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Designing a Play-based Curriculum for a Specific Learning Area

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Childcare
Wordcount: 5066 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Learning and Pedagogy in the Early Years: Play-based curriculum and assessment

Case Study – Designing a play-based curriculum for a specific learning area and context in the early years, aged 3-8.


This assessment details a play-based teaching plan for a unit called ‘Let’s Build It!’ in a Kindergarten class. The underpinning theoretical approaches taken in the plan are socio-cultural theory and inquiry-based learning.

Research and Analysis of Theories/Perspectives

As an educator in the 21st century, there is a need more than ever to offer a diverse range of learning experiences to the students represented in our classrooms. The impact of students who feel disengaged with their learning, their teacher, the curriculum and their school environment is profound. The early years of education contributes significantly to a child’s ongoing learning success. Ultimately, there needs to be a greater emphasis on a more collective approach to student success which embodies quality teaching, high levels of engagement between students and teachers and rich, meaningful learning experiences.

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Through the lens of a socio-cultural perspective, the relationship between play, learning and development is multidirectional with each significantly impacting the other. This perspective explores the importance of social interactions for learning and consequently development. “Learning in a sociocultural perspective is thought to occur through interactions, negotiation and collaboration” (Scott & Palincsar, 2013, p. 5). In this perspective, children are active agents and have a voice in their own learning, and with the assistant of adults and their peers’ experiences are scaffolded for their learning. Bredekamp & Copple (as cited in Edwards, 2003) explain this relationship more in-depth, stating that:

development and learning are dynamic processes requiring that adults understand the continuum [of development], observe children closely to match curriculum and teaching to children’s emerging competencies, needs and interests, and then help them move forward by targeting educational experiences to the edge of children’s changing capacities so as to challenge, but not frustrate them (p. 260).

In this perspective, play has a significant role and connects learning and development. Play fuels a child’s imagination, provides deep insights into one’s thinking and understanding and provides a understanding into how one makes meaning. Through their play-based experiences, children subconsciously engage in learning and develop skills like communication, intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies, creativity and problem solving (Skolvertket, as cited in Fleer, 2017, p. 194). The process of playing allows children to have autonomy in their own learning and development as they exercise control within their environments.

This teaching plan will also draw on the perspective offered by inquiry-based learning. “Inquiry based learning is a constructivist approach where the overall goal is for students to make meaning” (Noack, 2014, p. 1). This style of learning evolves from student’s questions and the inquiry is guided with minimal teacher assistance. For the inquiry process to be successful, the questions that guide the inquiry need to modelled and appropriate so that students can access information to help guide their learning. In this way students are dynamic in their own construction of knowledge and understanding. Students are highly motivated in this collaborative process as they have a sense of autonomy over their learning as their understanding evolves from other students and their own discoveries. Central to this approach is that students come to learning experiences with a “genuine sense of curiosity, wonder and questions” (Noack, 2014, p. 1) which allows educators to shape learning experiences around their students and in turn provide a rich and contextual curriculum. This is reinforced by Van Oers (2012) who states, “for children, personal sense is the starting point for all curriculum investigations in the classroom…children’s agency in co-structuring learning is vitally important” (p. 98). There are some clear parallels between socio-cultural theory and inquiry-based learning, as there is an emphasis on relationships and co-constructing meaning. Scott and Palinscar (2013) links the two approaches by stating “teachers and students are coinquirers, with teachers mediating among students' personal meanings. These meanings emerging from the collective thinking and talk of the students, and the culturally established meanings of the wider society” (p. 5). Both approaches engage in learning that promotes essential skills that students require to thrive as 21st century learners.

The Play-Based Teaching Plan

Topic: This unit is called ‘Let’s Build It!” The play-based teaching plan is an integrated plan that links Literacy and Science with a specific focus on inquiry-based learning. The overarching focus areas for the plan are cooperation and communication. These capabilities are vital traits of successful, confident learners and additionally begins to build the culture of collaboration between students.

Target age group:This teaching plan is set in the context of a Kindergarten class in Term One. The class consists of 24 students, 15 boys and 9 girls.

Objectives:These objectives are a combination of knowledge and observable skills.

  1. Students can communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings with their peers and teacher.
  2. Students can work with others for a common goal.
  3. Students select, sort and describe materials based on their properties.

