PART 5: Play


    In Part 5, we examine infant and toddler play and exploration, looking at the kind of play that infants and toddlers engage in, and the type of play material and support that best facilitate their play. We have some gorgeous footage of infants and toddlers at play from The Rumpus Room, Auckland, as well as an interview with their teachers, to share with you.

    The aims of this part of the course are:

    • To develop an understanding of play, and the specific forms of play that infants and toddlers engage in
    • To consider appropriate materials for infant and toddler play
    • To increase skills in observing infants and toddlers at play, using a range of concepts for analysing play and learning.

    This will involve:

    1. Reading about types of play and why play is an important form of learning
    2. Watching and analysing videos of infants and toddlers at play
    3. Reading about the materials that are best suited to infant and toddler play
    4. Watching and analysing a video of a toddler engaging with materials
    5. Watching an interview with teachers from The Rumpus Room as they discuss how they support and facilitate play
    6. Reflecting on how the ideas in this part fit with the key concepts from other parts of the course
    7. Putting your learning into practice by observing your focus child at play

    Revisit your learning so far

    How many of the eight features of quality caregiving can you remember?

    The eight principles of quality caregiving introduced in the reading were: key teaching, continuity of care, effective settling, adapting to the child, attentive responsiveness, partnership, maximising learning and widening relationships with others.


    Read What is play and why is it important for learning?, which introduces the importance of play in early childhood pedagogies. The reading introduces three types of play. As you read, think about which of these might be most suitable for infants and toddlers, and why. 

    What is play and why is it important for learning?

    Play is multi-faceted, complex and dynamic, eluding easy definition. It is usually felt to be a universal activity and children are often portrayed as having an inherent desire and capacity to play.

    Play has been defined as an activity that is:

    • characterised by engagement and engagement, with high levels of involvement, engrossment and intrinsic motivation
    • imaginative, creative, and non-literal
    • voluntary or freely chosen, personally directed (often child-initiated) and free from externally imposed rules
    • fluid and active but also guided by mental rules and high levels of metacognition and metacommunication (communication about communication) which give it structure
    • process-driven rather than product-driven, with no extrinsic goals

    Play can take different forms, with common categories that can and do overlap within a given episode of play. These include exploratory play with objects, physical play, pretend, fantasy or dramatic play, games and puzzles and other play involving explicit rules, constructive play (including artistic and musical play), language play (play with words and other features of language such as rhyme) and outdoor play.

    Play can also be categorised in relation to the relative amount of power and control afforded to the players:

    • Free or ‘pure’ play: Children have all the control, and adults are passive observers
    • Guided play: Teacher-child collaboration, with the child’s interests foregrounded
    • Playful teaching: The teacher is in charge

    These three kinds of play are associated with different outcomes and are relevant to teachers in determining the kinds of play, or combinations of kinds of play, to offer within school and early childhood settings.

    What is free play?

    Free play is child-initiated and child-directed. Children choose their activities and focus, enabling unconstrained freedom of expression and open-ended interactions with their environment. Play is initiated, sustained and developed by children, and free of adult influence, although this does mean that it focuses on ideas, content and language that are already familiar and known to children. Some researchers question the extent to which free play is truly free, as children’s choices about what, how, where and with whom to play may be influenced by the play environment and its associated rules and boundaries (which are controlled by adults), and the choices of others about what to play. Gender, ethnicity, social class and disability may also affect their patterns of participation.

    What is guided play?

    Guided play (also called ‘scaffolded play’ or ‘mutually directed’ play) is child-centred and goal-directed. Guided play invites children’s active engagement, free exploration and direction of play, but also has clear learning goals so that play behaviours are limited in useful ways and distraction is reduced. Children’s initiatives, reflections, choices, and creativity are important as a context for teachers to extend children’s knowledge, understanding and skills. They allow teachers to naturally integrate desired learning outcomes with children’s play and infuse play with new and unfamiliar content and ideas. Teachers are sensitive and responsive to children’s interests and interactions while maintaining a focus on learning goals through deliberate, purposeful, and intentional teaching strategies. These might include commenting on discoveries, offering feedback, demonstrating use of equipment, reinforcing specific vocabulary or helping the child explore new strategies for problem-solving, within the context of the activities that children are constructing.

