Connecting Intentional Play to Science, Math, and Literacy Learning

  • November 5, 2015

An increased emphasis on standards and outcomes in early childhood education is encouraging educators of young children to pay closer attention to teaching and learning about academic subjects such as math and literacy. However, early childhood educators struggle to ensure balance. What is appropriate for young children? How can content be taught in a manner aligned with what teachers know about early development and the importance of play in the learning process?

We know that, for example, construction experiences with blocks and other manipulatives provide an experiential base for children to build scientific understanding. But young children are capable of much more than experiencing the forces of gravity and laws of physics while building; they also can form theories about how and why their buildings stay up or fall down. Why does foam work as a foundation for Juan’s building but not Janet’s? What will happen if the green block is removed from George and Janelle’s bridge? What is the best kind of material for a roof, and why?

As a play workshop participant, a kindergarten teacher, explains:

Sure, I asked, “Tell me about your castle. Who lives there?” . . . but I never went further. Now I always ask, “How come that is standing, and this one keeps falling over?” Or I ask, “How come your structure fell down when you put that block on top? What do you think would happen if . . . ? ” It’s not like you need special materials, rather it’s a way of asking questions and observing kids and really furthering their thinking.

Math and literacy can also be integrated into play experiences, especially in extended explorations and projects. Recording data and using math processes to describe and document observations is key to the inquiry process. For example, children can measure and compare their constructions. Opportunities to build language and literacy skills are woven throughout projects and have powerful connections to conceptual learning. Children can talk and share their ideas, write or dictate labels to describe or comment on project work, and read and learn about related content.

It is important to remember that the teacher’s role involves more than asking questions. The teacher-leader selects the materials and stages the creative environment. This staging may include exploring materials alongside the children, without interfering with their exploration. In this way the teacher can inspire a reluctant child to discover information through playful, hands-on investigation.


The format of a self-active play workshop for adults mirrors the way children learn about the world—that is, by constructing knowledge from experience. The physical models or structures are catalysts; they organize and focus the mind on concrete elements. Connecting visual forms of play with reflective dialogue brings richness and clarity.

Adult play workshops are invaluable professional development opportunities. They provide opportunities to 

  • Explore the teacher’s role in the learning process. Participants practice new ways of implementing a learner-centered approach to teaching and strategies for expanding on the interests and ideas that emerge from children’s constructive, exploratory, and dramatic play.
  • Gain insight into the role reflection plays in children’s learning. Participants engage in guided discussion, share experiences with colleagues, and relate these experiences to teaching and learning. Through reflection, teachers gain a deeper understanding of the role these processes can play in children’s development and learning.
  • Develop a reflective teaching practice. Coaching and questioning stimulate reflective thinking and deepen analytical skills, preparing teachers for using this kind of reflection as a consistent part of their assessment and planning processes.
  • Construct, implement, and evaluate new approaches to teaching. Participants play and work together in collaborative teams, developing new collegial relationships, powerful new teaching strategies, and insight into the role of documentation in assessment and planning.

When offered a carefully structured setting, open-ended materials, and a sensitive play coach, teachers can refocus and rethink the role of play in children’s development. Experiencing the play process often fosters insight and changes how participants approach the education of young children.

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