Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

7.4: Play in the Early Childhood Classroom

  • Page ID
    • Jennifer Karshna & Holly Lanoue
    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Play in the Early Childhood Classroom

    Thus far in this chapter, play and its value for children has been described. Developmentally appropriate classrooms contain physical spaces with daily schedules that incorporate blocks of time for play (NAEYC, 2020). This includes time for indoor and outdoor play. Chapter 8 will address the environment but a few key aspects that relate to play are described in this section.

    Indoors, children need time to get involved and fully engage in play, a minimum of 45 minutes. In a well-run classroom, children can engage in free play for up to one and half hours. This gives children time to choose what they want to do and fully engage in play. It also allows for the opportunity for children to create through constructive play and use the creation in dramatic play. Imagine how disappointing it would be to create an elaborate castle but not have time to dress up and play in it! Additionally, children need the materials and space to create the castle. Lack of open-ended materials and not enough space can result in missed opportunities for creative play, which also means they are not benefiting from such experiences.

    As previously mentioned, the OLE provides opportunities for differing types of play, especially vigorous physical activity (Engelen et al., 2018) and risky play (Keeler, 2020; Storli & Sandseter, 2015. Outside time is typically not considered recess and a “break” because young children are learning all the time. Instead of recess, play and engagement in the OLE can be considered additional opportunities and enhancement of indoor learning (Mustapa, et al., 2015).

    Image 7.5 Outdoor Play is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Weather is often given as a reason for not playing outdoors. Not going outside when it is raining or snowing can contribute to missed opportunities, similar to what happened with the castle example above. Although at first it can appear as a daunting task to get children to put on outdoor gear such raincoats, hats, mittens, and boots, it becomes part of the routine as well as presents opportunities for practicing fine motor and self-help skills. The rain that is often present here in the Pacific Northwest is a wonderful resource for play! Water makes mud which can be used in making pies and soups, and especially for children who enjoy sensory and pretend play.

    Allowing children to use the environment, especially outdoors, is also a challenge for teachers. This can relate to weather, such as playing in puddles, as well as with using items from the environment. Loose parts such as sticks, rocks, wood chips can be added to soups and pies (perhaps made with water and mud) and can be used in other ways. Children use items in the environment for dramatic play. One teacher described the children using wood chips as food for playing restaurant, specifically Happy Meals at the McDonald’s drive-through. The outdoor playhouse was the building; children served the woodchips to other children (and teachers) as they walked or rode bikes to the drive through (M. Naw, personal communication, January 15, 2021). Another teacher described how the children would organize themselves to re-enact the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff using a log as a bridge for the troll (T. Sy, personal communication, December 28, 2020). Both teachers said the children played these storylines many times and each time the play included more than one child and was done outdoors, but not indoors. Additionally, stationary items such as large rocks and logs can be used for physical and risky play.

    The early childhood classroom, indoors and out, should be an environment that is rich with opportunities for play. Chapter 8 will address the environment. As you read the chapter you can think about how environmental design creates opportunities for the different types of play.

    Issues & Challenges with Play

    Although children all over the world play (Carlsson-Paige, 2013), some face challenges in doing so. Take a moment to think about what play involves, especially constructive and dramatic/socio-dramatic play. To construct, children need to know about the materials and how to put them together, have the physical development to work with the materials, use creative thinking, and stay on task. To engage in dramatic play, they need to have a topic to play (cooking, airplane, boat, family, etc.), use creative thinking, and if socio-dramatic they need to be able to follow the storyline, self-regulate, and sometimes the skills need to enter a group. An additional type of play that has been gaining attention is risky play involves understanding one’s own skills and the emotional willingness to try something challenging (Keeler, 2020). This list of skills and abilities is a general list, and it is lengthy! You can imagine what it takes to engage in play and that some children face challenges.

    Some of the common challenges and issues children face with play can be grouped into three categories: materials, language, and other. These categories were created as a way of explaining the challenges. The descriptions in each category are not comprehensive. The purpose is to give the reader a general idea of reasons children may struggle with play, especially in an early childhood classroom.

    Image 7.6 Creative Play is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Often children use materials and toys when they play. As you have read about in this chapter, during exploratory play children explore and gain an understanding of materials and in constructive play the materials are used purposefully. As infants and toddlers, they look at, move around, and try to work the materials. One issue that can arise is when infants and toddlers do not take initiative and explore with materials.

