Keeping Play at the Center

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By: Debbie Buszko

It was Jean Piaget who first brought to our attention that young children learn best through doing and actively exploring. Considered the father of Constructivism, his research, emphasized that children acquire knowledge by experiencing new things and combining those experiences with prior knowledge to construct their own understanding of things.

“Constructivism suggests that the learner needs to be proactive in how they learn, taking new information, and shaping it to their understanding, rather than just sitting still and passively absorbing information like a sponge.”


With so many of our incoming students coming from diverse backgrounds, homes where English is not their home language or who are economically challenged, Constructivism is as relevant now as it was when Piaget first published.

It is our challenge as school administrators to provide support and professional development to teachers as they prepare for the young students entering our schools. We need to support the idea of constructivism so they encourage the process of learning and not just the product and designing tasks that provide opportunities to promote experiential learning. This is particularly important in our Early Childhood classes.


Literacy Centers (Choice Time or Stations) in the early childhood classroom provides a risk-free environment where children can learn while playing. “The label for this time is not important, but the fact that children have a chance to work with blocks, art materials and drama is crucial. Increasingly, children spend six hours a day watching television, and when they are not plugged into television, children are plugged into the iPad, the computer, or the video game. Our children, Bill Moyers has said, are being raised by appliances.” Porcelli & Tyler 2008, p. 3.

An essential element to center work is providing students a period of time to explore, plan, construct, revise and share their work. Students can construct in the block center, act out a favorite book or scene in the drama center while others roleplay in the kitchen or book corner. Other students can draw and paint an idea, while others play board or table games that support early literacy and math skills. Students can enjoy music, songs and stories in a listening center. All of these are naturally enjoyable activities for young students that support learning. These opportunities encourage both the development of academic language and social skills. Children learn how to work with other children, take turns, follow instructions, and express their feelings, important social skills that many children lack when first coming to school.


A second essential element to center work is the teacher’s role. While students are working, the teacher is working too; observing students; listening and coaching; encouraging students to extend their thinking; and modeling social skills and language. Teachers can plan their center work around their units of study in literacy, math, social studies and science giving students an opportunity to develop a concrete understanding of academic content and vocabulary in a venue of discovery and enjoyment.

Research shows that play has an essential role in children’s learning. In this short e-clip, “Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith of Eastern Connecticut State University discusses the importance of play and advises early childhood professionals to look at several elements of children’s play, including engagement in make-believe play, social interaction during play, and play complexity.”

Centers especially support our English as a New Language students. They give our students a safe environment where they can approximate language, take risks with language and learning. The use of gestures, pictures, and visual materials support language development for these students. “Stephen Krashen’s theory of second language acquisition suggests that certain affective variable such as low self-esteem, nervousness, and boredom can create a filter, blocking the processing of incoming information. For successful language acquisition to occur, the filter must be low. (Freeman and Freeman 2007)” Porcelli & Tyler 2008, p.15. Giving students an opportunity to participate in play, keeps the filter low. Having students participate in play, asking them, in a natural setting, to explain their work, and having them listen to each other’s thoughts and ideas, builds a strong foundation for more sophisticated discussion skills later on.

With the increased pressure of covering the curriculum, teachers need to be reminded and reassured that children can learn while playing. They need to be encouraged to set up their classrooms with centers that give children the time and opportunity to make their own meaning and develop both their academic and social language while having fun.

Mentoring Tip: The Center for Early Childhood Education provides many resources to support our Early Childhood students and their teachers. View Supporting Oral Language Development in Dual Language Learners and follow the links for ideas for using the video as a professional development resource for your staff.


Bowley, Theresa. (2015) e-clips Supporting Oral Language Development in Dual Language Learners. The Center for Early Childhood Education.

Porcelli, A. & Tyler, C. (2008) A Quick Guide to Boosting English Acquisition. Portsmouth, N.H. First Hand Heinemann.

Trawick-Smith, Jeffery. (2011) e-clips The Importance of Play. The Center for Early Childhood Education.