    Teachers also initiate and co-construct play with children. They might design a learning activity that incorporates a child’s specific interest, or choose themes and contexts for dramatic play that is based on children’s interests or significant events and links to specific learning objectives. Teachers and children collaboratively design the context of the play, including the theme and its resources, and then children develop their play within the rules and actions of that context.

    What is teacher-directed play?

    Teacher-directed play involves teacher-determined activities, outcomes and modes of engagement. Teachers use a playful, engaging manner to develop children’s academic skills and knowledge, focusing on playful learning processes, fun and enjoyment, and the use and development of children’s creativity to invite children’s active engagement. However, unlike free and guided play, teachers retain tight control over what occurs, outlining specific rules of play for children to follow, specifying how children are expected to engage in the activities, and generally structuring activities within a given time frame to ensure specific learning outcomes.

    The development of play

    During early childhood, children’s play becomes increasingly complex, involving high levels of organisation and requiring increasingly sophisticated social, physical and cognitive skills. Although all children engage in a range of different play types, some are more prevalent at different ages. Infants and toddlers engage in exploratory and social play (such as ‘peek-a-boo’). Exploration precedes play, and is a time of gathering information and discovering the properties and attributes of an object, situation or idea. Toddlers develop ‘functional play’ involving the repetition of particular physical actions and early pretend play.

    Does play lead to effective learning?

    The current research does not make it possible to determine whether play is crucial to development, whether it is merely one way to promote development alongside others which may work as well or even better, or whether play is a byproduct of other capacities that are the actual source of children’s learning and development, such as social intelligence or language skill. Many studies of the impact of play on learning are found to have methodological weaknesses and there is a lack of replication of findings between studies that have small and relatively homogeneous samples. Some of the research findings directly conflict each other, and lead to opposing recommendations for practice.

    However, much of the research concludes that play is a powerful learning mode and central to children’s learning. Play integrates children’s experiences, knowledge and representations in order to help them create meaning and sense and to understand the world. The impact of play is multifaceted, supporting cognitive, emotional, social and physical development including:

    • Benefits for wellbeing, including higher self-efficacy, higher expectations for one’s success, intrinsic motivation, and positive attitudes towards the early childhood setting or school.
    • Academic/cognitive benefits: play supports exploratory skills and discovery, the use of abstract thought and symbols, communication and oral language skills, verbal intelligence, imagination and creativity, and reading, writing and mathematics. Play also encourages important learning dispositions, engagement and participation and the integration of different cognitive processes. Play develops self-regulatory executive function skills (such as controlling attention, suppressing impulses, flexibly redirecting thought and behaviour, and holding and using information in working memory), metacognitive skills and problem-solving.
    • Social and emotional benefits including social skills such as making friends, empathy, expressing emotion, and conflict resolution. Play can also build resilience.
    • Physical benefits in terms of the development of large and small body muscles and motor skills, while the physicality of play is associated with improved cognitive function, behavioural and cognitive control, and academic achievement.

    While we should always be critical and reflective about any pedagogy that we use, including the play pedagogies which are so well-established in early childhood teaching in Aotearoa New Zealand, it is generally agreed that for infants and toddlers, the provision of free play is highly important, due to their stage of play development. Infants and toddlers engage predominantly in exploratory play – it is how they learn about their world and the people and materials in it, by interacting with people, places, and things in an active manner. In an infant and toddler context, you will notice that infants and toddlers play with very little direction or guidance from others. That doesn’t mean that you leave them to it, but rather that your role is to facilitate and observe. We will discuss this more a bit later. 

    Remember, too, the image of the infant and toddler that underpins the pedagogical practices we are developing in this course. Infants and toddlers are seen as highly competent, capable learners, able to make choices and determine their own learning. Free play provision is a really good fit for our practice when we hold this image of the child.

    The following two videos demonstrate the play developmental stages described in the reading.