    Sometimes older children have difficulty using materials. This may be because they have limited experience with the materials, therefore they need time to engage in exploratory play. It also could be that a child needs support to learn to use the materials purposefully. Most children gain a sense of using materials through exploratory play, but some do not. An example is a four-year-old who would touch pieces together, but never connect or build. He did this with duplos and any other type of toy that connected together. His “play” with the materials lasted about two minutes and then he’d throw the toys. This frustrated his peers. Often, this child would engage in inappropriate behaviors to gain attention. The situation was resolved when the teachers took time to play with him and show him how to work the materials. Once he knew what to do with the materials, he could purposefully engage. He needed the support of the teachers to gain an understanding of the skill for using the materials.

    Language, the second category listed above, may not be as easy to see as the challenges with materials. When children play with peers, in constructive or socio-dramatic play, they communicate and most often do so through words. Children need to be able to talk to and understand what peers are saying. Expressive language is talking so a person knows what is said being and saying it in a manner that makes sense. Receptive language is understanding what is being said. Both expressive and receptive language are a part of play with others, especially socio-dramatic play.

    Children usually start to engage in cooperative play (Parten, 1932) at about three years and have the speech and language to communicate effectively. Some children do not have this level of speech and language. If a child struggles with saying words, doing so in a way that others can understand, and/or following what is being said, it makes it difficult and frustrating for the child. Children can be very accepting of one another, but the child who is struggling knows that peers are not understanding what is being said or feels confused by what is going on. This area is one of the more challenging areas for teachers because it can be difficult to intervene. When adults enter, children’s play often changes. There is a fine line between interrupting and changing the play versus supporting it and a child who may be struggling. It is not within the scope of this chapter to address interventions, rather the point is to bring awareness that children can struggle with play and that teachers support is needed.

    Image 7.7 Cooperative Play is licensed under CC by 1.0

    In addition to materials and language, there is the “other” category. This category is broad and includes physical challenges, such as sitting in a wheelchair with limited access to the play area, not being able to see or hear, or other motor challenges that get in the way of playing. A child may not fit into an area or may have coordination difficulties and knock over what is being built. Some interventions for physical challenges can be addressed with environmental design. As you read Chapter 8 you can keep physical challenges in play in your mind. You may start to see the significance of intentionally designed environments and the complexities teachers face in doing so.

    The other category also includes not playing for various reasons such as: wandering, flitting about rather than sustaining play, staying in the onlooker stage (Parten, 1932) rather than eventually joining, and being rejected from play. This is a list of common challenges and it is not comprehensive. With each of these reasons, teacher support targeted to help the child gain the needed skills, is beneficial. Once again, it is beyond the scope of this chapter to fully address challenges in play and how to foster and support children, rather this chapter will give the reader an idea of play in an early childhood classroom.

    Rejection is worth a special mention because it happens and it can be overlooked in a busy early childhood classroom, especially at full-day program in which children are there for eight or more hours. In kindergarten through third grade classrooms where children go outside for recess and often play with peers, it can easily go unnoticed. Play, especially cooperative play (Parten, 1932), takes a lot of work. It can be quite difficult when there are more players, which means more roles and more ideas. It also means more personalities and more negotiation. A well-known author, Vivian Gussin Paley, regarding children’s play pondered inclusion and specifically wrote “…the rejected children know who they are, whether or not they tell us” (p. 15). From years of experience, I have to agree. I have a vivid memory, from 17 years ago, of a mother reporting that her child was upset about peer moving to a new school. Her child rarely interacted with the one who moved, so she asked why he was so concerned. His reply “Because he is the mean kid, just like me. We both have no friends to play with.” I think this underscores the importance of teacher observation, assessment, and support during children’s play.

    Rejection and the other challenges children face with play are a concern. Not only is it sad to hear about rejection, but the result is also—as with any other reason a child does not play—that a child is not fully participating in the classroom. Play is a part of the curriculum (NAEYC, 2020) and all children need classrooms that allow for full participation and engagement.


    Think about a time you observed or heard about that indicated a child was struggling with play. What do you think was happening—what were the challenges the child was facing?

    Final Thoughts

    Play is a key aspect of the early years. There are differing types of play, some of which are very complex such as cooperative play. Many children progress through differing stages and types of play, including as exploratory to constructive, but some need support because they face challenges. Children’s play may be entertaining and amusing, but an understanding of it allows teachers to see the value and role of it in the early childhood classroom. A well-designed environment allows for play and is the topic of the next chapter.

    This page titled 7.4: Play in the Early Childhood Classroom is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jennifer Karshna & Holly Lanoue.