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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Play-based learning misinterpreted: how a free-for-all approach failed a gifted child

I first met Theo in a centre where play-based learning had been interpreted by the staff as 'let the kids loose all day with all the toys, and hover around looking busy'.  Oh, that's NOT how the director intended it, believe me! But that's pretty much what happened on the floor- a free-for-all.  Structure was at a bare minimum, instructions and direction were endangered species, prepared intentional teaching was well nigh impossible and somewhat frowned upon- staff were directed to acknowledge at all times that 'the children were the teachers' (which is a concept that has much worth if you cut out the words in italics, which strike me as an invitation to staff laziness). 

My introduction to Theo was watching him lift up a toy broom and prepare to beat a much younger child over the head with it. When I shouted his name and told him firmly to STOP from the other end of the room, he was sufficiently surprised by my raised voice to freeze in mid-air before anyone got hurt (and I was able to sprint down the room and relieve him of his weapon). But on many later occasions I didn't catch him in time, and he managed to inflict violence on other children. Theo was an enigma to the regular staff, an inconvenience, a problem. No-one had a clue how to get through to him. No-one liked him- neither his peers nor his carers. Not even me. Yep, he fell into the category of a child for whom I could not feel the love.

Are these two paragraphs related- is this a case of cause and effect? In retrospect I think so, and this is why.

A few months later I came across Theo again at a different centre, where play-based learning had been interpreted by the director and staff as 'child-based programming and prepared intentional teaching, always flexible and reflecting the children's interests and needs, but in a climate of carefully considered structure and close respectful supervision of free play.'

Theo was a different child. Yes, he did sometimes lose his cool, and he still spent much of his free play time trying to inflict his will on others by fair means or foul. 

But he made eye contact with me. He replied when I spoke to him. He was able to sit for long periods- up to an hour- listening to stories that interested him, and requesting what story he wanted to hear next. He was able to start and complete art projects independently.  He laughed.  He sat when he was asked to sit, he listened when he was asked to listen, and every so often (when I asked the right question at the right moment) he even told me what was going on in his head.  Hey, he still had his problems- but I liked him.

This was all unheard of within the previous unstructured play-based environment.  Even though Theo had been one of my focus children, I had never, ever been able to establish eye contact or find out what he was thinking.  He had never, ever settled to a task.  He had never responded when I spoke to him, even though he was able to talk 'at' other children with quite an advanced vocabulary and I had tried many ways of addressing him.  His favoured way to pass the time was to drift around from one plaything to another, causing chaos the moment his immediate desires conflicted with those of another child (which was most of the time, as he liked to play alone and have all the related resources for himself).

At the new centre I was able to get to know Theo well enough to realise that he wasn't just a child with special needs- he also had many signs of giftedness (see the challenge of gifted preschoolers).  He was frustrated by having to share the resources with other children who didn't understand what he was trying to build, do or be (and he had a rich fantasy life going on in that head!).  He had no idea how to communicate with the other children and no interest in learning that skill, as he didn't relate to their interests and often spoke way above their heads in terms of vocabulary, so he just sought power over them and isolation from them- impossible in a centre with no 'rules of engagement' and no intentional teaching of social skills. He had an incredibly long focus time once he was truly engaged, but most of the resources in the previous centre had been too 'babyish' to engage him at all. He had an advanced sense of humour, including appreciation of puns, but much of the language used by staff in the previous centre had been directed at the lowest common denominator (similar to what I talked about in language prejudice against gifted kids)- hardly a stimulating environment!

This understanding made it so much easier to support his needs in a group situation.  And I believe that the improvement in Theo's receptiveness and personal development was due to the increased structure and predictable expectations in his day.  The world of unstructured free play had given him nowhere to belong- exactly the opposite of what the play-based curriculum intended. Worse than that, the free-for-all approach was responsible for this child's true self travelling totally under the radar.  I realised that my usually acute 'nose' for identifying the gifted child inside the troublesome child had been compromised by the constant sense of chaos at the first centre.  I was able to work out the problem and 'get through' to Theo within one week at his new centre. 

So how did the second centre's interpretation of play-based learning look? What was different?

1. Instead of ALL the toys being available ALL the time indoors, four or five open-ended activities were prepared and set up for each session within the daily routine.  Some were based closely on the children's current obsessions, and some thrown in just to see what happened (a sort of 'activity roulette' hoping to chance on something that an unfocussed child was interested in).  Outdoors the method was similar, but with more options given the larger space and ability to 'hide' activities in nooks.

