The Effectiveness of a Play-Based Curriculum
in Early Childhood Education

Jeana Downey
& Emily Garzoli
Sonoma State University
EDEC 531
November 11, 2007

Recently, early childhood education has been getting an enormous amount of attention from government officials, in hopes of offering high-quality preschool to every child. According to a policy brief distributed by the Bay Area Early Childhood Funders, “much of this interest has been based on new research on brain development, which shows that the very structure of the brain is powerfully shaped by early experiences” (Tepperman, 2007, pg. 1). With everyone wanting to throw in their two cents, the question of what the best possible practice might be is still up for debate. For many early childhood educators, a play-based curriculum is the only way to go. Still, the value and effectiveness of a play-based curriculum has its supporters and its skeptics. We would like to take a look into the history of play-based curriculum, examine a popularly used method, and how play-based curriculums stand up next to other approaches.

Play in early childhood education has been looked at very differently throughout time. “Understanding how play has been interpreted throughout history and how educators and psychologists view play today can help teachers of young children better understand the nature of play and how to use it in early childhood programs” (Saracho & Spodek, 1995, pg. 129). If we know how play was viewed and understood in the past, we can be more effective educators today and in the future. We can also better help other educators, parents, and government officials to understand the importance of play and why it should be the driving force behind curriculum.

Educators such as Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori strongly believed in the importance of play. Froebel designed the first kindergarten and to him, play was an extremely important route to learning. Montessori developed curriculum that incorporated natural play activities, letting children decide how they wanted to play and learn. Both methods of instruction were based on observations of children at play which can give teachers insight into what children are interested in and develop the curriculum from those interests. John Dewey also had strong opinions regarding play; that the interests and needs of children should come first. His ideas have become the foundation for many current views of play. “[…] Dewey advocated an education for young children that was embedded in their current experience in the world that surrounded them. He thought play could be used to help children reconstruct their experience and to gain meaning from it” (Saracho & Spodek, 1995, pg. 133). If children are able to explore and try to find meaning in the world around them through play, they are learning more than they would by simply sitting and listening to a teacher telling them what they need to know. Children need the freedom to discover and question what they see in order to grow in their development. This “modern concept of play as a medium for learning and development in the early years, and especially the valuing of dramatic play -- pretending to take on adult roles and tasks -- started in the Progressive Era” (Saracho & Spodek, 1995, pg. 134). Educators during this particular time period made the distinction between play and other activities that children might take part in. Play was different from doing things that were classified as work, such as chores. This concept of play continues to be valued in early childhood education today (Saracho & Spodeck, 1995) and we can see throughout different models of curriculum how each program might view play.

There are several different types of curriculum, some that incorporate play-based and some that don’t. A child-centered curriculum is partially play-based, but is teacher-guided using what the children are interested in. The children are the teachers, and the teacher assists in obtaining the knowledge that they would like the children to learn, through each topic. For instance, if the children were interested in farm animals, then the teachers would come up with curriculum (math, science, language, etc.) that they would meet certain objectives of that topic.

A teacher-led curriculum is where the interests of the children aren’t brought into the current curriculum. The topics and lessons would be preplanned, maybe even months to years before the teacher implements these lessons in the classroom. This is a structured learning environment in which the teacher is developing the areas that they deem most important.

A child-led curriculum takes the child’s interest one step further. Not only are the lessons planned after what the children are interested in, but the children plan the lessons and activities for the day. This idea implicates that each individual child can come up with activities rather then just the group as a whole. This type of curriculum is very play-based, and the center of the Reggio Emilia approach.

Loris Malaguzzi in Reggio Emilia, Italy founded the Reggio Emilia Philosophy in 1945. Today, there are a number of both preschools and grade schools that strictly follow the layout of this approach. It is an approach which doesn’t necessarily emphasize on academic learning, as much as it does the individual ideas and metacognition of each child, through play, social interactions and opportunities presented through Mother Nature. Each child’s ethnocentric approach to every situation is viewed, not negatively, but positively and is usually celebrated within the classroom. It allows for a time of community sharing and provides and opportunity to celebrate individuality; “Among the benefits were the different ways of thinking, provoking and asking questions” (Fawcett & Hay, 2004, p.241).

Reggio Emilia curriculum is not set up in the same way as a traditional teacher-led classroom where the teacher pre-plans the curriculum and guides what the children are interested in learning. It is a structured learning environment in which the teacher is developing the areas in
which they deem most important. Reggio strictly believes that children learn better in a child-led environment which allows for the curriculum to be developed off of their interests: Classrooms have dramatic play, dress-up areas, but early reading and math skills are not specifically taught. Instead, the teacher follows the children’s own interests. Graphic arts are heavily integrated into the program to demonstrate cognitive, social, and language development.  Concepts are presented to children via multiple approaches, including print, music, drama, puppetry and even shadow play (Jacobson, 2007, p. 10). In other words, the children are the teachers. They learn through what Reggio describes as “The hundred languages of learning,” where children proceed in an investigation of generating and testing their hypotheses. They are encouraged to depict their understanding through one of many symbolic languages, including drawing, sculpture, dramatic play, and writing. This is a way that children are active learners and are “learning with all senses – or from action to thought” (Samuelsson & Williams, 2007, p. 19).

