How do we negotiate learning with children?

The idea of intentional or purposeful play is one that has received a lot of attention in our Ontario context. As educators, there is a pressure to be accountable, to ourselves, to parents, to administrators.  What are the children in our care learning?  Is all play purposeful? How do we account for the learning that is happening in children’s play?

I’d like to thank fellow educator and blogger Aviva Dunsiger, whose comments and thought-provoking questions inspired this post and whose own post Calling into Question Purposeful Play on purposeful play began an interesting conversation   In commenting on The Beauty and Chaos of Free Play, she asked:

How do you find that your focused materials, discussion, and documentation varies from your free play ones?

The line from my blogpost was, “I find it is always a balancing act – honouring and providing time and space for the chaos of children’s free and exploratory play and at the same time provoking their thinking, learning and development by engaging them with focused materials, discussion and documentation.” My focus is always, as the Reggio educators remind us, on taking time to slow down and listen to the children and engage them with what they are doing and thinking, whatever the activity is. It is this intentional and purposeful relationship that is key. This is the same for if I am extending and exploring a line of thinking that has come from the children engaging freely with the vast array of materials in the room or whether, as educators, we have introduced materials or an idea.

Our Ontario Kindergarten Program reminds us that play is a ‘fluid, negotiated engagement’ rather than being either teacher-initiated or child-initiated, and that not ‘only children can generate ideas for inquiry’ (Ontario Kindergarten Program, 2016, p.27). That means that at times the children are engaged freely with the vast array of materials in the room – creating, making, exploring, imagining and pretending. There is a great deal of pretend play in my classroom and I value it tremendously. It is purposeful or intentional solely because it is play and it is how children learn. At other times, the children are engaged with materials that we, as educators, have put out with intention to provoke their thinking – perhaps in response to something that we noticed in their conversation and play (think: various plants pulled up from the ground at the light table with gardening tools and magnifiers so that the children can explore their question about why the plants don’t blow away on a very windy day; balls, cars and large cardboard tubes added to the construction materials because you have noticed children trying to build ramps) or perhaps because it is something that we want, as educators, to expose them to in order to further their learning (think: a walk outside to observe the changes as Spring arrives or to notice the birds nesting in the eves of the school in order to provoke thinking and questions about the natural world and seasonal change; a table with Cuisinaire rods, number tiles and chalkboards to observe their questions and thinking about spatial reasoning and number sense).


Whichever is the case, as I stated at the beginning, I believe the truly important aspect of our programs is how we intentionally  and purposefully interact in relationship with the children. I approach interactions with a mindset of curiosity about children’s thinking and go from there. I usually begin with questions, no matter what the topic, which leads me to hear their thinking in rich discussions. Social issues, even shared reading lessons, take on another dimension when you ask genuine questions, truly listen and then begin with their thinking. Taking into account children’s thinking leads to richer learning experiences. That’s the negotiated or emergent curriculum (or inquiry, if you may). As the Reggio educators remind us in this quote I love, “We must be able to catch the ball that the children throw us, and toss it back to them in a way that makes the children want to continue the game with us…” (Tiziana Filippani, The Hundred Languages of Children, Second Edition. 1998. p. 17.)

Aviva’s other question was:

How do you use the “free play” that’s happening to inspire this other learning?

Relationship. Do you sit down and play with them? Are you a co-learner? How do you engage? When do we observe neutrally or do we ask questions, support with materials, teach a direct skill? Are our interactions helping to further the learning? Are they helping this child to build their image of themselves as a learner? What is our view of this child and what do we believe is important for them in particular? These questions are things we must consider because our assumptions lead the interaction.

Documentation. Sharing back to the children what they are doing and saying, hearing their thoughts and questions about each others’ work – this is key. Documentation enriches the learning. It builds focus; it builds conversation; it builds the social dynamics. It gives intention to their play in their eyes as they see that you as an educator value what they do.  Documentation is not just a display of what has happened – it is a learning tool.

Children’s play has purpose. What we believe and how we interact and engage in relationship as educators can serve to enhance and promote it.


2 thoughts on “How do we negotiate learning with children?

  1. I love this conversation. I often encounter others who feel that play is a lesser form of learning. I hear things like, students won’t just be outside playing. They will be doing educator run centres.

    That leads me to feel like I have to add the word purposeful to the beginning of play every time I say it. Based on my research though, all play is purposeful and when children are playing they are learning. When I take the time to stand back and observe what is happening at any given moment, with any given student, I can see that they are learning and practising curriculum goals.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post and sharing so many great questions for further discussion and contemplation. Your post, once again, reminds me of how wonderful it would be to get together with other Ontario educators, dig more into the program document, and further discuss the expectations and pedagogy to lead to a better understanding for all of us. Your last point on documentation really hit home for me. I think of the number of times this year especially that children go back to the documentation and extend on what they see happening there. While we’ve used books in the past, and still have some documentation books around the room, we also post a lot of documentation at eye level and in the area where the learning seems to be happening. This really seems to extend the learning and have children consult the documentation again. Thanks for making me think about this. I’d love to know what others think about this very important topic!


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