August 22, 2018

Observing Children in Open – Ended, Authentic Play      

Children thrive in an intentional, nurturing environment designed to stimulate their natural curiosity about the world and to invite understanding through exploration and play. In an optimal setting for learning, the daily schedule, physical environment, and variety of sensory-rich materials provide themwith opportunities to make connections socially and cognitively, express their interests and build confidence in their natural abilities and unique approach to learning.

Attributes of open-ended, authentic play include

voluntary involvement,
a sense of timelessness and a diminished self-awareness,
no restrictions except those for safety,
opportunities for valid, natural assessment of a child’s development.

Play is the child’s natural ‘work’ and is essential to learning in early childhood. Through play, a child learns about her or himself and the world through self-created experiences. She can embellish roles and practice skills, imitating adult behavior and scaffolding comprehension. In the world of play there is no right or wrong way to bake bread, build a tower, create a costume from recycled paper, or paint at an easel. The work is controlled,directed and limited only by the child’s imagination, energy, and creativity.

A child engaged in openended play is invited to explorematerials having multiple uses and infinite possibilities. These include materials such as paint, clay, loose parts, sand, mud, water, blocks, silk scarves, and items that can ‘be’ anything a child envisions. Open play activities support children in more divergent reasoning, and a wider variety of ideas develops frominteracting with unrestricted materials alongside other people. They learn empathy, cooperation, problem solving, and develop skills of self-regulation while observing other’s applications and interpretations. Imagination is enhanced, and the ability to think symbolically builds skills of creativity and cognition. Social and emotional abilities are developed as children role-play and experiment, strengthening their understanding of other people and the world around them.

An atmosphere of supportive play also affords educators a unique window into the widely-varying developmental levels of children. Within the safety of a playful environment, children do their ‘best work’. Observers can use these observations as an organic, valid assessment of interests, skills, and capability. With timed observations and careful documentation progress can be monitored more authentically in the context of play.

Children who are given time and space to pursue their individual interests, in their own time and without pressure to produce or achieve, develop the ability to see themselves as capable,compelling, social beings. A person who develops a robust core of self – confidence, with pleasure and pride in the process of discovery will welcome the challenges of everyday life in later childhood and in adulthood. “Nothing without joy!”

Ursula Costin