Context: Students have engaged in free play experiences as a way of developing relationships and to provide insights into student’s abilities. Through observations, a few insights emerged. Firstly, the boys and girls engaged separately in play with boys drawn more towards the problem-solving, construction, and physical activities. The girls on the other hand freely engaged in transforming themselves with wigs, dressing up clothes and took on roles in the kitchen corner. The girls continuously used language to shift between their play role and incorporated some common ideas from fairy tales in their play. Fleer (2017) states that “there is evidence that in the early years of school, children who are engaged in play activities demonstrate important concepts in action, which teachers can document, analyse in order to make judgements about children’s learning” (p. 238). The initial free play experiences have been pivotal in providing direction for the future learning of this Kindergarten class.

Curriculum Connections: Australian Curriculum (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2015)

Science Understanding and Inquiry Skills

  • Objects are made of materials that have observable properties (ACARA, 2015, ACSSU003)
  • Communicating - Share observations and ideas (ACARA, 2015, ACSIS012)

English - Literature

  • Identify some features of texts including events and characters and retell events from a text (ACARA, 2015, ACELT1578)
  • Creating Literature - Innovate on familiar texts through play (ACARA, 2015, ACELT1831)

My Time, Our Place (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR], 2011)

Outcome 4: Children are confident and involved learners (DEEWR, 2011, p. 34)

  • Children develop dispositions such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity.
  • Children use a range of skills and processes such as problem solving, inquiry, experimentation, hypothesizing, researching and investigating.

Outcome 5: Children are effective communicators (DEEWR, 2011, p. 39)

  • Children collaborate with others, express ideas and make meaning from a wide range of media and communication technologies.

Teaching and Learning Activities


Lesson 1 – What things could be used to make a house to protect the pigs?

Read two versions of story of the three little pigs. Use a story map to model retelling the story using some language structures from the text, such as ‘this little pig,’ ‘he huffed, and he puffed and he blew the house down.’ In small groups of 4, students use dramatic play to retell the story. Students are given access to a ‘Concept box or Prop Box’ with a range of materials that may assist in bringing the story to life. “Concept boxes were introduced as part of an assessment for students…the aim was to enable students to produce a collection of resources that would contextualise specific concepts for children through promoting play experiences” (Brock, as cited in Fleer, 2017, p. 241). Each group gets an opportunity to retell the story. After groups have presented, pose the following problem to students to guide inquiry process, “what could the little pigs used other than bricks, sticks and straw?” Record student responses and begin discussing what we see in our neighbourhood and what they are built from.

Resources; Storymap scaffolding sheet (Appendix 1), big book (The Three Little Pigs), ipad, Youtube clip, prop boxes (sticks, twigs straw, lego bricks, gloves, material, hats)

Differentiation – Students are placed in mixed ability groups with a combination of girls and boys. Prop boxes assist students who are finding it challenging to retell the story. The prop acts as a visual reminder of that part of the story and assist students getting into character.

Formative assessment – 1. Teachers observations during group work (focusing on communication between students and their capacity to cooperate with each other).

2. During play experience of retelling the story, note student’s ability to use the concept boxes to demonstrate their learning.

Teaching and Learning Activities

Lesson 2 and 3 – Inquiry Question – What would happen if we built with other materials?

Revisit student responses from previous lesson. Show images (appendix 2) of a range of buildings around the world and discuss the materials used and the differences between the buildings which we see in our neighborhood. After viewing all the images, students work in small groups of 4 and explore one the buildings in further detail. Students use these materials (bamboo, mud, ice, fabric, sticks and stones) to make a wall (of a building) to test; how well the material can stick together and how strong the material is. In their building groups, students predict what they think might happen when they try to build a wall with the materials. These predictions are recorded on iPad, using voice recorder or videos. Students then begin constructing their wall with their chosen material. Once constructed, students record through drawings what happens when the wall is blown (by breath) and sprayed with water.

Resources: Images of buildings from all over the world (Compassion International, 2018), materials for building bamboo, mud, ice, fabric, sticks and stones, water spray bottle, adhesive materials (glue, bluetac, stickytape, playdough)

Differentiation – Students are placed in mixed ability groups with a combination of girls and boys.

Formative Assessment - 1. Teachers observations during group work (focusing on communication between students and their capacity to cooperate with each other). 2. Students ability to communicate their findings through the video recordings.


Lesson 4 – Inquiry Question - What should we build first?