    Watch a video

    Watch these two examples of infant and toddler play from The Rumpus Room in Auckland. Here we have two examples: a younger infant, Jack, engaging in exploratory play, and two toddlers, William and Ollie, engaging in ‘functional’ play, involving the repetition of actions and early pretend play. 


    Look again at the reading and the list of valued learning that play in early childhood promotes (benefits for wellbeing, academic/cognitive benefits, social and emotional benefits, and physical benefits), and then go back to each video. Can you make a list of valued learning outcomes that the children are achieving through their play? What role do you think their teachers took in this play?

    The infant, Jack, playing with the cone and the ball is engaged in some excellent exploration. He is learning dispositions for focusing on a task, persisting and correcting errors, and paying attention to where the ball is. He is constructing working theories about what will happen to the ball with each action, sometimes surprising himself with the results of his experiments. He is exploring concepts such as containment and concealment, and he experiments with using it as a tool by holding it up to his face like a megaphone! There is also a lot of physical skill involved in negotiating this self-directed activity, particularly involving balancing and reaching – we will look more at the affordances of play for physical development in the next part of the course. He also demonstrates a social connection when he looks up at the teacher taking the video and shares a smile with her. His wellbeing is evident through his vocalisations and bodily sense of satisfaction – this play is supporting him to develop a sense of pride and self-efficacy as a learner.

    In the second video, William and Ollie are also sharing a social connection, enjoying their shared and parallel play. This play is more ‘functional’ than in the previous video, because the children are engaging in pretend behaviours, mimicking what they have seen others do with this equipment. They might be imitating or imagining cooking play. They are practising a range of physical actions involved in using tools, such as scooping and pouring. Through their filling and emptying, they are also learning about concepts such as capacity (those pans and pots are full!) and heavy – look how they try to tip the frying pan backwards and forwards. They need to work together with both of their hands on the handle to make this tipping and shaking work. They are learning to collaborate in a task, all without verbal language. There is a great deal of exploratory play in which the children are experimenting with the properties of the tools and materials they use, such as banging on the side of the saucepans. Again, the laughter and shared enjoyment of this play indicate high levels of wellbeing and confidence.

    The materials that the children are playing with in the videos are simple, everyday items: a ball and a cone, saucepans, spoons and sand. These materials facilitate and inspire the play, and therefore providing materials for play that will stretch infants and toddlers’ learning and development is a crucial part of the teacher’s role. Our next reading explores materials for play in more detail.


    Read Materials for play: Why open-ended loose parts are important, which discusses an important play pedagogy for infants and toddlers. There is also a useful section on the teacher’s role in play here. 

    Materials for play: Why open-ended loose parts are important

    ‘Loose parts’ are ordinary, everyday, open-ended materials that can be manipulated and used in various ways, moved, carried, shared, combined and taken apart in various configurations and designs. Loose parts have high affordance value in terms of what they can offer or provide to support children’s play, exploration and cognitive development, and can be easily transformed with children’s imagination. Examples are pebbles and leaves, fabrics and ribbons, ropes, chains, figurines, chalks, pine cones, wooden bowls and cups, papers, blocks and plastic pipes. Loose parts also include natural elements such as water or sand.

    What is heuristic play?

    Heuristic play is exploratory play with materials and objects. Children handle, explore and make discoveries about the properties and features of objects, and develop ideas for how they might be used or combined and how they relate to each other. For example, children might explore a set of balls, pom poms and other spherical objects alongside a range of containers and tubes. Heuristic play is sometimes provided via a ‘Treasure Basket’ for infants who are able to sit but are not otherwise mobile.

    Why should I use loose parts with children?

    Materials are theorised to be highly important in the formation of neural networks in the brains of very young children because they stimulate the senses. The ability to focus, sustain attention and identify salient features are activated and practised when children are provided with stimulating open-ended materials. These early skills are the foundation of later learning. The principle of loose parts is also underpinned by beliefs about the competency, skill and creativity of children. They can cater for all of the interests, strengths and cultures of diverse children, and children can create environments that suit their current skills. In practical terms, using loose parts in your curriculum also encourages the reuse and recycling of objects.

