Friday / June 14

Playful Learning in Early Childhood

Children playing. That’s often what we think of and hear about when we talk about early childhood education. But when researchers Lillard et al. (2013) examined the relationship between pretend play and learning, they could not find evidence that pretend play caused any significant development in children. Instead, the researchers found a critical link between adult-child interactions and learning. It turns out that play is a rich context for talk. Learning happens when adults talk with children during play. This verbal inquiry places new information in memorable chunks that children can access and apply in new contexts. Talk is the linchpin.

This is a pivotal shift. Rather than always protecting and encouraging play at the center of early childhood learning, we must protect and encourage talk. Play must become intentional ‘playful learning’ (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009; Lillard et al., 2013). Whether playful learning is child- or adult-initiated, pretend, inquiry, exploration, or deliberate instruction, what really matters is the language-based interactions with peers and adults.

Focusing on language-based interactions shows us what to spend our time planning and evaluating, as well as how to spend our time during teaching and learning. Our time is best spent planning for intentional, explicit language interactions. We will have the greatest impact on our youngest learners when we intentionally talk with them.

How do I plan for language-based interactions during playful learning?

1. Plan and communicate the what, why, and how of learning.

Communicate clarity so that both educators and learners can answer the questions: What am I learning? Why? How will I know I’ve learned it?

Ms. Bullock teaches 3-year-olds in a neighborhood daycare center. She plans for clarity by first  selecting both content and socioemotional development learning standards (Illinois State Board of Education, 2013) that focus on language:

  • Social Studies Learning Standard 15.A.ECab: Describe some common jobs and what is needed to perform those jobs. Discuss why people work.
  • Social/Emotional Development Learning Standard 31.B.ECab: Interact verbally and nonverbally with other children. Engage in cooperative group play.

Then Ms. Bullock uses the standards to create learning intentions and success criteria that focus on actively using language to make decisions within playful learning (See Figure 1).

Next, Ms. Bullock communicates the learning intentions and success criteria to her learners by having them act out a scenario: A hairstylist, a receptionist and a customer are at a hair salon when a mailperson stops by. At specific moments, she narrates, pauses the action to engage the class in discussion, and asks the audience for suggestions. This makes the ideas concrete and the language explicit and provides her learners with a vision of success.

(Check out this other Corwin Connect blog to learn more about communicating clarity in the early childhood classroom.)

2. Select and implement engaging and rigorous tasks.

Quality tasks align with the what, why, and how of learning. These tasks form the context of playful learning. They inspire language and create opportunities to model, scaffold, and engage in elaborate word exposures across contexts and time. Engaging and rigorous tasks should promote all children’s positive identity, grow their agency, position all learners as competent, and share authority with learners (Berry & Thunder, 2012).

Ms. Bullock situates the language of community jobs within her learners’ prior knowledge and deliberately connects school, home, and community. She asks families to visit the class or record themselves discussing their jobs. The class goes on field trips and reads books. Each of these shared experiences creates space for rich talk in children’s home languages and gives Ms. Bullock the opportunity to capitalize on learners’ questions and interests.

When the class builds a mini-community where each center is a business, her learners are  ready to transfer what they know about jobs to create extended play scenarios. When Ms. Bullock interacts as a conversational partner and language facilitator, playful learning takes place and the children deliberately practice the language of jobs.

3. Document and analyze formative evaluation.

Formative evaluations are aligned with the what, why, and how of learning. They drive class discussions, peer discourse, and teacher questioning, and make each of these opportunities for intentional language-based interactions. Formative evaluations also provide teachers with feedback about the effectiveness of their interactions and point them toward next steps to meet learners where they are and move each learner forward.

Ms. Bullock creates an observation/conference chart to document formative evaluation. She records what she sees each learner doing, what she hears them saying, and what she observes them creating. Ms. Bullock plans questions to ask during her interactions. She also plans to take photos that exemplify the success criteria and will inspire class discussion (See Figure 2). This is not free play; Ms. Bullock and her paraprofessional are active participants in playful learning. They take on the roles of conversational partners and language facilitators, constantly and intentionally interacting with learners throughout playful learning.

Figure 1. Ms. Bullocks Observation/Conference Chart

Figure 2: Mario is a firefighter who needs help from a medic to check the health of a family after a fire.

4. Intentionally provide feedback to learners through each interaction.

For our feedback to be effective, we need to be intentional in our language choices within each interaction. We must consider feedback from the perspective of the learner and note whether our feedback is heard, understood, and acted upon.

During playful learning, Ms. Bullock and her stuffed animal visit Alex at the veterinarian’s office for a check-up. She becomes Alex’s conversational partner and language facilitator, intentionally using language informed by the learning intentions and success criteria. After Alex checks the dog’s heart with a stethoscope, Ms. Bullock prompts, “What other tools do you use?”

“I can put him on here. It tells if he’s heavy,” Alex puts the stuffed dog on a scale and watches the arrow barely move, saying “Nope. Not heavy.”

Ms. Bullock notices Alex knows how and why to use a scale and she wonders if Alex knows the words to describe this work. She asks, “How do you know he’s not heavy?”

Alex replies, “The scale didn’t move. I have one in my bathroom.” Ms. Bullock documents the language Alex uses and then reinforces and extends this language, “When the numbers on the scale don’t move, it means he’s not heavy. He’s light.”

As Ms. Bullock interacts with each learner, she uses quality, positive interactions to scaffold and elaborate, to foster conversation with peers, and to develop executive function strategies like self-reflection. Her feedback closes the gap between where her learners are and where they are going.

These four actions make Ms. Bullock’s teaching impactful. Through clarity, tasks, formative evaluation, and feedback, Ms. Bullock shifts teaching and learning from free play to playful learning. Her language-based interactions are intentional and guided by the what, why, and how of learning. Her interactions with every learner are rich with language.

Interested in learning more about playful learning? Check out Visible Learning in Early Childhood Education.


Berry, R. Q., III, & Thunder, K. (2012). The promise of qualitative metasyn­thesis: Mathematics experiences of Black learners. Journal of Mathematics Education at Teachers College, 3(2), 43–55.

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., Berk, L., & Singer, D. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the evi­dence. Oxford University Press.

Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1–34.

Written by

Kateri Thunder, Ph.D. served as an inclusive, early childhood educator, an Upward Bound educator, a mathematics specialist, an assistant professor of mathematics education at James Madison University, and Site Director for the Central Virginia Writing Project (a National Writing Project site at the University of Virginia). Kateri is a member of the Writing Across the Curriculum Research Team with Dr. Jane Hansen, co-author of The Promise of Qualitative Metasynthesis for Mathematics Education, and co-creator of The Math Diet. Currently, Kateri has followed her passion back to the classroom. She teaches in an at-risk PreK program, serves as the PreK-4 Math Lead for Charlottesville City Schools, and works as an educational consultant. Kateri is happiest exploring the world with her best friend and husband, Adam, and her family. Kateri can be reached at

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