Sunday, 7 December 2014

Learning Through Play- Tara O'Neill

Kids learn through play and play is a fabulous way for kids to learn.  It is as natural as breathing. Vygotsky says, “the influence of play on a child’s development is enormous”. Barbara Rogoff also suggests that children supporting each other and learning together, a key feature of play makes a powerful contribution to mathematical learning. Bishop emphasises the playing of games. He notes that playing is “indeed a most serious business” as well as a significant adult activity.  “Play is not just an activity; it’s a state of mind that brings new energy and sparks creativity”(Lundin, 2002).

Is Play a valid way to teach academic skills to children in their first year of school?  What skills do students need as they enter school and engage with the New Zealand Curriculum?  Both early childhood and the NZ curriculum are based on social-constructivism.  Both have moved away from the old Behaviourist theories where teachers imparted knowledge and children repeated tasks to gain proficiency.   No longer do these curriculums direct that rote learning, repetition and discipline help children gain new skills and knowledge.  Instead they embrace a combination of Piaget and Vygotsky and beyond. Piaget where a child is not taught new skills until they show readiness and Vygotsky where a child is taught by a teacher or peer skillfully supporting their new learning thereby helping the child to learn more by sharing the background thinking about how to solve a problem, breaking it down step by step.  

Next year I am heading up a foundation class, a class for students to come into as they begin school.  At its base, it uses Te Whariki the Early Childhood curriculum combined with the NZ Curriculum.   The class environment will look like an Early Childhood center. The main reason for this is to embrace play as the main context in learning.  Coaching is probably the best word to describe how the teachers will interact in the class. We will be coaching social, emotional and academic skills.  We will be looking for indicators that each student has sufficient skills to be able to progress onto the next steps in their learning life. These will largely be seen in the following areas – Social skills, Emotional and Academic readiness. Some of these indicators will be the ability to use emotions appropriately to support their learning. For example, we might see patience from a child as they learn to manipulate blocks in their play, or the ability to focus on a book leading to engagement in an area of learning.  It may be turn taking where the learner is able to take turns in order to play a game with their peers.  It might be being friendly where they are able to use this skill to solve a learning problem with a friend. 

Vygotsky explained that through play, children learn skills for how to control their bodies, develop communication and thinking skills and learn how to relate to others in a social environment. Some of our learners at Te Karaka Area School enter not having had many opportunities to play especially with a trained teacher to coach and assist them in their learning.  This is one reason why they haven’t developed the emotional and social skills necessary to support further learning. The other reason is that for children up to the age of 7 play provides the best instructional environment.

At a conference this year, I listened to Nathan Mikaere Wallis share about research on 5 year old boys and brain development.  The acquisition of social and emotional skills are the most important skill for this group of learners not cognitive skills.  If we get boys at 5 and they don’t achieve, they may develop a disposition of failing and not wanting to achieve.  Most boy’s brains are not physically ready to read until 7 years old.  This knowledge about brain development is crucial if teachers are to know their learners readiness for certain academic learning.

Further to this, learning needs to be in the Zone of Proximal Development.  If we force them to be outside of this they can feel incompetent and we may risk stopping the development of the brain.   In order to think and learn, you need the other parts of your brain to be functioning.  1.  Survival brain.  Brainstem – this is in charge. You need warmth, food and security from loving relationships.
2.  Movement brain or the Midbrain – sports brain  You need to exercise and experience movement.  3.  Mammal brain or the Lymbric system – emotional brain. You need emotional support and safety.  4. The thinking and learning brain is built on the above.  The thinking and learning brain’s ability to function rests on the above 3 brains.  What happens in early childhood impacts on brain development and continues to influence further learning. 

 This is an interesting discussion by Nathan Mikaere-Wallis - Radio New Zealand “What 3 to 7 year olds need to learn”

The Incredible Years Programme outlines three developmental levels of social skills needed by children as they progress towards being able to focus on more academic learning.  Child Developmental Level 1 – The child plays alone.  Level 2 – Parallel Play where a child plays alongside another child.   Level 3 - Interacting with others. The Incredible Years describes how the ability to control a child’s body needs to be taught just like we teach academic skills.  Learners need to firstly understand what emotions feel like and then be able to identify these using words.  Finally they will learn to use their emotions as a tool to support their learning.  Just as we allow learners to make mistakes in their academic learning, we also need to allow mistakes with social and emotional learning.  And just as with academic learning we provide an environment every day for practicing in. Just as we support learners to learn how to write a re-count we can scaffold learners to learn how to control their anger.  We can explain the thinking behind restorative practice and why we say sorry to someone we have wronged.

Te Whariki the Early Childhood curriculum links in with the NZ curriculum the focus of the Primary Years.   Under Development of Learning and Capabilities it says "There is no developmental cut-off at school entry age.  During the early school years, the principles and strands of the early childhood curriculum continue to apply and can be interwoven with those of the New Zealand curriculum statements for schools".   Pg 21 of Te Whariki Curriculum Document.

Not all students are ready for cognitive, academic learning when they start school.  They are not all ready to sit down in one place for more than 10 minutes and have a lesson with a teacher.  There is no magic that happens when a child turns 5 that allows them to be ready emotionally and socially.    By providing a foundation class we are providing a smooth transition and acknowledging that for our community, the children sometimes need a melding and transition of the two curriculums.   We also acknowledge that play is an important context for early learners to experience and that as educators we act as a deciding force to seeing the environment set up to support learning.  This includes noticing when a learner is ready to learn the next step and how we will set up learning experiences to enable them to learn.  

I think that one of the greatest mistakes we make as Educators is thinking that direct instruction is an effective way for young children to learn.  And sometimes we think it is the only way.  We believe that if we control the knowledge and tasks, the students will learn.  We mistakenly believe that the structure of direct teaching is the very structure needed for our learners to feel safe in and learn. 

Next year, we are starting a class which will focus firstly on emotional and social skills and secondly on cognitive skills.  In most Year one classes in New Zealand, children are expected to come to where their teacher sits to take part in a formal skill based lesson.  Instead of this, in our foundation class, the educators will go to the children and like in Early Childhood, will engage with the child in play, listening, asking and answering, questioning, challenging ideas and concepts teaching social and emotional skills.  They will respond quickly to learner’s needs and passions, providing resources to enable their learning to progress in the very best way needed for each individual.  Creativity will be encouraged and enabled.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1980) “Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes” pg. 96.

Minstry of Education. ( 2009) “Mathematics, assessment for learning: early childhood exemplars” pg. 2.

Bishop, A. (1991) “Mathematical enculturation: A cultural perspective on mathematics education.  Pg17

Lundin, S. (2002) “Fish Tales”. 

Naysmith, R. (2011) “Implementing the New Zealand Curriculum: understandings and experiences from three urban primary schools”. 

The Incredible Years Teacher  -

Te Whariki - http:/


  1. From Google Plus:
    Abiodun ShoyomboYesterday 8:31 AM

  2. From Google Plus:
    Esperanza SuarezYesterday 11:21 AM
    Good read!

  3. So great to see your initiative to make school organisation reflect a focus on 'students first'. In the past, even when teacher passion and classroom practice have shifted to be more student centered, school organisational structures have been 'the ghost in the machine'. We so often overlook historical structural and organisational arrangements as they seem normal, even natural and organic, when in fact they were created to suit previous values and needs. Big congratulations to you and your team for questioning the past and remaking it in order to make a better future for your students.

  4. Where is your school? How successful was your new class? Can I come for a visit?

  5. Thanks Tara. Good stuff. Hope you're enjoying your new post. TWOA. Whirikoka.