Calling Into Question “Purposeful Play!”

On Tuesday, my teaching partner, Paula, and I went to the Board Office to share our findings as part of a Kindergarten Networking Group that we have been involved in this year. There were multiple teams of educators from around the Board that identified a need based on previous EDI results, explored how to address this need, and then reflected on the process. Listening to the presentations caused Paula and I to think a lot, question a lot, and examine some new possibilities. At multiple times during the day, different educator teams talked about “purposeful play.” It was the use of these words that led to me sending out a tweet, and engaging in an ongoing conversation with Kristi Keery-Bishop and Jill Snider about what I wrote.

I think Kristi and Jill make really important points here, and I’ve thought even more about this discussion as the week progressed. 

It all started during our outdoor learning time. Paula and I do not plan this time. We do not put out provocations, set-up activities, or restrict areas. Based on the number of staff members outside during this time, students can move freely between our outdoor classroom and the forest. Thinking about the Kindergarten Networking conversation on “purposeful play,” I wondered, would people see this play as “purposeful?” Maybe not. It lacks your typical structure, but it provides all kinds of purpose for students. 

      • For those children that need to run, they do.

  • For those children that want or need to climb, they do.

  • For those children that like the challenge of balancing, they try, persevere, and problem solve during this time.

  • For those children that want a quiet space to connect with friends, they find this spot outside.

  • For those children that want to write, they take this writing outside … and sometimes they even go and get a clipboard to bring this writing outside in the middle of play.

  • For those children that want to build, they find different reasons and opportunities to do so. They problem solve throughout the process.

  • For those children that want to tell stories, they do so outside. 

  • For those children that want to create art, make music, or engage in dramatic play, they create opportunities for that to happen. 

Exploring some abstract #art in the mud. #cti_documentation #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry

A post shared by Aviva (@avivaloca) on

I worry about what happens if we replace this kind of learning with structured alternatives. It’s as the students decide what they want to do in this outdoor space that they get what they need from the outdoors. This time helps many students self-regulate. It also sets the tone for the rest of the day. If children leave this space happy and calm, these feelings tend to continue when they come inside. We also often extend the learning from outside, indoors. Children have done this a lot this year, as they have taken logs from outside and brought them in to create numerous dinosaurs. This experience has led to reading, writing, math, and artistic problem solving experiences. If left up to me, the first dinosaur log would have never made it indoors, but thanks to my amazing teaching partner, I started to see things differently

Our Second Dinosaur Log

Maybe when it comes to “purposeful play,” we also need to be pushed to see things differently.

  • We have to watch closely and listening carefully to kids. We have to figure out the child’s “purpose” for the play.
  • We have to use the “noticing and naming” component in our updated Kindergarten Program Document as a way to link what children are doing to program expectations.
  • We have to be patient. Sometimes it takes a while to see where the learning is going and the connections to the various program expectations.
  • We have to use the questions that Stuart Shanker asks all the time — Why this child? Why now? — to think more about why children are saying and doing what they’re doing and to explore new ways to meet their needs. Maybe if we’re getting louder play and more problems, students are not telling us that they need “more structure,” but instead, a change of environment (e.g., moving from indoors to outdoors) or the reduction of a stressor (e.g., a quieter space or the use of headphones). 
  • We have to continue to develop strong relationships with kids. When we have these relationships, we will have a better understanding of what children really need and how we can support them.

I worry though if play is only seen as “purposeful” when it meets our greater goal. The Kindergarten Program Document explicitly states that we are supposed to start with the child’s interests and make the links to program expectations. I wonder if more structured play — especially play that is only structured by educators — holds true to this important component of the program document. I also wonder what message it communicates to children about being “competent and capable,” and if this aligns with the message that we want to send to them. How do we remember to see purpose in all play that’s happening in the classroom and value in the many things that our students are doing? I think our children deserve to have us view their play as purposeful, meaningful, developmentally-appropriate, and important. What about you?


14 thoughts on “Calling Into Question “Purposeful Play!”

  1. I am fascinated by your insight and documentation of natural learning. The artifactts and activities that the children in your care experience reflect all the best tents of modern learning that I have worked through at the secondary level – collaboration. critical analysis. and inquiry. The motivation to learn in your sphere is so elegantly couched in day to day adventures of the the 5 year old that I joyfully tag along just to see edu through their eyes. I do not see the provocation in this post. what am I missing?

    • Thank you, Chris! I really appreciate that. My teaching partner, Paula, has really helped me see the tremendous value to this outdoor learning, and it’s amazing to observe and listen to what happens in our forest space. I think we could truly spend the day outside. In terms of the “provocation,” I wonder if you’re referring to the “controversy” I mentioned in my tweet. I think that there are various viewpoints when it comes to “purposeful play,” and what I really noticed from Tuesday’s inservice is that often only some play is seen as “purposeful.” I have made these same kinds of comments myself before too. It was the Twitter conversation that helped me get to the heart of what bothers me about this phrase: all play is purposeful, but for whose purpose? Maybe we have to, at times, shift our perspective and see the “purpose” in some play that we do not identify as “purposeful.” I guess it’s the very idea of taking on “purposeful play” that could be controversial. Does this help?


