IN RECENT YEARS THE CONCEPT of child-centred play as an informant to the early childhood curriculum has been critiqued as an insufficient pedagogical approach for supporting children’s knowledge development. Running in parallel with these criticisms has been the emerging importance of environmental education in early childhood curriculum. A key aspect of early childhood environmental education involves children experiencing and acquiring various environmental concepts. This paper reports the findings from a project aimed at examining play-based learning and the way different types of play can be used as a pedagogical basis for supporting children’s learning in early childhood environmental education. The arguments about play-based learning and the role of environmental education in early childhood curriculum are framed in relation to the newly released Australian Early Years Learning Framework.
Play-based learning and the early childhood curriculum
Play-based learning in the early childhood curriculum has historically been associated with the notion of child-centred pedagogy. While the idea of child-centredness might seem self-explanatory, a comprehensive investigation into how the term is used in the field by Chung and Walsh (2000) discovered that up to 40 different interpretations of the concept were found in texts associated with early learning. These interpretations included reference to learning based on children’s interests; children’s participation in the decisions related to their learning; and an emphasis on the individual development of children in relation to particular developmental stages (Chung & Walsh, 2000, p. 216). Chung and Walsh articulated these interpretations to the philosophical works of Froebel and Dewey and to the discourse of developmentalism. Historically, these theoretical and philosophical informants have suggested an emphasis on play-based learning that has seen curriculum informed by the idea that the child and the child’s experiences should be central to all learning (p. 229).
In recent years, the suggestion that the early childhood curriculum should be informed primarily by child-centred notions of play has been under increased discussion from a range of theoretical perspectives, including the cultural-historical, feminist, post-structuralist and post-modern movements (Wood, 2010; Yelland & Kilderry, 2005). Collectively, these discussions are increasingly referenced by the term ‘post-developmental’ (Blaise, 2009), and have raised questions regarding the social, cultural, gendered and economic assumptions associated with the role of child-centred play in early childhood curriculum (Langford, 2010). An important aspect of the post-development conversation has been consideration of the extent to which children are supported in the acquisition of content knowledge through child-centred play (Hedges & Cullen, 2005; Tzuo, 2007), particularly where play-based learning involves a predominance of open-ended and freely chosen play activities:
The established child-centred ideology reinforced the focus on activities rather than outcomes, and less attention was paid to specifying desirable knowledge, skills, understanding, dispositions, and outcomes, within a clearly articulated curriculum framework. The notion that curriculum content arises through needs and interests was one of the key weaknesses of the developmental approach (Darling, 1994; cited in text). For example, showing an interest in a range of topics or activities is not the same as making meaningful connections in which learners acquire, test, refine and reflect on their knowledge and skills (Wood, 2007, p. 123).
The research emerging from a reconsideration of child-centred play in the early childhood curriculum is contributing to a depth of knowledge regarding the importance of teacher interactions during children’s play (Fleer, 2010; Siraj-Blatchford, Taggart, Sylva, Sammons & Melhusih, 2008; Ryan & Goffin, 2008); the relationship between children’s cultural experiences and their funds of knowledge as a precursor to play-based learning (Brooker, 2005; Hedges, 2008); and the role of teacher planning for learning in play-based activities (Edwards, Cutter-Mackenzie & Hunt, 2010; Gibbons, 2007). Collectively, increased research and theorisation in the field is beginning to suggest that 1) play-based learning needs to draw on and recognise children’s existing cultural competencies; 2) acknowledge and actively include the role of the adult educator in connecting children’s play activities to particular conceptual and content-based ideas; and 3) promote the importance of teacher planning for learning in relation to children’s play and the acquisition of content knowledge. Contemporary research regarding the role of play in the early childhood curriculum therefore represents a shift from the primary developmental child-centred orientation to a focus on the nature of the dynamic relationship between children (learners), teachers and content (Ball & Forzani, 2007; Grieshaber, 2008) within a play-based framework that moves beyond child-centred versus teacher-directed dichotomies (Broadhead, Wood & Howard, 2010).
