Play-Based in Primary

At the start of October, I began a full year assignment at a new school teaching Grade 1/2. After teaching Kindergarten last year, I am overjoyed at the opportunity to teach these grades. I am looking forward to “following” the early learning continuum from a Kindergarten environment into primary, and the opportunity to bring along my favourite aspects of Kindergarten.

As a teacher, I feel I’ve got a strong foundation in my knowledge of child development in the early years. I majored in the subject in University and I am also a Registered Early Childhood Educator. Kindergarten was my “place”. I was comfortable there. I could talk shop for hours about the research supporting play-based learning and child-directed inquiry. I truly stand behind the play-based curriculum and spent my year in Kindergarten challenging norms and pushing thinking. The potential in children that is unlocked in a play-based program is powerful, and I see it first hand.

Moving to primary, I don’t want to suddenly ignore that part of who I am as a teacher. I’m glad that there is beginning to be a shift toward more play in the primary grades, but it hasn’t fully or truly happened yet. This often makes for a rocky transition for our students, who sometimes move from a free-flow day to one with a lot of structure. Some of our students have never seen a worksheet, and are suddenly expected to sit quietly and complete them for extended lengths of time. Even just a comparison between the difference in how long we expect them to listen attentively between the two grades just doesn’t make sense. There needs to be a continuum.

I do believe that change is needed to ease this sudden shift in what we are expecting of our young learners. If Kindergarten is designed to be best for a six year old’s development, why do all of those considerations disappear when they enter primary only two months older? I don’t have these answers, and I don’t have control over this – but I do have control over how I teach.

My personal learning goal this year is to explore authentic, play-based learning and inquiry in primary. I have a lot of questions and things I am unsure of:


How do I ensure I teach to where they’re at, while simultaneously teaching them for where they’re heading?

What does this actually look like? Where does this fit in my daily schedule? How do I effectively combine play and inquiry with necessary instruction “must haves”, such as math talks/three-part lessons, small group instruction or the components of balanced literacy? 

How do I make sure I cover the necessary curriculum content?

How do I actually source the materials needed for an effective play-based environment in a primary hallway? My classroom certainly didn’t come equipped with blocks or loose parts!

How do I set up an environment that is conducive to independent inquiry? What materials will my students need access to, and what explicit teaching is needed to set them up for success here?

Aside from anecdotal and conferencing, how do I asses their progress? Obviously, pencil-paper assessments are necessary in many cases, but how can I assess in a more authentic way?

How do I ensure that my environment is meaningful and planned carefully enough that I know my students are exploring curriculum concepts in their play? I’m finding this gets trickier as the curriculum concepts increase in complexity. 

How do I support and justify a play-based environment to those who do not understand or agree?


Also on my mind, is that I want my play-based environment to be built around authentic play. There is a difference between learning centre rotations and actual play. Adult created and directed activities are fun but they are not true play. Play is self-chosen, open-ended, child-directed and does not come with instructions. This is the play that allows a child’s curiosity drive them to discover and do wonderful things. This is what I want happening in my Grade 1/2 classroom!

As I figure all of this out, I hope to share my experiences with you. Are there any other play and inquired based primary teachers out there? I’d love to hear from you!


Updated: November 1, 2018 — 10:55 am

The Author

Laura Bottrell

Laura is a Grade 3/4 teacher with HWDSB. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Youth & Children's Studies and is a Registered Early Childhood Educator. She believes in the power of play and inquiry-based learning, no matter the grade. With a passion for the arts, Laura is an advocate for the arts in education and is currently the director of a theatre performance program for Kindergarten aged students!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© 2019 The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario | ETFO Website | RSS Feed | Login