    The small body of empirical research that has been conducted on outcomes for children as a result of the use of loose parts suggests that the use of loose parts and malleable environments can:

    • Stimulate sensory perception, and enable children to develop their powers of discrimination using their senses. Discriminatory skills are needed for identifying similarities and differences and for categorising objects.
    • Stimulate discovery, both of the properties, possibilities and limitations of materials and also children’s understanding of what they can think and do as learners. Moving, manipulating and combining materials into diverse things with multiple meanings, and applying understandings about the properties of materials and what can be done with them, encourages higher levels of critical thinking and stimulates increased flexibility in children.
    • Promote a range of cognitively complex play, including physical play, dramatic play, games with rules and construction play, and extend children’s length of engagement in play, by injecting novelty into play environments.
    • Provoke creativity and imagination in terms of attributing objects with functions and meanings, such as turning a crate into a boat. Imagination underpins creative problem-solving and enables children to synthesise and apply knowledge as part of meaning-making and sense-making.
    • Allow children to develop their own ideas and inquiries, which enhances their autonomy, self-direction and self-knowledge, and supports feelings of pride, self-efficacy, and self-esteem. Making choices from the many possibilities available to regulate play can encourage regulation skills and help children learn how to make good choices.
    • Develop language and vocabulary for new objects, experiences and play scenarios, and stimulate rich conversations and storytelling.
    • Develop early numeracy skills through providing a context for sorting, classifying, combining and separating objects, for mathematical skills such as counting, measuring and sequencing, and for risk-taking skills and problem-solving.
    • Provide a context for the development of both fine and gross motor skills
    • Promote social interactions and conversations. Open-ended play with other children involves communication, negotiation, cooperation, leadership, and decision-making.

    What is the teacher’s role?

    Incorporating loose parts into your curriculum is not as simple as adding the parts to the children’s learning space. It is important to consider what to provide and how to present it in order to connect with children’s learning needs and interests, or loose parts may be ignored or used inappropriately. Be aware that it can take time for children to adjust to loose parts if this approach is new to them.

    Tips for planning and organisation:

    • Select materials thoughtfully. Ensure materials are capable of arousing children’s interest and attention. Research shows children attend to novel objects but are easily bored once an object has lost its novelty, and a lack of appropriate or interesting items can lead to lower interest, engagement, concentration and creative play with objects. However, some infants and toddlers may like to return to favourite items.
    • Intentionally present loose parts as provocations or invitations to interact with the materials. Aim for provocations that inspire children’s exploration and discovery, question-asking, theory-testing and deep thinking and that promote either individual or group investigations.
    • Make loose parts visible and accessible for children to give children choice about what to use, how and when. Provide dedicated spaces for using the materials by using trays, mats or rugs (carpets can dampen noise).
    • Provide enough resources to allow for complex play and reduce frustration and conflict, but not so many that it becomes overwhelming or overstimulating. Heuristic play approaches recommend collections of 50 items of five or six types (such as pine cones or ribbons) for a group of six children. Infants using treasure baskets can manage around 80-100 diverse items and a greater variety of objects is more stimulating for infants’ brain development.
    • Use a reflective, responsive and intentional approach, for example, observing children’s explorations and selecting loose parts to expand them. Think through what children might do with the materials (try out materials yourself to see how they behave) and consider how to encourage children to engage for more than a few minutes. Experiment with different ways of setting out materials and see how children respond. Different arrangements will shape how children perceive and attach meaning to the materials, and children will play differently with the same materials presented on a tabletop, on the floor, inside and outside.
    • Regularly replenish, change and add to loose parts. Consider having a designated person responsible for maintaining loose parts collections. Encourage families to help you acquire and replenish loose parts, which also models sustainability values. Send out a written note with a list of suggested items to collect. Keep loose play parts in quality condition and present them attractively.
    • Ensure safety by checking items are safe, and by being physically present and attentive when children are using items.

    Your role during play:

    Children and teachers can use materials together for the greatest influence on learning. With older children, teachers might have intention for the materials and invite children to focus their attention on particular features, or wonder about meanings and significance together with children, or help children relate actions and properties to previous or future events. With infants and toddlers, teachers’ interactions may be distracting, so consider a more unobtrusive presence.

