The use of play as a teaching and learning tool in the primary classroom is growing momentum in New Zealand. Teachers of children in years 1–3 are now recognising the need to respond to their students in a more developmentally appropriate manner at a time when more and more children are struggling to fit the mould that once was the traditional classroom.

Yet many of these teachers report a key barrier to effectively implementing a learning-through-play approach in their classroom to be that of their school management team and colleagues. Principals and senior managers question teachers on their ability to meet targets for identified at-risk learners, to report against the National Standards, to forward plan appropriately, and to respond to parents who air their concerns when faced with a child exclaiming that they went to school and ‘played all day’.

The use of play as a pedagogical tool is misunderstood by those unfamiliar with the research base supporting its use in schools. For many managers, the first thought that comes to mind when a teacher announces the return to play in the classroom may be in fact some wild re-enactment of a Home Alone scene, while the classroom teacher sits in their office quietly checking their Facebook account. This could not be further from the truth.

The art of teaching through play requires skill and professional expertise often underutilised in our classroom teachers. Teaching and learning through play looks very different from the ‘free play’ images often flashing before the eyes of principals and parents alike. Teachers working within these environments must skilfully walk a fine line between teacher-directed activities and child-directed learning (Robinson & Aronica, 2015).

The strategic use of direct teaching is one key feature of a play-based learning environment and yet it is often abandoned first as teachers new to the pedagogy explore the concepts around child-directed play. Typically, teachers tend to swing to the opposite end of the pendulum, abandoning all routines and rules, and direct teaching. This ‘unassisted’ play amounts to the types of ‘free play’ many think of when the use of play in schools is described to them. Children engaged in play in this format do not typically make significant progress in their learning, as their exposure to new knowledge and skills is only limited to opportunities presented to them in their play by their peers, who often do not have a different knowledge set of their own (Alfieri, Brooks, Aldrich, & Tenenbaum, 2011).

Yet, key to successful learning-through-play pedagogy is the balance a teacher provides between child-led play and the deliberate acts of teaching during the school day – knowing when to gift knowledge to students at the point of meaningful absorption and understanding and when to stay silent for fear of interrupting the magic of the play (Hirsh-Pasek & Galinkoff, 2011). The ‘spray-and-walk-away’ technique requires a high level of skill by teachers not easily understood by school management.

A second misunderstood strategy used within play-based settings is the art of provocation. Many teachers, when coming to terms with play being student-directed and student-chosen will then step back from any teacher-initiated activities whatsoever. The use of provocation allows a new set of eyes on an event, resource or phenomenon. It is also a useful tool to encourage children to explore areas of the curriculum they would not otherwise do so within their play (Johnson, 2015).

Teachers in a play-based learning environment must continually observe and reflect on the play before them, knowing when to introduce provocations that may serve to lift the cognitive and social skills being explored within the play itself while ensuring that they do not take over or commandeer the direction of the play at all. This collaborative learning relationship is far removed from the ‘free-play’ approaches and demands a knowledge of The New Zealand Curriculum and/or Te Whāriki that many classroom teachers do not have in the current teaching climate.

Traditionally classroom teachers establish clear achievement objectives and learning intentions focused around targeted areas of the curriculum. They assess pre-knowledge, teach to these intentions and then reassess post-unit. This allows teachers to teach ‘to’ the curriculum, managing the content and knowledge shared during the unit of work. Teaching through play requires teachers to draw on their observational skills and curriculum knowledge in order to identify the learning occurring within the children’s play. Children, through their play, will naturally inquire about the world around them (Gray, 2013).

The New Zealand Curriculum provides a freedom for teachers to be able to connect the learning occurring in front of them with not only the learning areas but the key competencies, values and principles of this document. The challenge for teachers new to the use of play is to know what learning they are looking at within the play; to be able to correctly document this, analyse their observations against the curriculum document, and articulate the learning clearly and concisely to both parents and management alike.

This approach to the planning and assessment of play against the wider school curriculum is unfamiliar to many involved in the primary school sector and becomes a significant barrier between teachers wishing to implement the pedagogy and senior managers meeting their responsibilities of targets and documentation.

The process of embedding effective learning-through-play pedagogy within a primary school environment is challenging for both the classroom teacher and their senior managers. The significant knowledge and skill required by this approach takes time to grow. New Zealand teachers wishing to journey into play need the support from their managers to build their professional knowledge and capabilities as part of a structured approach to their new learning. This approach is far from simple to implement, and requires support through time, access to professional learning opportunities and networking with others on a similar path for these skills to grow.

However, it is not only the classroom teacher embarking on this learning journey into play. Senior managers, once classroom teachers themselves, also have challenges to overcome in their own knowledge base in order to be able to confidently support their teachers’ classroom programmes. They require the same amount of time to research, comprehend and understand the practical application of the approach. Furthermore, often being the ‘face’ of the school community, they must feel confident in being able to field any questions or concerns by their parent community.

Senior managers must be able to distinguish successful learning-through-play classroom programmes from those of lesser quality, and to do this, they must first have a grasp on the principles and practices of the pedagogy. In their role as appraiser, they must be able to ensure the systems for documenting and reporting on learning in their schools not only meet the mandated requirements, but are also true to the evidence base that supports appropriate assessment of learning through play.

Within a school environment determined to embed play as a tool for curriculum delivery, it must be acknowledged that there is significant learning required of all parties involved. Teachers at the chalkface need to develop a high level of both knowledge and skill to successfully implement teaching and learning through play reflecting the evidence base underlying its use.

Managers need to be able to confidently identify the successful implementation of play in classrooms, identifying which is ‘good’ practice and which is not. They also need to be able to juggle the principles of play against the current climate of reporting and assessment requirements.

For this to result in a school climate achieving the desired outcomes of a learning-through-play approach, all players in the process must journey together. They must work as a team to embed the new knowledge gained in their professional learning and continue to communicate, without prejudice, about the rocky journey ahead. It is only then that play will become far less misunderstood.


Alfieri, L., Brooks, P.J., Aldrich, N.J., & Tenenbaum, H.R. (2011).  Supplemental material for Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning?  Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(1), 1-18

Gray, P. (2013).  Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life.  New York, NY: Basic Books.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R.M. (2011).  The great balancing act: Optimising core curricula through playful learning.  In E. Zigler, W.S. Gilliam, & W.S. Barnett (Eds.), The pre-K debate: Current controversies and issues (pp. 110-115).  Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Johnson, P. (2015). Grounds for Learning: Schoolyard Activities as Provocations, Scaffolds and

Mediators for Childhood Learning.  Australian Journal of Environmental Education, vol. 33(1), 57–59, 2017 57.

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015).  Creative schools.  New York, NY: Viking.



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