Thus the children had a limited number of engaging choices presented to them at one time.  Other toys were still available on the shelves, but time was spent enthusiastically drawing the children's attention to the special activities and almost all of the children were drawn to at least one of them.

Small children can find too much choice overwhelming; we know that overwhelmed and frustrated toddlers have tantrums, but overwhelmed and frustrated preschoolers will have tantrums too- they just express them slightly differently (like by hitting a smaller child over the head just because they CAN, which is one very dysfunctional way to feel powerful when overwhelmed and frustrated!!).  Too little choice, on the other hand, tends to result in long waiting times and social conflict- as one teacher in the first centre discovered when she suddenly decided to set up a new, very engaging activity in the middle of the same old toys that had been out for months. Carnage!

2. Rules, developed by the children themselves, were in place to solve conflicts.  To develop rules, a group needs time sitting together discussing the issues.  This is not beyond preschoolers! This is not an infringement of their right to free play! When you throw twenty diverse, unrelated children into a room and let them do whatever they want with minimal supervision, expect Lord of the Flies.  You need to provide time and scaffolding to help them create realistic expectations and consequences within their mini-society.  The teachers at the second centre had no hesitation in calling a halt to activities and pulling the group together to discuss social issues if behaviour was becoming undesirable.

In addition, time was spent on the intentional teaching of social skills. Intentional teaching does NOT have to look like formal schooling. (My social skills lessons usually look like an interactive puppet show- for example anger management for young children.)

3. Language was pitched at a higher level, because the teachers knew the children well enough to know what was appropriate for them as a group and individually.  I heard more polysyllabic words in one mat time at this centre than I had in months at the first one.

Of course there were many other differences, including more competent supervision which enabled earlier intervention when conflict arose- but these three seemed to be the ones which had the most impact on Theo's behaviour and happiness.

So what can we learn from this story? 

It worries me terribly that some centres are throwing structure and age-appropriate expectations (some might call them 'social rules') out the door, equating them with a school-like system which is inappropriate to preschool-aged children and feeling that the EYLF says that intentional teaching is always counter-productive to early childhood learning.

That's not to say that centres like Theo's first one don't have a place; I could see that some children flourished in a Bohemian atmosphere, and managed to turn it into a sort of second home with a huge 'family' of peers to rollick around with- which was exactly what the director had in mind.

But not all children can cope with a huge family of peers. Know your child!  Some children need boundaries more than others, and Theo, in my opinion, was one of those.  Children with ASD typically fail to flourish in unstructured environments where there is a lack of routine and clearly defined expectation, but it seems that some gifted children can be vulnerable too.

Whether you're teaching in an Early Childhood setting or choosing a centre for your own child, it's important to understand how much impact routines and rules (and the lack of them) can impact on a specific child's wellbeing and development. Play-based learning isn't an excuse for a free-for-all!


  1. What you have written describes my own thoughts. It's good to know that others believe play based learning is an appropriate, (dare I say fantastic) option for gifted children.

  2. Fantastic indeed when implemented with common sense. When it means extra flexibility, it's perfect. When it means chaos... sigh!

  3. Yep, AA, it's true. Too often people mistake a play-based curriculum for a free-for-all. I've not ever thought about in as systematic way as you have here, but I've always limited the choices to the things I've specifically chosen for that day. Often, new parents will start emptying the "closed" cabinets for the kids and I've always had a hard time explaining to them the difference between free-play and free-for-all. This post will help me with that.

    I've recently been in a discussion with a parent whose child has been "diagnosed" as both gifted and Aspergers. He's not in my class (too old) but I know him through his younger sister and have taught him a bit during our summer program. The guy thrives when he's with me -- taking a solid, productive leadership role -- but his mom isn't sold on the idea of him being in a play-based curriculum on a full-time basis. She thinks he needs "more structure." Slowly, however, I'm persuading her that a good play-based school has plenty of structure. Again, this post will really help me.

    I'm also a big fan of the rules the kids make themselves. That's something, however, I've never had to explain to parents! They see it working and most of them start doing the same thing at home.