    • Give children plenty of time to explore the properties of loose parts and experiment with different possibilities, which leads to more complex play.
    • Observe children and be intentionally focused on the child (with eyes and mind), to discover their current learning interest, level and needs. Try to identify children’s ideas, theories and interests in using loose parts, and look for patterns of action and behaviour (schemas), especially with infants and toddlers.
    • Model appropriate play for children who are not showing initiative in using the materials. You might discreetly offer children alternative materials, such as a smaller ball if they are struggling to fit a larger ball down a tube. 
    • Allow children to develop their own ideas, support their observations, discussions, explorations and meaning-making, and respond to requests for support. Offer children opportunities to move loose parts around the play areas and be supportive when they invent new uses for loose parts.
    • Reorganise materials when they become muddled to make it easier to see what is available and to suggest new play ideas, and encourage children to help sort objects back into their containers at the end of play to encourage early mathematical concepts as well as language development. Ask questions like ‘Can you find the blue/big shells?’ and ‘Can you make sure the tins are empty?’

    Here are some specific considerations for using treasure baskets and loose parts with infants and toddlers:

    • Choose a good time to introduce materials (such as a calm time when children are well rested, well-fed, and physically comfortable).
    • Be responsive and attentive yet unobtrusive, for example, by exchanging smiles or accepting an object a child offers to you. Ensure you are physically comfortable and relaxed which supports infants to feel secure, comfortable and relaxed. Some children may need an encouraging look that says ‘yes, you can stack the cylinders like that’. Share delight and enjoy objects with infants, but try to avoid verbal encouragement and commentary or clapping hands which can be intrusive and disrupt children’s concentration.
    • Ensure infants and toddlers can move freely as movement is an important way in which they explore loose parts. Try not to intrude on children’s space, or allow older children to come into the space of infants, and ensure babies are not crowded so that they are not likely to hurt each other accidentally as they attempt to handle larger items.
    • Respect children’s choices and decisions (for example, to spend as long as they like looking at the collection before handling anything, or with one particular object). Let infants select from a treasure basket rather than hand them objects or dangle them in front of them. Infants in particular need to warm up first, usually by gazing and visually sizing up objects. When the level of challenge is about right, infants and toddlers will repeat actions. This enables them to master challenges gradually.
    • Be extra vigilant about safety by checking items are safe (not sharp and not a choking hazard), and by being physically present and attentive when children are using items. For infants, ensure items can be washed, wiped or disposed of, and clean frequently with soap and water, or in a sterilising solution. Remember that infants at the treasure basket stage will not be able to throw or poke items, which may enable you to include a wider variety of items. Your comfort and confidence with using the objects will be transmitted to the children and convey the message that it is okay for them to explore.

    With an emphasis on free play and exploration as the key play types for infants and toddlers, the provision of loose parts as materials for play is a really appropriate pedagogy, and should be the main focus of your pedagogical role in play. This is a really crucial point – although teachers may seem to be backgrounded in infant and toddler play, facilitating this play and exploration is a task of great importance. While infants and toddlers are capable and competent to lead their own play at this age, their exploration can only be as complex as the environment and materials afford. The reading highlights the large and holistic range of learning opportunities that, given stimulating resources and environments, such child-led exploration might offer.

    Watch a video

    The following video, again from The Rumpus Room in Auckland, shows a toddler, Mila, engaging with open-ended loose parts. Watch, thinking about what ideas, concepts and patterns of exploration you see.


    What materials had been collected and presented to Mila? Why do you think that was – what affordances do they have for play and experimentation? In what ways does Mila manipulate, combine and arrange them? What sort of concepts does this involve? 

    These open-ended loose parts have been collected and presented on a mat for exploration. They have been carefully selected – although there are several different types of items made of different materials, there is a nice aesthetic to them in terms of the colours and shapes that naturally resonate with one another. The holes in the wooden stumps invite things to be inserted into them, and the child has selected pegs. She lines them up (notice how the colours are paired), she inserts them, and she repeats the experiment. There is plenty of opportunity here to learn about shape and space, about fitting things inside other things, and also opportunities to explore colour, length, size. 

