We have all I am sure been part of conversations (which ultimately turn into heated debates) about what ‘quality’ means in early childhood education and care, or whether or not things like worksheets, templates, stamps and colouring in books are appropriate for children in their early years or not.


I too have had my vulnerabilities exposed and sensitivities severely trampled on through those ‘conversations’ and even though it hasn’t in the moment provided much sense to me, or had me feeling good about my practices or deeply held beliefs – they have ultimately helped shift my practice and my responses to children (both my own and those I have had the privilege of forming relationships with in my role as a teacher/learner).


What’s wrong with templates?! I used to ask while trying to defend my position against those ‘free-play advocates’ and child-centred, child-led proponents.  It’s what they do in school, that’s what we’re here for isn’t it, to prepare them for school?!  Another line I used to try to argue the validity of my point of view.  Understandably then, the learning environments I helped create (or rather dominated due to my perception or as it turned out mis-perception of how children ‘best learn’) consisted of trays or baskets of ink stamps, stickers, worksheets, templates, stencils, or those plastic crayon rubbing sheets.  I had it all and I defended their use under the pretense that it created better learners, more apt at coping with the academic rigors of primary school.

Learning that different play prompts or materials have different values

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The problem was that I was viewing all play materials, prompts, tools and experiences as the same thing, each holding the same value.  I was equating the pre-determined to the undetermined.  I was in essence – falling into the ‘outcomes’ trap.  That is, that I was set on the outcomes that each experience provided, and I generally used an outcomes focused curriculum to validate my view.  I was also under the influence of push down knowledge learning where all learning hinged on children being ready for that next stage of development or in the case of ‘preschoolers’, ready for graduating preschool and moving onto primary school.


I was wrong….


Whatever the counter argument was, it planted a seed.  The idea of play-based, child-led, child-centred learning was great in theory, but not really practical when you have 50 or so children in the same play space, and you are constantly under pressure to plan for all of them……is it?!  It really is, but that’s a separate blog.


Through reading, discussing and reflecting I started to see play on a scale of value.  The scale wasn’t a high tech, complex or multi-question survey.  All it was was me asking myself ‘which has more value.’  The scale consisted of three parts – Least value, less value, most value.


Now, obviously value is a bit of a contentious term because it is largely relative and the value depends on who is looking at, reflecting on or in the case of a child – who is engaging in the play experience.  However, I think we can come to a few assumptions when it comes to the value of different play experiences.


The assumptions….


  • Play is best when it occurs ‘naturally.’  That being when the child or children if it is a collaborative effort initiate, engage with and ‘play out’ the experience with their peers or the environment.
  • Play becomes less effective as a means for ‘learning’ when it is led by an adult or teacher and when it is instruction based, negating the opportunity for children to think critically, problem-solve and to think laterally (that is outside the box) to find solutions – either individually or as part of their group.
  • Play is generally relational, requiring children (and adults) to guide, communicate or support one another through the experience.  Play usually demonstrates some kind of inter-dependence, particularly if it involves older and younger children.
  • Play is generally spontaneous.  There is some level of planning that goes into it of course, but when individual or groups of children decide to play, it is usually a spontaneous conversation or decision that sets the play wheels in motion.
  • Play is process-driven.  Its outcomes are undetermined until it is determined through the act of playing and by those involved in the play.


So, with those assumptions in mind, let’s compare a couple of examples to use with the scale of value – while keeping in mind that I think ALL play has some kind of value.


The Worksheet

A worksheet usually consists of a template of letters and numbers and requires children to copy those letters underneath, usually within straight or dotted lines.  It is usually an individual activity and often requires quite a bit of guidance or instruction by an adult.


Has it been initiated naturally? Not really, it may have been sparked by a perceived interest in literacy and numeracy and is usually targeted at ‘developing’ hand-eye co-ordination or the ever popular pincer finger grip.

Is it led by the teacher or the child? Mostly the teacher, though the child may have asked for it – only if it already existed as part of the ‘learning environment’ though.

