August 7, 2023

Transforming Education with Play-Based Learning: A New Zealand Success Story

Sarah Aiono, guest author

Sarah is a researcher, educator, and passionate play advocate with a Doctor of Education degree from Massey University in New Zealand. Having finished her doctoral research in 2020, she explored the influence of professional development on primary classroom play practices, identifying a set of teaching practices associated with optimal play pedagogy for children aged 5 – 12 years of age. As CEO of Longworth Education, Sarah leads a team of facilitators working across New Zealand schools, to coach teachers towards incorporating play pedagogy into daily classroom routines and embedding teaching practices that ensure quality teaching within play-based learning environments.

St Patrick’s School in Napier, New Zealand, serves a rich and diverse community and is home to approximately 385 students between the ages of 5 and 13. The school structure marries the old with the new, blending traditional single classrooms with contemporary open-plan shared hubs.  As a researcher and play advocate, I was excited to experience firsthand a transformation unfolding in this educational setting.  

"Band practice" on the school outside deck with loose parts, photo courtesy Kaehlah Dawson

The St Patrick’s teaching community is actively making the journey from traditional teaching and learning education methods—whereby children are required to be seated, learning from the teacher positioned at the front of the class—to learning through play, sparked by the passionate advocacy of a schoolteacher in the junior school eight years ago.  She recognised that children entering school needed a softer transition from play-based early learning childcare centers and kindergartens they were familiar with.  She understood that play was a powerful vehicle to foster a sense of safety and trust among young students, preparing them for a gradual immersion into formal literacy and numeracy learning as they matured.  

Heeding this insightful call, the junior school team bravely embarked on a journey to redefine their teaching environment. They transformed their classrooms into dynamic learning spaces, equipped for various play schemas that facilitated children in directing their own learning through play.  They made room for explicit ‘workshop’ teaching of literacy and numeracy.  Adopting primarily a play-all-day approach to their timetable, teachers worked to achieve a balance between adult guided, playful learning, and student-centred, child-led play experiences.  

Student created slide using cardboard tubing on the playground, photo courtesy Kaehlah Dawson

As the classroom environment became more child-centred and engaging, the teachers identified they needed professional development to understand and meet the curriculum learning needs emerging from the play they were observing. To achieve this, they partnered with Longworth Education, a play professional development provider in New Zealand (of which the author of this post is CEO).  Longworth uses a unique method of PLD: practice-based coaching combined with the Play Based Learning Observation Tool (P-BLOT; Aiono & McLaughlin, 2018). This approach allowed the teachers to get hands-on training in their classrooms and practice in integrating the science behind play as a teaching method in their daily routines. The PLD enabled the teachers to dive deep into the New Zealand curriculum, using the 'Notice, Recognise and Respond’ model and craft self-driving play learning opportunities for every student.  

In New Zealand, the curriculum is centered around a competencies-based approach to learning. Through the lens of play pedagogy, St Patrick’s School, like many others around New Zealand, is recognising that child-led play fosters these key competencies, which include self-management, creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking, relating to others, language development and cooperative learning.

Examining how a lawnmower works, photo courtesy Kaehlah Dawson

Additionally, teachers using 'Notice, Recognise and Respond' can identify various academic areas reflected in children’s self-directed play. These areas include science and technology, social sciences, the arts, health, and physical education.  Rather than directing children into specific play activities established by the teacher, observational data is utilised to reveal and track the progress of students exploring key concepts and skills in their play, reflective of these curriculum areas. This data analysis enables teachers to respond to the natural inquiries that arise within child-led play or introduce new concepts related to the play that encourage alternative understanding and exploration.

As a result of the pedagogical shift to play, St Patrick’s School is noticing tangible benefits for their students. School principal Gemma McLean shared that, despite interruptions and challenges such as COVID19 and extreme weather events in New Zealand, the school’s attendance rates have remained at over 90% this year and the children have been actively engaged in their learning. Mrs. McLean explained that “…most importantly, our children are super happy to be at school. If you take a walk around our school, at any time of the day or week, you will see, hear, and feel the buzz. The children and staff are thriving in their environment. The children are experiencing success in their learning by following their strengths and interests. They are demonstrating key dispositions, such as curiosity, problem-solving and innovative thinking. School is their place and space. Teachers are motivated, energized and taking brave and bold risks by exploring play pedagogy. This takes them right out of their comfort zones, but we are all so excited about the journey we are on!”

Construction in the sandpit, photo courtesy Kaehlah Dawson

Kaehlah Dawson, the Deputy Principal and Lead Play Coach at St Patricks’ School, has observed that because of play pedagogy, the children know they belong, and their contribution is valued and celebrated.  Students experience an environment that allows and encourages them to nurture the things they are passionate about.  Teachers work hard, however, to ensure the environment provides plenty of opportunity to be challenged, but in a way that children remain autonomous.  “Our students grow through their self-directed successes and failures, discovering what being a learner looks like and feels like.  Being a learner is not defined by test scores or how quickly they can add, or how beautifully they can sit at a desk, for example."

Walking around St Patrick’s during the school day is an enlightening experience as a researcher and play advocate.  The school has dedicated its efforts to harnessing play as an essential part of the educational journey for its students. It provides a rich example of the way in which play can be integrated into a school day with children of all ages.  Rather than kids seated at desks, with books open and glazed looks on their faces, the environment is filled with movement, engagement, excited voices, and a variety of creative and innovative learninge xperiences.  It also reflects the importance of a tailored and evidence-based professional development approach for teachers to develop confidence in implementing play pedagogy in ways that ensure positive learning outcomes for students and teachers.