Advancing a model for play-based pedagogy in early years’ learning

For young children, the hands are a fundamental method for learning about the external world. Direct interaction and manipulation of objects in the environment facilitates the creation of internal mental representations and models. This is particularly important for laying the foundations for written literacy development.

To develop literacy, children must recognize and understand concepts of shape, size, space, and patterns and they must develop sufficient power and precision of hand control to put pencil to paper. Thus, early learners must employ sensori-motor, cognitive, and linguistic resources simultaneously to engage with the complex demands of literacy learning. Printing and spelling are much more than simple, mechanistic skills that can be ‘picked up’ along the way.

Dr. Hetty Roessingh and Michelle Bence, a Werklund graduate student, put forward the theoretical underpinnings and advance a model for play-based pedagogy for children in kindergarten that accounts for these three domains of development. These experiences are essential to preparing youngsters for the early literacy experiences expected of them in the kindergarten and grade 1.

Play-Based Pedagogy

With ‘play’ at the heart of this model, understanding what is meant by the term was central to the work. The researchers suggest that play in the classroom should reflect purposefully designed activities and tasks that will be engaging and ‘fun’, but also be directed towards learning goals and a pedagogical intent. This is particularly important for developing the neuro-motor and cognitive skills necessary for early language and literacy learning.

The design should also allow the children’s motivation, curiosity, and desire for mastery to shape the activity in some ways. Therefore, play-based pedagogy positions the students as collaborators, and allows them opportunities to direct their own discovery within the frame that the teacher provides. The teacher then helps to maintain the focus and guide student learning, asking questions and prompting them through the activity. There is room for both teacher direction, such as in showing students how to hold a pencil, and child-directed tasks which build on and employ the skills and knowledge being taught.

When in pairs or groups, students can benefit from social skill, problem-solving, and neuro-motor development. Inspired by the work of Montessori, using prepared environments as well as common materials and objects can support students in imaginative, creative, and social play. Buttons, blocks, string, pencils, paper, utensils, and various containers can help to form a ‘tool kit’ to be used in a plethora of tasks.


Though only emerging as a research focus, the potential of physical, exploratory play and the connection to cognition and language development is increasingly being recognized. By engaging and manipulating objects and tools through purposeful play, children are developing important connections for early literacy learning. In the early years, play-based programming will enhance children’s readiness for the upcoming demands of more formal literacy learning. The research team is looking to expand and continue to develop their model through future studies.

See more from Dr. Hetty Roessingh on her profile

 Connected Citations

Roessingh, H., & Bence, M. (2018). Guided Physical Play in Kindergarten. Education Canada, 58(1). Available Online.

Roessingh, H., & Bence, M. (2017). Embodied knowing and early language and literacy learning: Designs for purposeful play in kindergarten. Paper presented at the Canadian Society for the Study of Education (CSSE), Toronto, ON, May 27 – June 1, 2017.