With play being central to the way in which children construct knowledge about the world around them, an important task for teachers is to develop play spaces thoughtfully and purposefully. Play spaces are children’s environments for learning. Seeing children as young scientists leads to the creation of play spaces that become the children’s laboratories for learning. Whether inside or outside, their play spaces are where they explore, experiment, and solve problems. Play spaces include materials and furnishings that invite children to figure out what the world is like and how it works. When early childhood teachers thoughtfully select and organize materials for play, they support an essential aspect of curriculum—self-initiated exploration, investigation, and invention of ideas. Jones and Reynolds (2011) list the varied roles assumed by early childhood teachers, one of which they call “stage manager.” This role means that the early childhood teacher purposely sets the stage for learning by selecting toys, furnishings, and materials that invite children to explore, experiment, and solve problems. In a well-designed early childhood program, the play environment holds immense possibilities for learning and creativity.
Consider how the play environment provides a context for learning in the following vignette:
During a moment of play in the art area, infant teacher Joette watches as two-year-old Lucila picks up a wooden frame that encloses two sheets of blue plexi-glass. Lucila puts her eyes up close to the plexi-glass and peers through. She holds the frame out to Joette, gesturing for her to take it. Joette responds, “You want me to see what you saw, don’t you? I’d love to!” Joette looks through and exclaims, “I see everything blue! Here, your turn, Lucila.” Lucila looks through the block again. Another child walks up and reaches for a different frame, this one with yellow plexi-glass inside. The two children laugh together as they move the frames back and forth in front of their eyes. Teacher Joette watches and then picks up a third frame, which has red plastic sheets. She holds it near the window, and a red patch appears on the floor. She gestures to the two toddlers and says, “Oh, look what’s over here!” They rush to the red patch. Lucila steps onto the red and laughs with excitement. “It made red!” she says. “Yes!” says teacher Joette, “Will yours make a color on the floor, too? You want to try?” Lucila holds her frame to the sun, sees a blue spot, and says, “Yes, I made blue!”
It is easy to see evidence of the children’s thinking in this moment of play. They take full advantage of the materials available in this well-stocked play space designed to prompt play with colors and textures of materials. They notice the distinct features of the panes of translucent plastic. They compare them as they play. They use one item in relation to the other. They experience how they can use the different-colored panes to transform the shadows on the floor. They explore how the shapes change in space and how their actions cause different reactions. The inventions of one child are exchanged with those of the other. In this play space, children can be seen constructing concepts of shape, orientation, light, and transformation.
Joette and her co-teachers supplied this art area with the same care that scientists might stock their laboratories. In the art interest area for toddlers, they placed an array of toys and materials that invite exploration and comparison of color, line, shape, and texture. They made certain that there were objects with similar features as well as distinct features, in order to challenge the toddlers’ emerging ability to sort one object from another. They gathered similar objects graduated in size, in order to challenge the toddlers to explore concepts of size and sequencing. In the collection were identical objects for creating pairs and for assembling many rather than few. The teachers made the materials easily available to the toddlers, on low shelves and in wide, shallow baskets and bins. A variety of containers were labeled, each holding a distinct type of object—objects made from paper in one; a collection of orange and red fabric pieces in another; a collection or blue fabric, feathers, and ribbons in another; and a collection of translucent colored frames in another.
In the natural course of spontaneous play, toddlers encounter such materials and build relationships of identity, order, size, shape, number, and space. Many of the materials, like the collection of fabric pieces, are familiar to the toddlers, already available in the bins of the play space for many days. Other materials, like the long pieces of translucent cellophane paper in a variety of colors, have been recently added by teachers, with the hope of extending and adding complexity to the toddlers’ play with color.
The new materials added to the play space are part of the teachers’ curriculum plan. During their weekly planning, Joette and her co-teachers discuss the observations they made of Lucila and her friends as the children explored the colored panes of plexi-glass. As the teachers interpreted the play, they wondered how to add some challenge and surprise to the toddlers’ enjoyment of making colored shadows on the floor with the sunlight and the translucent plastic. The subsequent curriculum plan held a question: “In what ways will the children explore the long lengths of colored cellophane that they discover in the art area?” The teachers wondered whether these new materials might provoke toddlers’ deeper exploration of relationships of size, space, and similarity and difference. The teachers explored possible questions to prompt toddlers’ experiments in transforming the primary colors in the yellow and the blue cellophane into the secondary color of green.
Once the stage is set for play, teachers observe to discover what will ensue. At times, teachers might narrate what goes on as the children play, offering language related to the play. The teachers might also prompt new ways of looking at the materials, as Joette did when she held the colored pane near the window to catch the sunlight and cast a colored shadow. In this moment, she artfully scaffolded the toddlers’ learning by suggesting a new way of playing with the plexi-glass. A scaffold is a structure that allows someone to go higher in order to accomplish a task that the person could not have done alone. Teachers scaffold children’s play when they connect in shared knowing with children and support them in going further to figure something out.