    We can talk about this conceptual exploration in terms of both schema and working theories. Schema are patterns of exploration that we see when infants and toddlers engage in repeated actions or behaviours as they explore and try to figure out how things work: for example, with infants and toddlers we commonly see envelopment schema (covering or hiding things and themselves), trajectory schema (exploring how objects, and themselves, move through space), and transporting schema (moving things from place to place), among others. In this video, the toddler might be exploring a connecting schema (joining things together by placing the pegs in a line, for example, and joining the pegs to the wooden rounds). Her working theories here might be along the lines of ‘holes are for inserting things’, ‘colours go together’, and ‘lining up means making things level or making them aligned’.

    As the reading emphasises, a large part of your role in infant and toddler play involves facilitating play by providing creative and engaging materials that will challenge children’s thinking and exploration, and that will encourage a diverse range of interactions. In the video interview for this part of the course, we hear from two of the teachers at The Rumpus Room about how they organise and resource the environment for children’s play.

    Watch a video

    Watch an interview with two of the teachers at The Rumpus Room, Hannah Brown and Falē Davey, in which they talk about how they plan and set up for play for infants and toddlers.

    Introducing Falē and Hannah:

    Falē is Team Leader of The Nest at The Rumpus Room in Auckland. She is passionate about creating an environment that is safe, secure, joyous, challenging, calm, engaging and welcoming. She values trusting and caring relationships with tamariki but also with whānau and kaiako. She believes in empowering tamariki to learn in their own way, at their own pace and in their own time.

    Hannah is a teacher of infants and toddlers at The Rumpus Room in Auckland. She has been teaching for just two years but realised early on that she was passionate about working with infants and toddlers. She places high importance on building strong relationships with children and their whānau, and on treating children with the respect that they deserve as competent and confident learners. 

    The importance of play for infants and toddlers

    Falē: The emphasis would be for teachers to really let children lead their play, and be a part of it, but in the wings, and be a support in the wings, but let them lead their play, basically, because that’s how they learn.

    What kinds of play experiences are most important for infants and toddlers?

    Hannah: We, as the teachers, don’t need to step in and take over and make it a teacher-led experience. We don’t need to set up very specific activities and experiences for them. Their interests and dispositions and urges lead what they want to do. 

    Falē: They lead the way, don’t they, for us?  

    Hannah: We think free movement at this age group is really important as well, so we’re not going to have resources and experiences set up that aren’t age or developmentally appropriate for different children. 

    Falē: So, things that don’t restrict them, either, in terms of movement and stuff, hey?

    Hannah: Yeah, so we’re not going to have them sitting up if they’re not ready to be sitting up. So we’ll provide some experiences like an invitation to play, but not a set-out, this activity is exactly how you do it. It’s open – open-ended play.

    What dispositions does this kind of play promote?

    Hannah: There’s things like curiosity, courage, determination, problem-solving skills, observation, friendliness, connectedness … the list just goes on.

    Falē: Confidence and perseverance.

    Hannah: They’re basically things that you want a child to have for the rest of their life. They’re life skills.

    What kinds of materials for play do you offer?

    Falē: We offer a range of materials so that they could either be wooden, metal, or actual fabric materials. I am very passionate about going to second-hand shops so I do acquire a lot of second-hand goods which I bring in, and show the team, and we get very excited, and then we sort of offer those to the children. So, we display things on shelves in an inviting sort of way, and it will be a varied – different objects. For infants, we would have them – they would be laying on the floor, so they might not be able to reach the shelves, so we would offer maybe just a couple of objects on either side of their body so that they can reach and grasp, and if they were disinterested, then I would probably change that object, and offer another one, but I wouldn’t put too much out, because I don’t want to overwhelm them. So, what we’ll do is we’ll offer at least four of each object. For instance, if they’re interested in transporting, we’ll offer baskets or bags, in a variety, so there isn’t going to be that sort of conflict.

    Hannah: There’s enough for everyone.