Not only is the control of the curriculum development given to the children, but “Reggio Emilia takes the environment one step further and talks about it as the third educator” (Samuelsson & Williams, 2007, p. 21).  The environment incorporates multiple different uses for the development of learning. Stars in the sky can be used to discover what gas is (science) and introduce an interest in Space and the sky. It can provide language development through learning new vocabulary and reading books all about stars and the planets. Children can learn fine motor skills through painting, drawing, and cutting out their own stars. Counting the stars can develop math skills and children telling their own stories about stars can create magical moments of
social development, while children practice cognition and understanding of their world around them. This “star” example explains another main point in the Reggio curriculum, where “long-term projects are common, and cooperative learning is encouraged” (Jacobson, 2007, p. 10). All projects are streamlined together over many weeks to months, or until the children’s interest shifts to another topic. “Long-term projects enhanced by technology can promote significant growth in children’s thinking and social development” (Bauer & Hong, 2001, p.181).

The Reggio Emilia curriculum delivers the most important professional question to all teachers: “do we allow a child to lead us somewhere unexpected?” (Wexler, 2004, p.18). This is followed by what seems to be a major topic of debate between educators of all levels, from pre-kindergarten though high school: Should all information be fed to children, or should children be able to learn through their own interests and on their own time? The Reggio philosophy suggests that “the child is viewed not as a target of instruction, but rather as having the active role as an apprentice…learning is not something that is done to the child, but rather something she does” (Hewett, 2001, p. 96).

The role of a teacher in this type of learning environment is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for young children to discover and interpret the world around them. “Malaguzzi used to say that what takes place within the Reggio Emilia should not be seen as a preschool pedagogy but as a philosophy where everybody involved with the children should be engaged in the explorative phase in which the child discovers the world” (Samuelsson & Willaims, 2006, p. 18). Teachers are encouraged to be the facilitator rather then the teacher, encouraging children to attain their own answers. In one example from an article titled Floating Experiences by Kathy Danco-McGhee and Rulan Slutsky, the children became interested in
clouds. Instead of the teacher providing a lesson on what clouds are, what they are made of and what purpose the offer, the teacher instead decided to have the children draw pictures of the clouds. While the children were sitting around the table drawing clouds, the teacher facilitated a cloud related discussion, which allowed the children to discover what a cloud meant to them. The teacher asked questions such as “What does a cloud look like?” This discussion leads into other types of weather phenomenon, and eventually ended up in the children discussing what tornados are and how they are formed.

Tests and other types of regurgitated assessments are not the top pick of a Reggio based school. Instead of intense discussions or worksheet type quizzes, the assessment strategy implemented by Reggio Schools consists of a wide variety of child documentation. Comparing a child’s self portrait of themselves from the first month of an academic year, to the last month of the academic year can provide a teacher with an opportunity to identify progression in self-identification and fine motor skills. Each child’s folder consists of a collection of art samples and other works throughout a specific timeframe. This type of assessment provides a ways to analyze a child’s progress without letting them know that they are being assessed. There are no uncomfortable question/answer sessions (either orally or written). It allows for an observation-type analysis to be conducted.

Documentation not only serves the teacher in a way to keep track of all areas of a child’s development, but also allows the child to follow his/her own development. It is an easy and accessible way to show parents and other loved ones the development and progression of the child, while interpreting the areas of strength and areas of weakness.  “Reggio Emilia is the program that takes the strongest and stand against evaluation. They claim that the
documentation, for which they are so famous, is more than enough to follow the child’s learning process. By documenting the process and letting the child participate in it, they make the child’s world visible for adults to reflect on” (Samuelsson & Williams, 2006, p. 22).

As we have demonstrated, Reggio Emilia is an example of a play-based curriculum. Now we would like to explore another approach, at the other end of the spectrum. The “banking method” of education is a philosophy in which teachers are believed to be the experts in all subjects and the students are simply present to take in the information. Students are seen as vessels to be filled by their teachers. The interests of the students or questions that they might have are not important. There is a banker and a customer relationship between teachers and students. A student is believed to come into the classroom as a clean slate, one that can be molded and fed information that can be stored away. This method of teachings has its roots in perennialism. Perennialism states that “the teacher is viewed as an authority in the field whose knowledge and expertise are unquestionable” and that “students interests are irrelevant for curriculum development because students are immature and lack the judgment to determine what are the best knowledge and values to learn” (Ornstein and Hunkins, 1988, p. 33). We can see that the banking method perpetuates this idea that teachers are all-knowing and their opinions and knowledge are the only ones that matter. Curriculum is constructed based on what teachers see as important and valuable.