Early childhood environmental education
The importance of the early years has been acknowledged and recognised in environmental education for some time (Carson, 1965). While emerging discussion in the area has suggested that Australian early childhood environmental education may be viewed as ‘marginal’ (Davis & Elliot, 2003), an historical, philosophical connection to nature-based learning in the early years can be derived from the early philosophical works of Frobel. Interestingly, it is these works that are also connected to notions of the naturally unfolding capacities of the child which support arguments regarding the role of child-centeredness and open-ended play in early childhood education. In recent years, increased development around school-based environmental education, policies and curricula has generated increased interest in the role of environmental education in early childhood education. Despite this increased interest, there has been very little research concerning early childhood education and environmental education. For example, Davis (2009) reported that during the period 1996–2007 less than 5% of published papers in Australian and international early childhood research journals involved studies concerned with environmental education and early childhood education. Davis (2005; 2009) and Elliott and Davis (2007; 2009) have also argued that there are very few early childhood centres and/or kindergartens in Australia (and internationally) that are demonstrating exemplary environmental education practice. Despite such claims, it is also reasonable to argue from what discussion is available that the practice of environmental education in early childhood currently requires more investigation.
For many years, teachers, parents, researchers and policy-makers have asked pertinent questions about the influence of early childhood environmental education experiences on children’s dispositions, knowledge and behaviours later in life (Chawla & Cushing, 2007; Palmer, 1993; Palmer, Suggate, Robottom & Hart, 1999). Palmer and colleagues (1993; 1999) and Chawla and Cushing (2007) have both independently researched this question with adult environmental educators, and have shown a convincing relationship between childhood experiences in nature and the formation of pro-environment beliefs and lifestyles later in life. However, these studies are difficult to relate to children’s contemporary experiences, given the pace of the last two decades where children are living in textual, visual, virtual and highly digitised worlds (Zevenbergen, 2007). As such, there is urgent need for research about the practice of early childhood environmental education and the way in which this is conducted in educational contexts with an emphasis on child-centeredness and the use of play-based learning over the acquisition of content knowledge (Cutter-Mackenzie & Edwards, 2006).
Play-based learning, early childhood environmental education and the Australian Early Years Learning Framework
Postdevelopmental research into play-based learning and the role of environmental education in early childhood curriculum have largely evolved independently of each other during the last 10 to 15 years. However, it is interesting to note that these two important aspects of contemporary early childhood curriculum were both recently represented as key elements of Australia’s newly released national Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), 2009). The EYLF outlines the principles, practices and outcomes considered necessary for supporting young children’s (birth to five years) development and learning in early childhood prior-to-school settings across Australia and is a key component of the Australian Government’s National Quality Framework (DEEWR, 2010). In this document ‘play’ is presented as a pedagogical practice that connects with children’s learning, while environmental education is related to children’s learning spaces, and is also listed as a subcategory of Learning Outcome Two (Children are connected with and contribute to their world).
The definition of play provided in the EYLF includes historical and contemporary arguments about the role of play in children’s learning. Initially drawing on a more traditional child-centred view, play is defined as providing ‘opportunities for children to learn as they discover, create, improvise and imagine’ (DEEWR, 2009, p. 5). This definition is followed by an expanded description which acknowledges some of the more contemporary research suggesting the need for active involvement on part of the educator to support children’s learning:
Early childhood educators take on many roles in play with children and use a range of strategies to support learning. They engage in sustained shared conversations with children to extend their thinking (Siraj-Blatchford & Sylva, 2004; cited in text). They provide a balance between child led, child initiated and educator supported learning (DEEWR, 2009, p. 5).
Interestingly, this definition of play is followed by an explanation of the concept ‘intentional teaching’ which is defined as teaching that is ‘deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful’ (DEEWR, 2009, p. 5.). The notion of intentional teaching challenges the child-centred perspective on play in which children are encouraged to create their own learning and understandings through open-ended and largely self-directed play by focusing also on the role of the teacher in play-based learning. Several pedagogical strategies related to intentional teaching are suggested, including modelling and demonstrating, open questioning, speculating, explaining and engaging in shared thinking and problem solving. The importance of planning for intentional teaching and knowledge building to foster learning is also acknowledged.
