The art of wonder in children's play


In the early childhood profession, we talk about the importance of children learning through play. It is important to understand what we mean by play and how children’s play is fundamental to their learning.

Play is something that children initiate—they chose for themselves what they are going to do and how they go about doing it.

Now, of course, a clever adult provides a range of choices that will be enticing for children; opportunities in which children will choose to engage. One of the early theorists, Piaget, suggested that this was the limit of the adult role—to create the environment and then step back and let children play. Piaget talked about children as little scientists—learning by doing things in their play, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, and trying different things.

In a Piagetian early childhood setting, the educators spend a lot of time figuring out what they want children to learn, identifying what children like to do and then setting up the environment so that children will be enticed to play with the very things from which the adult wants the child to learn.

“...we now know that we can improve children’s learning by interacting with children when they are playing.”

However, our understanding of play and children’s learning has moved on from here. That is not to say Piaget was wrong—we still use elements of his approach today, particularly in identifying children’s interests, and setting up play opportunities we know they will like and that will challenge them.

However, we now know that we can improve children’s learning by interacting with children when they are playing. Now, this is where some struggle and argue that if we are interacting with children in their play, then we are to some extent influencing the play and therefore the play is not children’s free choice, and by definition, they cannot be playing.

I disagree. I believe we can interact with children in their freely chosen play and provide support, challenge their thinking and still ensure that control of the play rests with the children. Vygotsky calls this scaffolding but we can choose to scaffold by being directive (taking control ourselves) or we can scaffold by wondering (offering another way of looking at things but leaving the control in children’s hands).

In Australia, we call this kind of interaction intentional teaching. Think about the learning opportunities that arise from: “I wonder what would happen if we put a little bit of water in your bucket with the sand before you tip it up to make the sandcastle?”

Wondering creates opportunities for children to try things they might not have thought about (and if they try it “I wonder why the sand stuck together better this time” creates further learning opportunities), but also provides the freedom to not experiment (“I wonder why your sandcastle collapsed”).

Of course, the way we express our wondering, and what we say next is crucial—we need to ensure that children really do understand that our wonderings are not hidden commands. Intentional teaching, when done appropriately, combines the best of all worlds: creative use of children’s interests in offering play spaces that entice them to engage, and clever interactions that offer wonder without being directive and controlling. 

This blog was originally published in The Armidale Express. Professor Margaret Sims  is a member of the Early Childhood Education team within the School of Education at the University of New England in Armidale. She is a former editor of the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood and author of numerous articles for Early Childhood Australia publications. 

Read more articles by Margaret Sims on play here