Not "just play" : playful learning, teacher language, and free choice time in head start preschools

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Research has shown that high quality preschool experiences are important, particularly for children from lower-resourced families. "High quality" has become synonymous with academic readiness, however, and not just starting in elementary school. In fact, skills-based instruction is being pushed down to preschool. What gets lost in that pushdown is time for play. There is a vast literature promoting the benefits of play for children's social, emotional, and cognitive health and well being, both in the short- and the long-term. Nevertheless, play, per se, as a separate piece of the preschool curriculum does not have the empirical research support of other, easier-to-measure elements of preschool instruction, such as shared reading and language development. Playful learning is an approach to preschool that incorporates play into a curriculum that is both rigorous for children and maintains the essential elements of play. Playful learning combines playful content lessons with ample playtime. According to playful learning theorists, knowledgeable, skilled teachers guide both the content lessons and the playtime. The playtime, in particular, is consistent with researchers' notions of play in terms of genuine choices, ample time, space, freedom, and inherent enjoyment. This dissertation focuses on the playtime portion of playful learning in an attempt to describe and measure—to operationalize—playful learning playtime. I wanted to know if playful learning during playtime could be reliably and consistently measured. I also wanted to know what the range of playful learning practice was during playtime and what really effective and seemingly less effective playtime looked like. I conducted my study in Head Start classrooms, where playtime is called free choice time [FCT]. In conjunction with experts and on the shoulders of the designers of other classroom observation instruments, I developed the Playful Learning Observation Tool [PLOT]. The PLOT measures 24 elements of free choice time, broken into five categories: structures, affect and engagement, talk and language, materials, and opportunities for development. For each of the 24 elements, there is a low, medium, and high descriptor. The observer utilizes the PLOT by observing the block of FCT and taking qualitative notes regarding all of the elements. She then assigns a holistic score to the classroom based on overall impressions and a score for each element based on the notes. I found that the PLOT demonstrated some initial validity and reliability across and within classrooms and across two raters. I also found a wide range of playful learning practice during FCT, including classrooms that were doing things unrecognizable as playtime during that block of the day. As I illustrate in vignettes of higher and lower playful learning FCTs, this range was particularly notable for the talk and language category of the PLOT. Nearly all of the children in the classrooms in my study were dual language learners, and language development is an important goal of Head Start. Furthermore, early oral language development has implications for children's later literacy development, and early models of language and experiences engaging in authentic conversations are particularly beneficial for language learners. Naturally, I was curious about what, specifically, were the differences in that teacher talk in classrooms with higher and lower playful learning FCTs. I returned to the two classrooms with the highest scores on the PLOT and the two lowest-scoring classrooms and recorded all of the teacher talk for six full blocks of FCT in each classroom. I analyzed that language in order to determine the amount, the sophistication, and the type of language that teachers in these two types of classroom were providing for their students. I found that there was more talk and more sophisticated talk (measured both by raw numbers and by words per minute of FCT) in the higher playful learning classrooms. I also found that the interactions between teachers and children were twice as likely to be sustained in the higher playful learning classrooms and twice as likely to be brief in the lower playful learning classrooms. Furthermore, there were more than three times as many interactions with discussions in the higher versus the lower playful learning classrooms and just shy of half as many interactions with directives. Numbers of interactions with close-ended questions and information were approximately equal across the two types of classrooms. In other words, the contrast in how teachers were using talk in the higher and lower playful learning classrooms was stark. There were limitations to this study. First of all, the scope was quite small. I observed in 16 classrooms, and inter-rater agreement was established across two raters. Additionally, it was a descriptive study in nature, so there are no causal findings to report. Neither did I have outcome measures indicating if higher quality free choice time and teacher talk are consequential for children. Despite these limitations, there are implications of this study in terms of teacher practice, teacher training, curriculum, and preschool policy. The wide variation in teacher practice even within one administrative district of Head Start points to the likelihood that there is not a common understanding among teachers of the purpose and practice of free choice time. Providing that common grounding—perhaps in the form of the PLOT—may be an important step toward making teacher practice more effective and prioritizing free choice time. Teacher professional development on free choice time more generally and effective talk more specifically may also serve to improve practice and therefore improve the experience of FCT for children. This study also suggests the need for further research on playful learning generally and playful learning playtime specifically. Rather than cutting playtime out of the preschool day in favor of more teacher-directed, "academic" lessons, we need to understand more fully the potential of playful learning—and playtime within the preschool curriculum—for developing the whole child. The two sub-studies presented in this dissertation offer some modest and preliminary evidence that the PLOT may be worth further exploration, particularly as an instrument for supporting teacher practice. Similarly, these studies provide some evidence that teacher practice—particularly teacher talk—during playtime may be quite variable across classrooms. This variability and its associated outcomes are worthy of additional study. In the meantime, policy-makers and administrators might hold off on cutting free choice time from the preschool schedule.


Type of resource text
Form electronic; electronic resource; remote
Extent 1 online resource.
Publication date 2014
Issuance monographic
Language English


Associated with Hicks, Judith
Associated with Stanford University, Graduate School of Education.
Primary advisor Goldenberg, Claude Nestor, 1954-
Primary advisor Lit, Ira W
Thesis advisor Goldenberg, Claude Nestor, 1954-
Thesis advisor Lit, Ira W
Thesis advisor Juel, Connie
Advisor Juel, Connie


Genre Theses

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Judith Hicks.
Note Submitted to the Graduate School of Education.
Thesis Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2014.
Location electronic resource

Access conditions

© 2014 by Judith Rg Hicks
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).

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