Environmental education is referenced in two places in the document. First in relation to ‘Learning Environments’ as an aspect of practice, and secondly as a subcategory of Learning Outcome Two: ‘Children are connected with and contribute to their world’. As an aspect of practice, the outdoors is emphasised as a uniquely Australian learning environment for young children that provides a platform for ongoing environmental education:
Outdoor learning spaces are a feature of Australian learning environments. They offer a vast array of possibilities not available indoors. Play spaces natural environments include plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud, water and other elements from nature. These spaces invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature. They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education (DEEWR, 2009, p. 16).
Learning Outcome Two ‘Children are connected with and contribute to their world’ contains reference to a specific subcategory regarding environmental education; namely ‘children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment’. Several indicators for this outcome are listed, suggesting children evidence such responsibility and respect when they:
- use play to investigate, project and explore new ideas
- participate with others to solve problems and contribute to group outcomes
- demonstrate an increasing knowledge of, and respect for, nature and constructed environments
- explore, infer, predict and hypothesise in order to develop an increased understanding of the interdependence between land, people, plants and animals
- show growing appreciation and care for natural and constructed environments
- explore relationships with other living and non-living things and observe, notice and respond to change
- develop an awareness of the impact of human activity on environments and the interdependence of living things (DEEWR, 2009, p. 29).
The positioning of environmental education in the EYLF reflects policy developments in the field of early childhood environmental education in which environmental education is positioned as important in children’s broad early learning experiences (Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, 2009; United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), 2008). It is interesting that the emphasis in these goals is clearly environmental education rather than sustainability, education for sustainability (EFS) or education for sustainable development (EFSD). This reflects contemporary, yet critical thinking in environmental education research and policy development (Jickling, 2006; Jickling & Spork, 1998) which is yet to more fully inform research and policy in early childhood environmental education (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2005). For example, a recent policy document by UNESCO (2008) is indicative of this stance, suggesting that ‘early childhood education for sustainability is much more than environmental education. It should be broader than simply taking children outdoors to discover the beauty of nature and speaking about the natural environment’ (p. 12). Defining environmental education as merely a study of nature suggests early childhood education may need to engage more fully with the literature derived from environmental education research, policy and development.
While the EYLF references contemporary research into play-based learning and includes elements of environmental education as learning outcomes for children, the connections between these two emerging areas of research and practice in early childhood education require further consideration (Davis, 2009). What does play-based learning interfaced with conceptions of teacher intentionality actually look like? And, in what ways can play-based learning be used to achieve the learning outcomes associated with environmental education from the EYLF? Answers to these questions are beginning to emerge from a research project aimed at investigating how different play-types impact teacher planning for learning, and how teacher interactions with children during these play-types support learning in the area of environmental education.
Project overview: Examining play-based approaches to learning through environmental education
The project examines the extent to which different types of play influence teacher planning for learning as well as their pedagogical interactions with children during play as a support. Three types of play are under consideration, including open-ended play, modelled play and purposefully framed play (Edwards, et al., 2010). Open-ended play involves teachers providing children with materials related to particular concepts derived from environmental education and allowing children to use the materials to create their own understandings of the concepts. Modelled play involves teachers ‘showing’ children how to use the materials to illustrate environmental education concepts prior to allowing the children to use the materials themselves. Purposefully framed play involves teachers providing children with opportunities to use the materials as well as participating in modelled-play experiences.