Invite a builder (who is a parent of one of the students) into the classroom to facilitate a building workshop with the class. Discuss the materials used in construction and show process of how a house is built. Using photos and videos, students learn about the sequence of building a house. Each student gets to follow the steps outlined by the builder and build a small house using geometric connecting shapes. Possible questions; Would it be a good idea to place the roof on first? Would a curved house be a good idea? Record student responses for use in the next lesson.

Resources: Pictures of materials, blueprint, pictures of steps taken when building, geometric connecting shapes, butcher’s paper

Differentiation – Students each use visuals to assist in construction. Extension activity – students begin experimenting with alternate shapes and evaluate effectiveness when building.

Formative Assessment - 1. Teacher observations of discoveries made from hands on experience. 2. Students abilities to follow instructions in making their house. 3. Students abilities to communicate the solution to the question raised.

Teaching and Learning Activities

Lesson 5 – Inquiry Question – Which materials would be strong enough to keep the big bad wolf away?

In groups students are given the following task.

Imagine you are one of the little pigs. Your job is to build a building that will be strong enough to stay up when blown by the big bad hairdryer. You are to work in building teams to make something from materials which you’ve been learning about. They explore materials which are available to them in the ‘Construction’ concept box. Students then design a blueprint (terminology introduced by our expert builder) and label their structure. Finally, in building teams they begin the building process.

Resources: Blueprints (A3 paper)

Prop Box – Construction (vests, rope, sticky tape, recycled materials, fabric, wool, old household items, paper, building materials, stones, lego bricks, adhesives, scissors)

Differentiation – Students are placed in mixed ability groups with a combination of girls and boys. Prop boxes assist student in their design process and help students find create solutions to image the possibilities an item has.

Assessment - 1. Teacher observations during group work (focusing on communication between students and their capacity to cooperate with each other). 2. Students ability to communicate their findings through the video recordings. 3. Students abilities to use prior knowledge to inform their design.

Teaching and Learning Activities

Lesson 6 – Inquiry Question – How could we improve? What advice could we give to other builders?

  • Parents are invited into this celebration to view students structures and the testing.

Once all structures are built, celebrate student’s achievements by allowing each group to present their structure and give some information about the materials used, the shape they chose and their design. Retell the story of the three little pigs to place the ‘test’ in context. Begin testing the strength of these by using a big bad woof hairdryer on maximum speed. During testing, building groups use iPad to record results of the experiment and reflect on how they might change their structure next time to improve. Using a discussion circle, discuss the process of working with other people and how they found the task. Individually, teacher asks students the follow question; what were the 2 strongest/weakest materials in your build? Describe why they were strong/weak. Students then evaluate the experience

Resources: Talking piece (to guide discussion), iPads, evaluation (appendix two), hairdryer.

Differentiation – Various methods (group, individual and video recording) to present student’s knowledge and reflection.

Assessment – Discussion circles allow students to share and communicate their ideas and findings and offer solutions to how they could improve.

Summative assessment – Students knowledge about materials and their ability to communicate their understanding.

Evaluation Questions:

Reflecting and evaluating are fundamental parts of teaching. “Reflection builds insight, inspires teachers to explore new ways to improve learning and relationships, and provide starting points for making decisions about curriculum” (Queensland Studies Authority, 2010, p. 15). These questions address the goals established at the beginning of the unit and the practical application of the teaching and learning activities throughout the sequence of lessons. The questions also critique aspects of the work in order to identify ways to improve in the future.

  1. Were students engaging with each other more so than they were at the beginning of the unit?
  2. How have students demonstrated their ability to work with other students? Can this be measured?
  3. How did my observations inform my planning and teaching? Were these an effective assessment tool?
  4. If students were disengaged, were there obvious skills that needed to be built before engaging in this activity?
  5. Do student’s video records (complied throughout the plan) demonstrate student understanding? Can these be improved or completed in a different way?


Critical Reflection

The place of play, in an outcome driven curriculum can be confronting and challenging for some educators. One reason may be that teachers don’t have deep understanding of the significance of play and find it challenging to incorporate into their intentional day-to-day teaching. “The goal is to make learning an integral part of the play structure itself, rather than something separate and compartmentalized, as it often is in school” (Hakkarainen, 2006, p. 208). In planning this sequence of learning in taking place in term one, I attempted to merge contextual play experiences with appropriate content.

