communication: Rather than wait until questions arise, communicate early with your learning community on how your play-responsive classroom will function. 
  • Welcome caretaker presence: Whether they are volunteering or simply observing, the more time caretakers spend in your setting observing the children playing, the more they will tune in to the growth and development that takes place over time.
  • Document and share: Document the children’s learning by taking pictures of children as they engage in play. Display the pictures in an area visible to classroom visitors, along with domain-specific labels. Incorporating measurable, academic language provides essential clarity and reassurance.

Engaging in Our Own Play

Supporting children’s learning through play is about more than understanding child development and developmentally appropriate practice. Knowing your personal play habits and having an awareness of the types of play that bring you joy can go a long way. When you tap into your own play, you’re not only making time for your own growth and development, you’re also modeling the value of play for children and their families! So, how do you engage in your own play? Try these tips:

  1. Identify your play personality. According to the National Institute for Play, there are eight play personalities. By identifying your play personality, you can tap into what motivates you intrinsically and begin to identify preferred forms of play.
  2. Rethink exercise. We all know exercise has immense benefits, however, for many it can feel like a chore. Make a game of exercise by engaging in competitive activities or trying something new such as pickleball or joining a rock climbing gym.
  3. Get reacquainted with your inner child. Experts suggest listing activities you enjoyed as a child, then brainstorming the grown-up version. So, if you enjoyed writing creatively as a child, consider joining a writing group. Or, if you had fun digging for worms and insects, join a wildlife club.
  4. Schedule time to play. As adults, we rely on scheduling to ensure we meet demands at home and work, accomplish tasks, and fulfill needs. Scheduling time to play, whether it’s a game night with friends and family, hosting a party, or simply making time to draw or knit, will go a long way to ensuring it happens. 
  5. Get outdoors. Spending time in nature has many benefits, including improved mood and focus and reduced stress. Taking an activity outdoors enables us to enjoy the company of others, even if we’re spending time by ourselves. The conditions are right for becoming absorbed in whatever captures our attention, a tenet of play.


When engaged in play, children explore and develop an understanding of the world around them. Axelsson emphasizes how the brain responds to the complexities of life through play; each learning domain has the potential to be touched upon when adequate time is provided for independent exploration. Call to mind any moment of play you have observed or engaged in yourself, and you would likely identify the many learning areas covered. Let’s make play a priority this year—for children and ourselves. The benefits will have a ripple effect.

Author Bios

Teresa Narey is the Director of Educational Content at FunShine Express where she oversees the development of curriculum for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and coordinates professional development content.

Andrea Ehlis-Chang is a curriculum writer for FunShine Express where she develops content for the Fireflies preschool curriculum and trains on various topics in early childhood education.

To learn more about how HiMama and FunShine Express support early childhood educators with expert-designed, research-backed and ready to use curriculum click here!

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