    Falē: So there’s enough to go around. Then, if we notice that the interest has sort of waned off and we notice that perhaps they’re interested in stacking, say, wooden rings or coaster rings onto little stackers, we might provide those, and then change the resources around. However, I prefer not to change them too often. I feel that if you have the objects in the room for a good period of time, they have a lot of time to play with them and explore them in any way that they choose to.

    How do you use children’s interests to inform play provision?

    Hannah: Part of our philosophy is having really strong relationships with children and their families. So, because we have those, we have a really deep understanding of what they’re into – what their current interests are going to be, and how they change over time, and we might try and create connectedness between the centre and in their families at home, as well.  

    Falē: Particularly if a parent might be frustrated that their child is throwing, or they’re posting their car keys, for instance, so we might suggest objects that they can bring into their play, so they can continue that interest without it being a ‘no’ kind of environment, which is the same as here – we want to create that ‘yes’ environment.

    Hannah: They might have gone to the café with their family on the weekend, and they’ve got a really strong urge to just make drinks, and that’s their interest at the moment. So, I might set up some cups or some bowls inside, and have a nice little – one of Fale’s nice little blankets from the op-shop on some cardboard boxes, and set up a little café for them.

    Falē: If a child has a very, very specific strong urge, they will come back to it, and they will use a number of different objects, but in that sort of schema way – the urge way. They’ll play in that way, won’t they? It’s really interesting. So, if they’re stacking, they’ll find other objects to stack with – not necessarily just one particular, and they’ll incorporate that throughout all their play. One of our team that used to work here, she noticed that one of the children was really interested in wheels and motion and trucks and movement, so she created – having spoken to his mum – found his interest was also very strong at home, so she created a pukapuka with trucks, and because he was Samoan, she incorporated the language, as well. So, that was really lovely. He used to take it around and be looking at it really intently. Yeah, so it’s that wonderful connection.

    Tell us about the kind of play that happens outdoors, and the skills and dispositions it promotes

    Falē: It tends to be more physical, obviously. We do great set-ups in the sandpit. So, depending on what the children are really interested in at that time, we – like, for instance, they like trucks at the moment, so there’s a lot of movement – trucks and balls. So we’ll tend to set up based around their interests, as opposed to what we think will work for them on that particular day. We’ll also create a quiet area where children might just want to go and sit, and sit on a blanket and cushions or beanbags. We have beanbags that they sit, and they will read books, or just be. We would provide tyres and planks of wood, and for sandpit play we would provide water play if they were really interested in water play. We’d have the water play … the trough set up with buckets and cups and day-to-day sort of materials like we’d have at home in the kitchen – bowls, pots, pans.  Or we would set up the sprinkler on really warm days for the children to play. For outside, we have baskets for blankets and materials. So, children can utilise those in their play, as well. 

    Hannah: In the mornings, I might even ask them, ‘what do you want me to get out?’ I’ll open up the shed and let them point at what they’re keen on. I’m not just going to always do it before they arrive, but let them be involved, and help them carry things out where they want them, as well.  

    Falē: Yeah, so that also gives them that sense of responsivity and empowerment. What we see often – if we see a child who may be struggling in some areas, we kind of will try and incorporate, and will invite them to help set up, and that sort of will also calm their sort of … calm them.

    Hannah: Give them that reassurance.

    What else can teachers consider when supporting infants’ and toddler’s play?

    Hannah: You don’t need to come in and fill the silence.  

    Falē: You do not need to come in and fill the silence, no.

    Hannah: They’re learning. They’re interested in that. You coming in is going to distract them from what they’re busy doing. Their play is their work.

    Falē: And you may have missed a really great learning opportunity because you’ve stepped in.  That’s something that we really want people to know when they come into the room, is that this is their space.

    Delve deeper

    With infants and toddlers, teachers at The Rumpus Room use child-led free play as their play pedagogy. They explain this with regard to infants and toddlers’ ‘urges’ and dispositions for learning. Falē also uses the word ‘schema’ as another way to understand these urges. As we saw earlier, children are intrinsically driven to explore key concepts and ideas with which they can make sense of their world. They might have a strong urge to line things up, or drive things along, and as Falē explains, they will use whatever resources they have at hand to explore that urge or schema. As well as specific concepts and ideas, the teachers suggest a long list of learning dispositions that are promoted by free play with open-ended loose parts. These are patterns of thinking, acting and being, such as being curious and being persistent, that form the basis for lifelong skills for learning. They can only really be fostered in free play when children are permitted and encouraged to follow their urges.

