‘An invitation to play’

“Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

play dancersIt’s the school holidays, our learners all over Aotearoa are out and about — exploring, adventuring, and in charge of their own learning — they have time for uninterrupted play. Meanwhile, I’m standing at my desk, working remotely, collaborating with colleagues as we plan our presentations for next week’s uLearn Conference in Rotorua. The difference is, as I work, there are five learners outside the window, stealing my attention…. At this precise moment they are collaborating on the choreography of a dance they are preparing; iPad in hand, Video Stars in action.

My school holiday memories certainly don’t include filming our dances with iPads. I do, however, remember the time I spent playing with my cousins and friends, choreographing our own plays and dance shows. That feeling of being totally in control of your own time, being spontaneous, playing without structure, and having an opportunity to be creative, remains fresh in my mind. The bonus was being able to put on a show for any adult who would sit and watch, and hearing their applause!

My 18-year-old daughter is home from University and running a mini-holiday programme for her cousins and our friends’ children. Each of them has arrived with their ‘paraphernalia’ ready for a day of engaging with their friends. There is a collection of coloured wigs, dress-ups, nail polish, art materials, iPads, New World little gardens, and playdough — endless opportunities, and the most important commodity — time.

I have the privilege of ‘no responsibility’ for these learners; I simply continue working but have time to watch and listen. I see them all taking on different roles throughout the day, sometimes as a leader full of ideas, other times, simply participating. I see them problem-solving as individuals and as a group. I watch them working out conflict when it arises and stepping up as ‘older’ kids to look after the younger children. I see and hear them encouraging each other and giving each other good feedback and ideas for improvements, whether it be in their dance routine or planting their New World gardens.


The environment available also plays a part in their decision making for play. An overflowing lemon tree sparks the curiosity of one learner and she wonders if they can make their own lemonade — lemons are picked, a joint squeezing session begins, and thirsts are quenched. The enterprising learner thinks out loud about setting up a stall. Sadly, there is very little through traffic on our street, but ideas flow as they think about bagging up lemons and selling them at the bottom of the hill (much more traffic down there!). The rocks and shells in our garden are turned into houses, and the visit of fairies to inhabit them is eagerly awaited. The huge grass area lends itself to games of soccer and rugby — this provokes a very deep conversation between a 5-year-old boy who is sports mad and a 7-year-old boy who wouldn’t dream of engaging in sport. A surprised 5-year-old declares that ‘Everybody loves sports’ and listens intently as the 7-year-old explains, ‘Everybody likes different things; we are all different, and I don’t like playing sports.’ Who needs an adult to intervene?

In my teacher mode, and because I am planning an animation workshop for uLearn, I ‘butt in’ to their play to see if anyone is interested in learning about animation and creating one for me — sadly, they are all too busy at the moment but promise they will get back to me tomorrow! Reminding me of my beliefs — In my heart, I am a Kindergarten teacher, my pedagogy is to provide an incredible learning environment that provokes curiosity, creativity, and collaboration for all learners. The environment needs to be full of opportunities for unstructured, spontaneous play, and time to learn through exploration and experimentation. The teacher’s role is to recognise and respond to individual learners’ interests. By observing and listening to our learners, we begin to form ideas of how we can set up the environment, and what resources we can provide to deepen their curiosity and support their understanding.

The kids at my house go home at the end of the day full of stories for their parents, recorded dances on their iPads to share, coloured fingernails, crazy hairstyles, and huge smiles.

We are incredibly lucky with our NZ curriculum vision. Two points from this vision clearly describe this small group of learners I observed in my own backyard. What we want for our young people is for them:

  • to be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners
  • to be creative, energetic, and enterprising.

So, as we delve into Term 4, take time to think about these questions:

  • What does play look like in your learning environment?
  • Are you providing time for uninterrupted play?
  • Are you taking the time to observe and listen to learners?
  • Is there dedicated time in the everydayness of learning for being creative?
  • Is there the opportunity for learners to follow their individual interests?
  • Do you feel comfortable enough to step back and allow things to flow?
  • Have you taken time to explore Te Whāriki, our New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum.


“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.”
-Charles Schaefer


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Tania Coutts

Tania Coutts is a Learning with Digital Technologies Facilitator/Professional Learning Services Facilitator. She delivers professional development to teachers in early childhood services and schools throughout Northland and Northern Auckland. Tania is well known nationally for her practice in integrating ICT for teaching and learning and for engaging whanau and the wider community. Tania is a Google Certified Teacher.
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Anne Kenneally is an experienced professional learning facilitator. Anne facilitates the effective use of digital technologies to engage and empower all learners. She has been a part of the Learning with Digital Technologies team. She is also a mentor within the UChoose mentoring programme and Virtual Professional Learning and Development (VPLD) programmes. Anne has worked with schools and leadership teams across New Zealand supporting the development of effective use of technology, Google how-tos, and teaching as inquiry, through to strategic planning and school transformation initiatives. Anne has a strong focus on teaching as inquiry, supporting leaders and educators to maximise their potential. She is also passionate about removing ‘barriers to learning’ for students, particularly in literacy.

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