  4. Tom, delighted to see you here- welcome!

    And I'm also delighted if this post will help you to explain the play-based curriculum to parents. If carers are having a tough time understanding its nuances, what hope do parents have? I agree that it's a perfect climate for the gifted child with Aspergers- the first setting I mention here included just such a child, and although I was able to connect with her, it was hard to create the structure she needed (or indeed to explain to the staff that something needed to change if she was to have a chance of coping).

  5. I needed to read this post when I first started teaching.... After getting good grades at uni and acing exams I still didn't really understand how to make the connection between play-activities-and the children's needs. It took me more than a year of terrible teaching, often like you first describe here, to finally get it... and then it was like magic, and I often miss that magic!

  6. This is wonderful. Play-based and open-ended activities can still have structure. I too have struggled to explain this to students (teacher candidates) and parents. I have a child who craves routine and structure, and many people interpret this as limiting my sons development, but instead of being overwhelmed by 'everything' he is able to choose from a handful of things each day and actually achieve and complete the goals he sets for himself. My imagined endpoint is often vastly different from where he wants to go, but I now try to see it from his perspective and celebrate his success with these tasks. I am so enjoying your blog...thanks.

  7. Fiona, I did my Early Childhood training relatively recently (I was a K-12 teacher working in EC) and I was taught exactly nothing about structured open-ended activities (in fact I don't remember learning anything about specific activities at all)- so good on you for trying!

    The gulf between teacher and carer training and the real world of child care is one of the reasons I started this blog, so I'm thrilled that you're finding it useful.

    Many children respond better to structure than to absolute freedom. Flexibility and recognition of the needs of each individual are so important.

  8. I have to say that I truly appreciate this. I run an in-home childcare and have to admit that the majority of our day is chaos. I do have a hard time keeping structure in place as half of the children I have are ADHD, two have hearing impairment (and can parents remember to bring their hearing aids? no) - I only have four kids in my care besides my own and the ages range from 2 years up to 8 years (this makes various "stations" difficult. I would love to be more structured but feel that at this point as long as we are discussing colors and shapes while playing, using scissors on at least a weekly basis, reading multiple books throughout the day, and playing outside as much as possible without missing a meal, I am doing ok. Thank you for your insight though - I am always anxious to see how others do what they do so that maybe I can learn or implement something. My ex and my brother-in-law were both gifted that were never noticed, my ex was bored in school and became a thief (for some excitement) and my brother-in-law got bored and as a straight A student, quit in his senior year. All turned out well, he started his own construction business and is doing well, but until then things were topsy-turvy in his life.

  9. Oh My, this is a FANTASTIC blog and web resource. I've never seen anything quite like it! You really are a writer. I'm just so excited to be here visiting and it's my pleasure to be a follower (who doesn't love blog 'sheep'!) These articles are very insightful I can't wait to see you again my new 'bloggy friend'! I know I will learn a lot from your thoughts and reflections. The link for Amber's website is I'm off to add you to my blog roll! Jane:)

  10. Well thank you, Jane! I also look forward to seeing you again!! It's always wonderful to meet a like-minded soul, and having read some of YOUR blog I do feel that you are indeed one of those.

  11. Just happend to find this post! I'm printing it and showing it to a certain teacher! :) I think it may be a gentle way of introducing the idea that providing consistancy, expectations and a sense of order do NOT go against a solid play based early childhood classroom! Providing a framework for the classroom is good teaching!

  12. Thanks, Pam- yes, absolutely, a framework is needed. I'm so glad you're printing this and using it- that's exactly what this blog is for!!

  13. I Wish I had read this article 10 years ago with my oldest daughter. It would have saved us a lot of grief! Purposeful teaching of social skills in Early Childhood programs is very important, whether play based, academic, or anywhere in between. Thank you!

  14. If only you knew how long I've been waiting to read a post like this! I work in Early Years in England where a play-based curriculum is strongly encouraged, but what I am witnessing more and more is this being interpreted as a free for all. Children lacking any direction in their play and having virtually no structure to their day (3 hour long 'play' sessions). Also children being allowed to do what they want because they are 'following their interests'. I don't have a problem with children following their interests, infact the majority of my activities are based on the children's interests, but what I think is wrong is children wrecking an activity for everyone else because they are supposedly 'following their interests'(As a home-based childcarer I see this at groups we attend). Having only started working with under 5's in the last 3 years, I was left wondering whether it was me that had got it wrong. So it comes as a great relief to know that others share my interpretation and that play-based does not mean a free-for-all.

  15. Thanks, Cathy- I understand your frustration!


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