The teacher’s role during play

by Denisha Jones

In my last blog, I shared stories about my experience playing with children and my belief that play was important for teachers and children. However, I soon realized that playing with children is one of the many roles a teacher can take during free play. In my work with pre-service early childhood teachers, we spend time learning about the various roles and how they support an emergent play-based curriculum. Below are three additional play roles for teachers. What are yours?

1. Play Facilitator
Most children do not need our help engaging in free play. With the right props, space, and time they can play freely without guidance from adults. However, there are times when children need the teacher to help facilitate their play experience. When I was a preschool director, I visited one of the 4-year old classrooms to give the teacher a break during free play. Most of the children were busy engaging in imaginative and cooperative play in the various centers but three boys were running around the room chasing each other. Had we been outside this activity would have been fine. But as they ran around indoors they frequently interrupted and disturbed the free play of other children. When I asked the teacher what they were doing she said, “They’re playing. It’s free play.” I talked with my staff about the value of true free play, but I failed to remind them that some children would require some adult play facilitation. To model this, I simply waited until the boys ran past the art area which had no children in it, and I said aloud, “Wow look at these long strips of paper. I bet they would make great superhero belts.” Two boys stopped running and came over to see what I was up to. I took the paper and began decorating it and then I measured it to see what size belt I needed. The third boy soon joined us and another girl who was in the library area came over. Soon we had a spirited discussion on whether girls can be super heroes, what the super hero belt should do, and how to measure and tape the belt so that it fit.  This is my favorite example of play facilitation.

2. Play Supporter
When I taught kindergarten, during free play (yes we had 45 minutes of free play every day) I spent most of my time as a play supporter. I would visit each center and talk with children about their play and offer support where needed. In the blocks, children typically needed help problem solving a part of their structure. Careful, not to do it for them, I would scaffold them as much as I could. By verbally describing what they were trying to do (“I see you are trying to build a ramp for the ambulance bay.”) to posing thoughtful questions (“What would happen if you make the ramp higher or lower?”) I supported their play and their problem solving.  Other children needed social support especially when they got into disputes with other children. I believe play time was the best time for children to work out many issues, but sometimes support from adults during play helps to provide a rich experience.

3. Play Assessor
When I taught a college course on the educative value of play, my students learned how to do a play-based assessment. Many teachers observe children play, but I focused on how to use play to assess children’s strength and plan activities for areas of growth. The beauty of a play-based assessment was that it focused on what children could do well instead of most assessments that took a deficit view of what children cannot do.  My students loved doing play-based assessments at their field experience and they learned so much about how children develop and learn and how important free play is to a developmentally appropriate environment.