Sixteen early learning centres across Melbourne, including inner city locations, outer suburban and metropolitan settings have been involved in the project. All settings have included children and teachers from preschools with children aged four to five years (n = 114), and the teachers (n = 16; three male and 13 female) all being qualified at the Bachelor degree or higher level. All teachers designed and implemented the three play-types for groups of up to six children per centre. Teachers self-selected into the play clusters and each cluster then implemented the play-types in a different order. For example, the three teachers working in Cluster one implemented open-ended play, then modelled play and then purposefully framed play. Teachers from Cluster two implemented open-ended play, purposefully framed play and modelled play. In total there were six clusters each implementing a different iteration of the play-types. Teachers maintained their normal planning and curriculum documentation, in addition to completing reflective journals. Each implementation of the three play-types was video-recorded and the recordings later shown to the children as the basis of a video-stimulated recall group interview. These group interviews were also video-recorded and focused on discussing with the children what they were doing, and what they believed they were learning during their participation in each play-type. The group interview footage was later shown to the teachers who discussed the children’s responses to their participation in each play-type in relation to their planning for the learning, and their interactions with the children during each play-type. The teacher interviews were also video-recorded.
When planning the play-types, teachers were encouraged to embed concepts of biodiversity into the play experiences. Biodiversity was selected as the conceptual focus area of environmental education as previous research has suggested that it is an area which connects strongly with the lives of young children and teachers and is suitable for integrating into the early childhood curriculum (Carson, 1965; Cutter-Mackenzie & Edwards, 2006; Pearson & Degotardi, 2009). Within the area of biodiversity, teachers were provided with a concept map suggesting ways to think about the concept and how it could be considered within an early childhood context (Figure 1). From this map, each teacher selected the main concept that would inform the three play experiences he or she would implement according to the order of play-type their cluster was assigned. This meant some teachers focused on macro invertebrate (backyard) or Australian animal habitats, whilst others focused on plants, growing food, composting and worm farms. The project was conducted with ethical approval from Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. A core aspect of the ethical procedures involved obtaining consent from children and parents/families. Child consent was sought using a child-friendly explanatory statement and consent form (for example, circling a smiling face to indicate consent) prior to participation. On actual days of data collection all children with prior and family consent were invited verbally to participate in the associated activities. Children declining to participate or showing signs of not wanting to be involved (for example asking to leave the activity once they had commenced) were permitted to do so.
Due to the large scale of the project, data analysis for the wider project is still progressing. However early analysis suggests that the implementation of the three play-types allowed the teachers to think more carefully about what they wanted the children to learn and how they would approach this learning as the three play-types were implemented. This paper focuses on the experiences of one teacher from Cluster three who implemented modelled play, then open-ended play and finally purposefully framed play. While the analysis of data within the larger project is focused on linking the children’s responses to the levels of teacher planning and the range of pedagogical strategies employed in each play-type, this paper focuses on a qualitative thematic analysis of the teacher’s response to the combined play-types in relation her thinking about the relationship between teacher planning, intentional teaching and the children’s learning about biodiversity. Initially the data was coded according each play-type with connections across play-types then identified as a way of examining the relationship between teacher planning, intentional teaching and the children’s learning. In the larger project, the linking between the children’s responses to the teacher planning and the range of pedagogical strategies employed in each play-type is situated in relation to the children’s responses to their own play, using video-stimulated recall. Here the children’s descriptions of their play and learning are linked to the teacher’s planning documents and video footage of the teachers engaged in each play-type with the children. The video analysis software Snapper is being used to code teacher pedagogical strategies and children’s descriptions of play and learning. These codes are then being entered into SPSS and used as a basis for linking the children’s responses to the different levels of teacher planning and pedagogical interaction for each play-type.
Karin's play experiences: Worm farms and the vegetable garden
Karin was one of three teachers involved in Cluster three. Karin’s centre was located in a suburban area of Melbourne and served children from a predominately Western-European middle class socioeconomic community. Karin’s play experiences were designed to build on the children’s existing interest in the kindergarten vegetable garden and focused on building worm farms with a small group of children who participated in the project. The focus on worm farms was also connected to the vegetable garden and the project was extended to the rest of the kindergarten group.