Paulo Freire discusses the banking approach in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1971). Freire states that the banking approach to education consists of the following attributes:

  • (a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
  • (b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
  • (c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
  • Play-based curriculum 9
  • (d) the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;
  • (e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
  • (f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
  • (g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
  • (h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
  • (i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
  • (j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects    (Freire, 1971, pg. 59)

The banking method is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the ideas and practices that we have seen in Reggio Emilia. This approach certainly does not incorporate play into the curriculum as it would be seen as frivolous and useless in the accrual of what is determined to be essential knowledge.

The banking method can be compared to the public school system in the United States today. In the system in which we currently operate, high-stakes testing and scripted curriculum are the norm. Teachers are forced to teach to the test which in short, means that there are very few opportunities to incorporate play into the curriculum. Students are required to simply take in and memorize the knowledge they are given in hopes of performing well on the tests. R. Murray Thomas discusses in his book, High Stakes Testing: Coping with Collateral Damage (2005), the effects of these tests on parents, teachers, and students, among others. Thomas says that parents can become extremely distressed with their students’ low test scores, teachers can be blamed for low test scores, and students themselves take on the heavy burden of trying to perform well (Thomas, 2005). This current method of teaching students is doing everyone involved a huge disservice. In fact, we are certainly perpetuating the banking method by continuing to teach to the test and teach children as though they all learn in the same ways.

Many early childhood educators today will agree that play is the vessel by which curriculum should be developed. Play offers a wide variety of purposes for students. These purposes can include: enjoyment, building of social skills and roles, exploration, making sense of themselves and the world, adaptation, learning, creativity, experimentation, expression, survival, exercise power, dealing with emotions, release of stress, testing of limits, risk-taking, development of the “whole” child, as well as bonding and making friends (Class notes, personal communication, September 10, 2007).

The Bay Area Early Childhood Funders give five competencies that children develop as a result of play: the development of representational competence, the development of oral language and narrative understanding, the development of positive approaches to learning, the development of logic, and the development of self-regulation and social negotiation (Tepperman, 2007). Children can learn an immeasurable amount through play, helping them to develop skills and knowledge essential to their growth and development. For example, if a child sets up a kitchen in the dramatic play area and decides to cook or bake something, they are showing their skills in areas such as measurement, social roles, nutrition, and much more. This process shows us that play is not simply acted out for play’s sake; children are learning, growing, and experiencing the world through play. As we have shown, there are many advantages to adopting a play-based curriculum.

There are many articles that describe the negative aspects of curriculum other than a play-based curriculum. The play-based curriculum has an abundance of positive aspects that other curricula (teacher-led) do not offer.

Although teacher directed play does promote a large ability to sit and listen in a circle for large amounts of time, and also teaches children how to follow directions in a group, the ability to do things on their own does not exist. “The later finding suggested that high levels of adult direction produce conformity when adults are present but do not facilitate independent task-oriented behavior” (Hutston-Stein, Friedrich-Coger, & Susman, 1977, p. 908). What is this child going to do when a teacher or another adult isn’t around to tell them what to do or how to engage in conflict resolution with another child? These are very important aspects a child needs to develop in order to function in society.

The importance of a child to desire and be intrigued with learning will promote a child to continue to go to school and collaborate amongst others when they get older. The love of learning is something that should be instilled in a child at a young age, in order for them to understand that they learn everyday, even when the do not know it! Does a teacher-directed curriculum supply the tools needed for children to appreciate the process of learning on their own? They emphasize that freedom to learn at their own pace and lack of pressure should characterize the learning environment of young children. According to Moyles, Bruce, & Siraj-Blatchford, “play and practical activity are a source of motivation for young children, providing a context for exploration and experimentation which, in their opinion, enhances rather than inhibits learning” (Walsh, Sproule, McBuinness, Trewb, Rafferty, & Sheehy, 2006, p, 202).

Being tested and evaluated at such an early age, negatively affects a child’s ability to feel comfortable in any one situation. This academic environment where children are pressured to learn, not only have to do things the teachers way, but if done “wrong” they are asked to do it over again. The world is different to each child, for what they see has to do with what their background is. Although children can be trained to come up with right answers, is this really teaching and spawning the great gift of creativity? “One study by Hyson, Hirsch-Pasek, and Rescorla (1991) concluded that children, after attending an academic preschool selected by their parents in hopes of accelerating their children's academic achievement, were less creative, showed more test anxiety, and had less positive attitudes toward school. Elkind (1987) …” (Ceglowski, 1997, p.108).

KidsplayingIn conclusion, as seen throughout this paper, Reggio Emilia clearly demonstrates a play- based curriculum. There are many other approaches that are used today, where play is still not valued as much as it should. With the rise in the popularity of Reggio, it is hoped that eventually every educator will see the importance of play in their practice. Play supports the academic and social aspects of learning through a child’s perspective and can raise the level of organization within the classroom.  Let play reign!

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