    Falē and Hannah comment that the type of materials they provide are generally open-ended. Children interested in stacking will use a range of different items for this learning. Open-ended materials will have lots of different possibilities, so children will be able to put them to many ends and purposes according to what it is that they are exploring. Falē says that they provide many varied and diverse resources, made from a range of materials, and often acquired from second-hand stores. These will be displayed in an inviting way, as an ‘invitation to play’ and, for the youngest infants, made accessible by being put within reach. Falē also makes the point that resources should not be changed too often, and this is particularly true for this age group, as children of this age need to revisit things over and over again as part of their learning. This kind of repetition is needed to build and strengthen neural pathways. Over time, with the same resources, children are able to comprehensively explore all of their properties and possibilities, and they will gradually do more complex things with them.

    Hannah and Falē both agree that their role as a teacher is to facilitate, and to be ‘in the wings’ offering support when needed, but generally letting children lead their own play. They ensure that they encourage but don’t take over children’s play, as this can disrupt children’s learning. Hannah talks about not ‘filling the silence’ with words, or not feeling that, as the teacher, you should be doing something. Instead, it is about respecting the child, seeing them as a competent and capable learner, delighting in what they are doing and communicating that when they look to you, but only if feedback is sought in some way. 

    Teachers’ strong relationships with children and families enable them to facilitate play responsively and effectively. These relationships are the foundation that allows the teachers to provide resources and materials that connect with children’s urges and interests. When you know your children well, you can set up environments that you know will intrigue and excite them to learn.


    If teachers are not interrupting play, or ‘filling the silence’ with words, how do teachers ensure a rich language environment for children and time for serve-and-return interactions? Where do these important aspects of pedagogy fit?

    While rich language provision and serve-and-return interactions happen within caregiving moments, we can also take advantage of the opportunities that children offer us when they are playing to participate and offer feedback. Remember the first video of children’s play that we watched, with the boy and the cone and ball? At the end of the video, he looked up at his teacher and smiled. Here was the moment to speak, connect, and share joy at what he had been doing. A wonderful serve, and a perfect opportunity to engage, talk and smile with him. 

    Relate your learning to practice

    Drawing on the ideas from this part of the course, prepare a treasure basket or some open-ended loose part resources for play. Observe, interact when appropriate (remember to give children space to think and explore, but also to be waiting for the serve for you to return – this is a perfect place to practice these interactions) and then answer the following reflective questions. You could use these observations and reflections as a basis for a learning story.

    • What do you think your focus child was thinking about as they manipulated the materials? 
    • What patterns of play/movement did you observe? 
    • What working theories and dispositions might have inspired the play/movement?
    • What kinds of materials might you offer next and why? 


    The key ideas covered in this part include:

    • Free play and exploration are key play pedagogies for infants and toddlers and highly suited to their stage of development of play, which is often exploratory or early functional play.
    • Play is an holistic activity enabling children to develop cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills, which also promotes their wellbeing. Play supports children to strengthen dispositions for learning, and to develop conceptual schema and working theories. Dispositions, schema and working theories provide some key concepts for understanding and assessing infant and toddler play. 
    • Open-ended materials and loose parts are some of the best resources to give infants and toddlers for their play. Materials stimulate the senses and the formation of neural networks in the brains of very young children, and give them opportunities to learn to focus, sustain attention and identify salient features, skills which are the foundation of later learning.

    Discuss online

    What are your favourite resources to use with infants and toddlers? If you are already using loose parts with children, which collections of loose parts do the children prefer? How do teachers interact with children in regard to loose parts and what impact do you think this has on their learning?

    Further reading

    Take a look at this short guide on selecting loose parts for play. 

    This guide, written more generally for an early childhood audience, discusses the importance of outdoor play, and this guide explains more about your role as a teacher in supporting outdoor play.

    You might also enjoy this webinar on outdoor play provision.