For her modelled-play experience Karin prepared a table of materials for making worm farms in large jars. She had small buckets containing sand, soil and leaves. There was also a book about worms open at a page focused on making a worm farm. There were five large glass jars, one for herself and one each for the four participating children. Karin invited the children to the table and said that today she wanted to show them how to make a worm farm. She started layering the materials in her jar, dirt first, then sand, dirt and sand. Finally she placed leaves on the top. She talked to the children about what she was doing and stopped to check her jar against the example in the book. Three of the four children watched her demonstration. The fourth child declined to participate and wanted to paint instead. In line with the ethical principles of consent the child’s painting request was honoured. Following her demonstration the three children began to create their own farms. They began with the dirt and layered the sand and dirt as demonstrated. One child checked her jar against the book as she had seen Karin do. The fourth child left her painting and came over to make a worm farm. The children explained to her what she needed to do. Karin returned and opened a box of worms which she then shared among the children.
Karin laid out the same materials that were used for making a worm farm as in the modelled-play experience. The four children from the modelled-play activity were invited to participate in making a worm farm again. Karin said to the children ‘I am going to do some work now and leave you to make your own worm farms.’ She left the table and went to another part of the room. Karin’s model worm farm from the first experience was leaning against the book. One of the children looked at Karin’s model carefully before building her farm with an initial layer of dirt. Another child said ‘Karin it says dirt first but I want to use sand.’ She began with a layer of sand, then dirt and added a handful of leaves before adding more sand. ‘Karin, I am done’, she called, ‘I have made some mud for them.’ Karin returned to the table and helped the children to add their worms to the farms.
Purposefully framed play
Karin gathered the four participating children around her on an outside mat. She began by showing the children a worm puppet which had a material saddle around its body. ‘There is something interesting about this worm. It has a saddle’, she said. This led to a discussion about the characteristics of worms. Do they have eyes? Do they like to live in dark or light places? Do they have legs or arms? Karin and the children talked about how the worms like to burrow down into the dirt and how the worms can die if their skin dries out. Next Karin showed the children a non-fiction book about worm habitats and they talked about how the worms live in the soil and are protected by the leaf litter. Karin showed an illustration of a worm working its way towards the leaf litter and talked about how the worm takes tiny pieces of leaf back into the soil. After looking at the book, Karin introduced the children to a poem about worms (Slimy worms by Susie Davies) and then began discussing what they had done on the previous occasions when they had made the worm farms. Karin invited the children into the yard to collect the materials necessary for building a worm farm. The children collected dirt, sand and leaves without further direction and went to a table with more jars for making farms. Karin showed the children the farms they had made earlier and pointed out the tracks left by the worms as they worked their way to the top of the jars towards the leaves. She talked about how the worms used the leaves to make a special ‘worm juice’ called castings and suggested they put the castings on their vegetable garden to help make the soil warm and moist for the vegetables to grow in. The children began making a worm farm each and Karin continued to read from the book: ‘worms are busy creatures and they play an important role in the garden keeping the soil in good condition’. Karin helped the children add worms to the jars. Two of the children were reluctant to touch the worms saying they were ‘ticklish and scary’, while two others held them in their hands before placing them in their jars.
Karin's thoughts-linking the play-types and the learning
During the teacher interview Karin shared her thoughts about the relationship between the play-types, her planning for the children’s learning and the learning she believed had occurred. One of the most interesting findings to emerge from Karin’s interview was the way in which participation in the project had challenged her thinking about the relationship between planning for intentional teaching and the children’s acquisition of content knowledge through the different play-types (Edwards et al. 2010). It was also interesting to note the way in which the work of the children participating in the research was integrated with the work of the larger group. These two findings evolved during the interview as Karin discussed the difference between working with the children on the worm farms through the three play-types compared to a previous implementation when the entire group built one large farm:
It was really nice to re-visit the activities, doing the three sessions, which I probably wouldn’t do, you know, if we made a worm farm once, we wouldn’t have gone back and done that specific activity again unless other children hadn’t experienced it. So I think there was a bit of enriching there doing it three times.
