Wednesday / July 24

Making Learning Visible in Early Childhood Through Play

Early childhood is a developmental stage highly sensitive to growth across multiple domains in ways that are interwoven and concurrent. Our instructional decisions can maximize this development by using research to identify what works best in teaching, learning, and development. We take our teaching and children’s learning and development seriously and we hold ourselves highly accountable for space, time, and interactions with our youngest learners, and thus strive for a year’s worth of development and learning for each of our learners.

There are three overarching ideas that support our work in the early childhood environment:

  1. There are things that we do in our early childhood centers or classrooms that do not move learning and development forward.
  2. There are also things that we do that have a fairly insignificant impact on learning and development.
  3. Finally, there are things that we do that have a very large positive impact on learning and development.

Knowing what works best allows us to be purposeful and deliberate in how we create learning environments that are rich with interactions that intentionally grow Visible Learners. Visible Learners share six characteristics that reflect many of the hallmarks of early childhood education, where teaching and learning is child-centered and where children drive instruction, eventually taking ownership over their own learning. Visible Early Childhood Learners

  • know their current level of understanding; they can communicate what they do and do not yet know
  • know where they are going next in their learning and are ready to take on the challenge
  • select tools to move their learning and development forward
  • seek feedback about their learning and recognize errors as opportunities to learn
  • monitor their learning and make adjustments when necessary
  • recognize when they have learned something and serve as a teacher to others (Frey et al., 2018).

John Hattie’s research, the research that spawned the concept of Visible Learning (see Hattie, 2008), empowers us to intentionally, purposefully, and deliberately develop each of these characteristics in our young learners—all of our young learners! We strive to offer all learners the equity of access and opportunity to achieve at the highest levels of learning possible.

Let’s look at a specific example.

Visible Learning Through Play

When seeking to understand and know what works best when, what really matters in

early childhood, and what is worth our time and energy as early educators, one thing we all do is play.  Play is used to develop language, social skills, and movement, among other skills.

Learning through play experiences requires more than simply time and space to play. In fact, when researchers examined the relationship between pretend play and learning, they could not find evidence that merely engaging in pretend play causes any significant development (Lillard et al., 2013). However, while the researchers found that the critical link did not exist between play and learning, it did exist between adult–child interactions and learning. Learning can happen in pretend play because it is often rich with positive adult–child interactions and language—it is a context for positive engagement and talk. It is the language-based interactions that cause learning.

So, what really matters in play? What should we spend our time and energy planning, implementing, and building our expertise about? Early childhood programs should strive to create intentional, rich, positive, language-based interactions. It is our language within our interactions that matters most.

Through our interactions, we create inclusive and equitable learning spaces for every child, including our play spaces. Our interactions in play have the potential to accelerate learning. And so, we must reframe what we emphasize about play.

At the intersection of play and our intentional interactions with children is playful learning. Playful learning includes all forms of play and encompasses all the learning experiences of early childhood. In playful learning, the adult is intentionally interacting with the child while maintaining a sense of playfulness. Playful learning has been described as mindset where learning is approached as empowering, meaningful, and joyful (Mardell et al., 2021). This means that even deliberately and explicitly teaching a concept or skill should harness the playful curiosity of our youngest learners. In playful learning, we intentionally cultivate multiple strategies, perspectives, and surprises through reasoning, creativity, and problem-solving. We enter playful learning with the expectation that children will bring their funds of knowledge, wonder, and unique ideas. Playful learning can be both child and adult initiated and can include pretend play, inquiry and exploration, and direct instruction.

In each of these settings, language makes learning explicit; by naming objects, processes, and ideas, we make them retrievable and transferable to new contexts. Our intentional interactions as conversational partners and language facilitators transform nonverbal learning into verbal inquiry, placing new information in memorable chunks that can be accessed and applied.

To create opportunities for every learner to meaningfully and joyfully learn through play, we must engage in playful learning by design, rather than merely creating opportunities for open play or free play (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009; Lillard et al., 2013; Skene et al., 2022).

Knowing Our Impact in Early Childhood

Knowing our impact is an issue of equity. We have an important responsibility as early educators to not only implement playful learning, but also generate and gather evidence that our young learners are growing and developing as a result of that playful learning. When we see formative evaluation as feedback from learners, when we ask the critical questions, “Who benefited and who did not benefit?” and when this feedback drives our decisions for planning and implementation, then we promote equity of access and opportunity in our early childhood educational settings.


Frey, N., Hattie, J., & Fisher, D. (2018). Developing assessment-capable visible learners, Grades K–12: Maximizing skill, will, and thrill. Corwin.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.

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.

Mardell, B., Ertel, K. E., Solis, S. L., LeVangie, S., Fan, S., Maurer, G., & Scarpate. M. (2021). More than one way:

An approach to teaching that supports playful learning (A Pedagogy of Play working paper).

Skene, K., O’Farrelly, C. M., Byrne, E. M., Kirby, N., Stevens, E. C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2022, January 12). Can guidance during play enhance children’s learning and development in educational contexts? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Development, 00, 1–19.

Written by

Kateri Thunder, Ph.D. researches, writes, and presents on equity and access in early childhood and mathematics education and the intersection of literacy and mathematics for teaching and learning. Kateri is chair of NCTM’s Research Committee, co-creator of The Math Diet, and a best-selling author for Corwin’s Teaching Mathematics in the Visible Learning Classroom Series, the Success Criteria Playbook, and Visible Learning in Early Childhood.

Dr. John Almarode is a bestselling author and has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world on the translation and application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments, and what works best in teaching and learning. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and eleven books including How Tutoring WorksVisible Learning in Early Childhood, and How Learning Works, all with Corwin Press.

Alisha Demchak, M.Ed., is an early childhood educator and researcher who has taught in early childhood classrooms and mixed-age settings, served as a reading specialist and interventionist, and coached early childhood educators, administrators, and literacy coordinators. Currently, she is researching evidenced-based instructional practices in early childhood reading and working to ensure those practices make it into classrooms by working with preservice and inservice teachers to build their skill set and confidence in reading instruction.

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books. 

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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