Does it promote relationships between children, or children and the environment?  Not at all.  In fact, this kind of activity is focused on the individual and developing their academic or cognitive ‘competencies.’

Has it occurred spontaneously and?  It may have, again it would depend on whether or not the materials or worksheets already existed as part of the learning environment or whether they were planned for by the teacher/adult.  From my experience, they are usually used as part of some kind of planned activity or as part of a ‘readiness for school’ programme.

Is it process-driven?  Most definitely not.  The pre-determined outcomes are obvious – academics, hand-eye co-ordination, proper pencil grip.  Even though the replicating of letters and numbers has a process, it is focused completely on the outcome of the activity.


So what kind of value does it have considering the assumptions above and the idea of creating a child-led, child-centred play-based environment?

Least Value….


Loose Parts – Ice block Sticks

Ice block sticks are as they appear to be.  Usually in the wood colour, they can sometimes come as different colours as well.


Has it been initiated naturally? More often than not it would be, if the ice block sticks are placed somewhere in the learning environment and within reach of children.  The instances when it is not, is when they are kept in a storage area and brought out occasionally (which is not recommended!)

Is it led by the teacher or the child?  Again, this is dependent on the teacher (though we are assuming for this that the teacher is following a child-led approach).  If the ice blocks sticks were part of the environment within reach as a loose part, then absolutely it would be led by the child.

Does it promote relationships between children, as well as children and the environment? It could promote both independence and collaboration between children.  It prompts children to think laterally, past the individual ice block sticks to what they could create with them, and that usually involves a certain level of consultation and collaboration.  The great thing about ice block sticks as well is that they are usually accompanied by other loose parts, giving the opportunity for children to add to their play and to utilize other parts of their physical environment to ‘deepen’ their own learning.

Does it occur spontaneously? If the adults or teachers in the area follow a child-led approach then absolutely.  The ice blocks spark a thought, either a new thought or children re-visiting previous experience which draws with them to either re-imagine or imagine and create something completely new and different (either together or by themselves).

Is it process-driven?  Certainly is!  In fact, ice block sticks and their uses are generally limitless.  There is nothing pre-determined about ice block sticks other than they begin and at at certain points….although, if you have some sticky tape, they could potentially last forever!  With ice block sticks, it’s all about the process – children could have something in mind to create with them or nothing at all and the level of fun and enjoyment would be exactly the same.


So….how about that scale of value then.  Well you might have guess it, ice block sticks receive the most value.


Just how useful is the scale of value for play?

It’s as useful as you make it.  By viewing play experiences as providing the least value or most value, there is still some value involved.  My question would be when thinking critically and being reflective about which experiences provide the least or most value is – why would you opt for materials, resources, tools or prompts that have less play value when those that provide the most play value are usually inexpensive….or free?


So go on, the next time you are in two minds about a play experience (I’d pick the ‘home play’ area!) try out the scale by answering those assumptions above and see what you come up with.

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Posted by Garrett Kett


  1. Thank you for sharing. I am really pleased to read that you are rethinking play. Ice block sticks are great. Children can build with them, or they can become props in play, and they may even use them to express ideas. They they are so versatile and are a great way to develop imagination and confidence because there is no right way to play with them. Lisa 🙂



  2. […] We have all I am sure been part of conversations (which ultimately turn into heated debates) about what ‘quality’ means in early childhood education and care, or whether or not things like worksheets, templates, stamps and colouring in books are appropriate for children in their early years or not.  Full blog […]



  3. Great article, Garrett.

    I’ve had the exact same experience as an educator, but starting from the opposite direction. I’ve had to incorporate more top-down elements in our classroom, mostly because our parents like to see an effective mixture of student-led exploration and slightly more “heavy handed” school readiness activities.

    All in all, I think context is king. I haven’t been teaching for that long, but I do think that every child learns differently, and despite what some teachers may argue, there are certain students that learn very well with resources like worksheets. Open-ended learning is powerful, but it doesn’t come as easily to some students as it does to others, and one of the great difficulties of working in a Reggio-inspired centers has been scaffolding open-ended play with those more methodically minded children.



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