Karin was asked if she was to do the activity in the future would she continue to implement the activity once with the larger group, or would she a take a different approach derived from her use of the three play-types:
The three-play types, I found that a good way of teaching. You know to actually have it the three ways and to see what they were learning. That made me really think and reflect quite a bit. The three play-types, it was a bit like scaffolding, like each time, even though in the modelled they seemed to have gained the most. But I still think each time they were learning more about the worms and getting a depth of learning.
Here Karin was interested in the way in which the three play-types had worked in combination to support the children’s learning about the ideas associated with environmental education. So rather than focusing on one implementation of the experience, or thinking about using only one play-type (such as open-ended play) Karin reflected on the way in which using the three play-types together seemed to support deeper learning for the four children participating in the research. This finding aligns with research suggesting that open-ended play alone is insufficient for supporting children’s learning (Hedges & Cullen, 2005; Langford, 2010). Karin then talked about how the learning of the four focus children extended throughout the group:
We had lots of discussion after the activities (after the filming) and what I thought has been lovely has been this group of children (research group) has been teaching the other children. So there has been lots of interest and questions and lots of perusal of books about it. We made a big worm farm all together (the whole group) after the three play sessions. The four children, they participated in this, and they talked about it and showed the others. They were quite keen to go and get their jars and show the children the tracks. There was a lot of inquiry.
Karin suggested that the depth of knowledge obtained by the four children was illustrated by their capacity to engage with and lead the other children. A consequence of this was that the children were then able to participate in peer learning, a form of learning highly valued by Karin:
To be able to talk to the other children about the different things, like the saddle and the babies and what worms like. I thought that it was very interesting to hear what they had retained each time. Even to talk about the soil and the compost and putting that all together. In one of our discussions we were looking at the leaves in the book and talking about the worm taking the leaf down and one of them said ‘it needs to make air through the track’ so there was a lot thought. I liked it when the children were teaching the other children because it is good learning for them. They learn a lot from their peers. There was one child (not in the research group) and he said he found a worm at home and it didn’t have a saddle. So he was using the words, he had the knowledge of what a saddle is.
When asked how the implementation of three play-types compared to her previous approach of implementing the experience as a ‘one-off’ activity, Karin suggested that having modelled play and open-ended play prior to purposefully framed play had made her think more carefully about her pedagogical strategies and how she was going to help the children learn the content associated with the worm farm:
I think having the three play-types and going into the purposefully framed (after the modelled and open) had me really thinking about what I was going to do, what I was going to discuss with them and how I was going to build on that knowledge. The play-types really did make me think about it a lot more.
The increased level of thinking about how she would teach what she wanted the children to learn through the play-types was considered by Karin to have supported the learning of the four research children which was extended to the broader group. Karin suggested that having made the farms three times in the jars with the smaller group meant that there were models for the other children to learn from:
It gave that little group a chance to teach the others. In the larger group the discussions were led a lot more by the small group. I think having this smaller group made it move in a different direction. When we went outside, they were actually showing the others the tracks in their jars. And that probably made a difference to the understanding of the others. Because if you think we’re going to say ‘we are going to make a worm farm’ and you just make it, well, you might talk to them about tracks and what the worms are going to do, but they can’t see it. They don’t know what tracks are. But if you have the other children and they can go and get their jars and say ‘look at the tracks’ well that’s a big connection.