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A question which I kept reflecting on was is the teaching plan too prescriptive? Through inquiry-based learning we know that students have autonomy in directing how they learn. This led me to question, whether it was more effective to plan weeks at a time or for plans to be designed week-to-week? The reality of this is challenging but not impossible. Learning and teaching in this way authentically allows students to follow their own interests. Van Oers (2008) introduces the idea of ‘degree of freedom’ which explains “when a child is free to follow their interests in the context of learning something new, then their motive for learning is supported. They have agency and can pursue in depth something about which they are wondering” (as cited in Fleer, 2017, p. 102). Finding the balance of play in the curriculum is a process and one which deter some educators. However, those who promote play as part of learning capitalize on an opportunity to motivate, engage, challenge and impact the whole child.

Another consideration was the place of assessment. A perceived challenge is that “play does not necessarily leave a tangible or visible product” which when assessing students in their learning, and “makes it difficult to judge its cognitive worth” (Hakkarainen, 2006, p. 215). In this way, I attempted to reframe my understanding of play so that it supports the learning but it’s not the only or final product to demonstrate learning. Play was the main catalyst in developing the skills of communication and cooperation. I felt that many of the strategies I used assessed for play. “Assessment for play focuses on the conditions created by teachers for supporting play practices that lead to both the development of play complexity and the generation of learning through play (Fleer, 2017, p. 246). The sequence used formative assessment of play in each lesson and then culminated with a task which integrated all knowledge and understanding gained throughout the lessons. In this way the summative assessment was supported by previous play experiences and was contextual, meaningful and engaging.

The implications this has had for my personal philosophy was further acknowledging the potential that students bring to their learning. As a Kindergarten educator I have often fallen in the trap of neglecting student voice in planning lesson and have become focused more on teaching a curriculum rather than bringing it to life. It has reinforced that educators need to think of themselves as facilitators who, with their students, transform the curriculum. A second implication is the importance of have students working collaboratively with their peers. In a socio-cultural perspective, the process of learning arises from children working together and the power of this collaboration stretches students academically, socially and emotionally. This reinforces that successful learners are creative, confident and possess the abilities to solve problems and take risks individually and when working with others.

Reference List

  • Compassion International (2018) 25 different types of houses from around the world [Photographs]. Retrieved from https://www.compassionuk.org/blogs/25-different-types-of-houses-from-around-the-world/
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR], (2009). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, ACT
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR}, (2011). My Time, Our Place, the Framework for School Age Care, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, ACT
  • Edutopia. (2015, Dec 16). Inquiry-based learning: From teacher-guided to student-driven [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=212&v=mAYh4nWUkU0
  • Edwards, S. (2003) New directions: charting the paths for the role of sociocultural theory in early childhood education and curriculum. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 4(3), 251-266. doi:
  • Fleer, M. (2017). Play in the early years (2nd Edition.). Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press
  • Hakkarainen, P. (2006). Learning and development in play. In J. Einarsdottir & JT. Wagner (Eds.), Nordic childhoods and early education: Philosophy research, policy and practice in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden (pp. 183-222). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.
  • Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Retrieved from http://www.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/National_Declaration_on_the_Educational_Goals_for_Young_Australians.pdf
  • Noack, M. (2014) Approaches to learning: Inquiry based learning [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/1360/lutheran-education-queensland-inquiry-based-learning.pdf
  • Nolan, A. & Raban, B. (2015). Theories into practice: Understanding and rethinking our work with young children. Published by Teaching Solutions, Albert Park, Australia.
  • PSC Alliance. (2012). Effective curriculum planning documentation methods in education and care services. Retrieved from https://www.ecrh.edu.au/docs/default-source/resources/ipsp/effective-curriculum-planning-and-documentation-methods-in-education-and-care-services.pdf?sfvrsn=8
  • Queensland Studies Authority. (2010). Queensland kindergarten learning guidelines, The state of Queensland, South Brisbane, QLD.
  • The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]. (2015). Australian Curriculum: F-10 Curriculum. Retrieved from https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/
  • Van Oers, B. (2012). Developmental education: Foundations of a play-based curriculum, in B van Oers (ed.), Developmental education for young children: Concept, practice, and implementation, Dordrecht: Springer, p. 13-26)

Appendix One

Story Map – Three Little Pigs (Teacher summarizes four main parts of the text to assist students orally retell the story)

Each pig builds a different house

Mother asking pigs to move out

Woof blows each house, 2 falls down

Woof climbs down chimney of brick house, gets burnt and runs away

Appendix Two

Student evaluation

________________’ s Evaluation

My model (draw):


Did the blueprint match the model?


Were the materials strong enough?


Team Work

Did I work well with my team?


Was the model successful?


My favourite part of my model was..


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