  2. All I can say is Bravo Aviva! I’ve been communicating this for many, many years. It is so wonderful to see/read your perspective of the pedagogy of listening in action!
    Don’t forget to register Paula and your class for Outdoor Classroom Day on May 18th! More all day, unstructured play that is more than purposeful, it’s amazing!

    • Thank you, Gail! I know how much you support ALL play, and while it’s taken me a while to get here, I have definitely come to see the value in what you’ve shared for years.

      The Outdoor Classroom Day sounds AMAZING! Right now, we’re supposed to be on a field trip on May 18th, but we’re still waiting for confirmation of the date. I’m hoping that we can maybe explore another “outdoor day” instead. I will definitely read up more on this.


  3. I don’t believe there is a difference between play and purposeful play. I think the distinction we need to look at is whether or not the educator is supervising or assessing (for, as, and of).

    We need to accept that rich learning can happen without being initiated by instruction.

    • Thanks for your comment! Maybe it’s as we move from “supervising” to “assessment” that we also see the “purpose” behind this play that we might not have called “purposeful” before. It’s why I love to document what’s happening inside and outdoors, and explore this documentation with the students as well. Your comment is a great reminder that all play is purposeful.

      I think your last sentence is key as well. I wonder if this can also be a shift in thinking, as it could change the more traditional role (and responsibility) of the teacher.


  4. Your documentation shows us what we know to be so true for our learners, play is their work and their work is their play!

  5. Hi Aviva,
    Thanks for this wonderful post and focusing attention on the importance of children’s play that they create and direct. I agree with you that there is a worry if we only value the play that we feel has purpose – or that we have instigated for a specific purpose or goal.
    I think there can be a balance between play that is intentionally created or directed by educators and play that is purely from the children. Most programs do this.

    Love all the outdoor learning and recognition of what is happening out there! That is key – understanding that what we see in their free play is actually what it is that is in our Kindergarten document. We don’t always need to create it! It is already there! We just need to recognize it and build upon it.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sandra! I found this line of yours really interesting:

      “I think there can be a balance between play that is intentionally created or directed by educators and play that is purely from the children. Most programs do this.” I wonder how this kind of play aligns with the thinking in the Kindergarten document.

      How do we determine what this balance should look like? How do we ensure that ALL play aligns with the interests and needs of the children? I’d be curious to know what people do.

      Thanks for continuing this discussion!

      • I agree with your questions! So true. We must value and honour the free play of children within our programs. Purposeful play doesn’t mean teacher tasks but it does mean we are involved and sometimes are the ones to introduce questions, materials, ideas and content.
        You mention wondering how my statement about a balance between intentionally created by educators and purely from the children aligns with the document. Here are a few key statements from the Ontario Kindergarten document that talk about input and direction from both children and educators…
        Free play must have a place in our programs…
        “Children’s choices in play are the best starting points for the co-construction of learning with the child.” p. 12

        But that doesn’t mean that there is not explicit instruction…
        “providing explicit instruction at the moments and in the contexts when it is most likely to move a child or group of children forward
        in their learning.(p.13)

        As educators, we listen carefully to the ideas that the children are wrestling with and then design the environment and learning experiences to help the play be ‘purposeful’…
        “The learning experiences are designed by the educators to encourage the children to think creatively, to explore and investigate, to solve problems, self-regulate, and engage in the inquiry process, and to share their learning with others.” (p.13)

        I really like these MISCONCEPTIONS on p. 27. They articulate more clearly about the role of educators in children’s play…
        It is a misconception to think:
        “That play-based learning that “follows the children’s lead” means that the educators do not take an active role in designing children’s learning experiences as they collaborate with them in play or that they do not intentionally and purposefully inject planned opportunities for challenging and extending children’s
        thinking and learning” (p. 27)
        “That play is either teacher-initiated or child-initiated (rather than being a fluid, negotiated engagement)”
        “That only the children can generate ideas for inquiry, provoke thinking, or ask questions”
        “That the children determine what they will learn”

        Anyhow…Thank you for starting this important dialogue!

        • Thanks for your comment here, Sandra, and for making so many links to the program document. I guess that when I read these points — as I do again now — I see the role of the educator in the play, but I still think about how this play extends from the initial ideas shared by the child. This doesn’t mean that we don’t provide opportunities to learn about new things and to build schema. I blogged about this very thought last year when I taught students with very different background knowledge than our students this year. And I completely agree about the role of explicit instruction, questioning to challenge and extend thinking, and working together with children to extend play and possibly inspire a different use of materials, but I wonder if so much of this can still start with this “free play” and how we respond to it. Your comment makes me think about a conversation that I had with my teaching partner this morning. We were actually discussing this post and some of the comments on it, and were commenting on how nice it would be to have these conversations with other educators. Even with the pedagogy that is outlined so well in the new K Program Document, there is still a lot up for interpretation. This discussion speaks to that. I wonder if more conversations would help all of us see things differently, challenge our current beliefs, and promote new thinking and opportunities for children.


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