Here Karin was discussing a shifting pedagogical approach in which her thinking about the relationship between intentional teaching, play and the learning were linked to use of the three play-types in combination. This was a particularly interesting suggestion, as the initial aim of the project had been to determine which of three play-types was more likely to prompt teachers to plan for learning, and therefore allow the children to talk more readily about what they had learned. However, Karin described how the combined play-types prompted her to plan for intentional teaching in a way which supported the learning of the core research group which was then integrated into the learning of the larger group. This suggests a tentative response to the questions raised earlier about how play-based learning might be integrated with intentional teaching to allow children to achieve the learning outcomes associated with environmental education from the ELYF. Karin’s experience suggests that the three play-types build on each other to form a structure in which the children can continue to build a depth of knowledge, rather than having a one-off learning experience through a particular activity or through participation in only one play-type. This finding builds on existing research which emphasises the importance of teacher interactions during play (see for example, Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2008 and Thorpe et al., 2004). Karin referred to this as ‘a bit like scaffolding each time’ which indicates an alternative way of thinking about intentional teaching, such that it could be considered in terms of how the three play-types will ‘lead into’ each other as a basis for scaffolding deeper learning over time. In part, this more scaffolded or structured approach to play and intentional teaching reflects the fact that learning about the environment involves learning particular content and concepts which children may not necessarily access through child-centred play (Wood, 2007). Karin touched on this when she compared the difference between the play-types, and what each might offer in terms of children’s learning:
I think with a science concept it needs to be modelled. It needs to have teacher interaction and direction. I think with a specific activity it needs to have some teacher interaction. Open-ended is important for imaginative play and socio-dramatic play. I don’t think a child will just go and make a worm form for open-ended play. Something like this needs to be modelled and discussed.
Karin’s experience of the three play-types and the worm farms suggests one way of thinking about how intentional teaching can be integrated with play-based learning to support children’s learning in the area of environmental education. This moves towards an integrated approach in which pedagogical strategies associated with each play-type can be combined to create an overall learning experience. For example, open-ended play can be used to explore the properties of materials that might be used in modelled play to illustrate particular content knowledge, while the illustrations from modelled play can form the basis of child–teacher interactions and discussions during purposefully framed play. In this way, no one play-type is positioned as having greater pedagogical value than another—rather they each offer pedagogical strengths which can be harnessed to help children begin to explore and understand content knowledge associated with different aspects of environmental education.
Implications and conclusions
Karin’s interpretation of the three play-types as pedagogically linked suggests that children can learn content knowledge associated with environmental education within the context of the early childhood curriculum. Thinking about the three play-types in combination rather than focusing on what each has to offer teaching and learning as a single pedagogical platform provides a way of responding to the literature which increasingly emphasises the role of teacher interactions during play (Fleer, 2010; Ryan & Goffin, 2008; Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2008) and teacher planning for learning before play (Edwards et al., 2010; Gibbons, 2007). These ideas, which are reflected in the EYLF through the concepts of play and intentional teaching (DEEWR, 2009, p. 5) are perhaps best realised when they are implemented in relation to particular content areas. Historical and emerging research suggests that environmental education is highly important in early childhood education (Carson, 1965; Davis, 2009; Cutter-Mackenzie & Edwards, 2006; UNESCO, 2008) and the inclusion of environmental education in the EYLF reflects this stance (DEEWR, 2009, p. 29). Early findings from this project suggests that intentional teaching and play-based learning may be framed according to the integration of the three play-types which support the acquisition of content knowledge associated with environmental education. Importantly, this suggestion aligns with research findings arguing the benefits of a bi-directional relationship between play and the curriculum, whereby educators work to develop ‘mixed or integrated pedagogies that are planned intentionally to help children learn specific skills and concepts, whilst play-generated curriculum activities can emerge for children’s spontaneous interests and activities’ (Wood, 2007, p. 130). Movement towards this form of play-based curriculum suggests potential for reducing dichotomous arguments about child-centredness versus teacher-centredness and allows for the dynamic relationship between children, teachers and content to be more effectively realised through play (Ball & Forzani, 2007; Grieshaber, 2008). Such pedagogies of play further lend themselves to an environmentalising of early childhood education curriculum.
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The work presented in this project was supported by funding from the Australian Research Council under the Discovery Projects Scheme and with ethical approval from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Monash University Human Research Ethics Committee. The authors wish to thank the participating children, families and teachers for their contribution to the project. Karin’s contributions to the work presented in this paper are particularly acknowledged. The authors also wish to acknowledge support with fieldwork and data management provided by Deb Moore, Tracy Young, Sylvia Almedia and Tiffany Cutter.
Australasian Journal of Early Childhood – Volume 36 No 1 February 2011
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Vol. 36 No 1 February 2010
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