What Does Play Tell Us?

If you are a parent or educator you see kids playing all the time.  We know that children learn through play, but what can we learn from watching children’s play? Observing play offers a valuable glimpse into a child’s mind – what they’re interested in, what they’re thinking about, and what they understand.


Insight into Children’s Interest

At SEEC, we follow an emergent curriculum – we use the children’s interests as a vehicle to teach developmental skills, as well as content knowledge.  We’ve found that capitalizing on children’s interests make them much more invested in learning, and are motivated to find out more.  But how do you decide what topic to study if you’ve got a group of 15 four-year-olds?  Or even a group of nine, pre-verbal infants? To determine what the children are interested in, we observe and make note of many things the children do including; the questions they ask, the comments they make while we’re out in the community, the conversations they have with their friends, the books they want to read, and maybe most importantly, their play.

For example, a couple of years ago, my preschool class could not stop talking about Medusa.  One of the children had heard a story about the Greek mythological monster, and the rest of the children began incorporating the character into their play.  One day I observed a child jump down from the top of the playground climber and shout, “I’m jumping down from Mt. Olympus!”  Clearly there was an interest in Greek mythology, and storytelling and so we embarked on a Greek Mythology unit.

Observing infants playing can prove equally insightful.  For example, our older infant class recently explored sports because their teachers noticed that many children were gravitating towards balls in the classroom and on the playground, and experimenting with throwing and kicking objects.  They observed the toys they chose to play with, and the games they wanted to play again and again which led them to their next topic of exploration.

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Play as Assessment

As educators, we need to reflect on our instruction, and assess whether our students are understanding the concepts being taught.  However, this can prove to be tricky with young children.  Observing play is a natural way to assess children’s understandings of concepts.  As Vivian Gussin Paley, noted play theorist, states, “…the continued observation of children at play demonstrates the importance of make-believe as the thinking tool that children use.”  During my years in the classroom I used any free play time  to ascertain what they had gleaned from the morning lesson.  I usually knew that I had provided a successful and exciting learning experience when the children worked the content into their dramatic play.

For example, directly after a lesson about astronauts and gravity, I witnessed several children using jump ropes to tether themselves to a tree or fence.  When I asked what they were doing one child said, “I don’t want to float off into space!”  That afternoon one child took a shoelace, and tried to tie it around himself.  When I asked why, he said, “I’m going to space.  I might fall, so it’s my seat belt.”  Children experiment with new knowledge through play. Adults can get a window into how they are processing that information, and get a better idea of where to go next with their instruction.

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Another time, two children built a large rocket out of stools on the playground.  They decided together which part was safe to ride on, and which part was for the T-Rex.  Through observing their play, I understood that these children were processing the new information they had learned earlier that day about rockets and space shuttles.  The fact that they were discussing which part of the rocket was safe let me know that they understood that rockets have multiple parts, and not every section is suitable for people.  The fact that they added a seat for a T-Rex shows me that they’re incorporating multiple interests and that the possibilities are endless in their play.

The process can not end with simply observing play, but should be extended to assessment.  After reflecting on my own practice, I noticed I used the play observations to inform my cycle of teaching as shown in the diagram below. I would begin by planning a guided play experience with my class, meaning the activities I led were teacher-directed, but playful and hands-on. This guided-play often took place in a museum or community setting and helped illustrate a concept.  This guided play would often lead to spontaneous child-directed play. I would then observe and reflect on the child-directed component and take what I observed and apply it to the next guided play experience.

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Play is powerful: it’s fun, it’s necessary, and it’s the way young children learn.  Why not use it to create positive, engaging and meaningful learning experiences for young children?

Interested in learning more?

Come play with us at the Smithsonian!  Join us in June for our seminar, Play: Engaging Young Learners in Object Rich Environments, where we’ll explore how to use play to engage young children in the classroom, museum, and community.  Use early bird discount code BIRD17 to receive 20% off from now until May 20th.


Dombrink-Green, M. (2011).  A conversation with Vivian Gussin Paley. Young Children, 90-93.