Can we teach play? Using responsive language in play.

Can we teach play? Using responsive language in play

Dr. Meera Oke

National College of Ireland,

Dublin, Ireland 2019


You can download this paper as pdf here:

Coming soon


Play is powerful because it is universal, so simple and makes connections between the player and their surrounds. The readiness and ease with which children move in and out of intense engagement in play makes it so very fascinating. The other day a 2-year-old girl was waiting to board a bus with her mum. She was turning and twirling her hands, playing with the shadow of her hands. Very absorbed, she watched the shadow disappear when she placed them above her head, saying something inaudible to herself…. she would then bring them back until the shadow appeared again. Engrossed in this simple play, she repeated the act twisting her body and hands playing with her shadow, until the bus arrived. As soon as the bus arrived, she entered the bus, holding onto her mum’s hand and waited for her mum to take the lead. In other contexts we see children imitating roles of mums, dads, teachers, coaches, supermarket vendors etc. taking on their personalities as it were. In each of these, children are learning and functioning head and shoulder beyond their age. As Vygotsky theorises (1933) play creates children’s zone of proximal development and learning. Children, it appears, are natural born learners wired with naturally curious, inquisitive, inquiring minds, expressing these dispositions in their play!


Educators are looking to harness this inborn disposition of children to learn as an effective pedagogic tool. So what do we teach? Can we teach children play? Perhaps we can… Research says it is important that children are motivated to learn. What better intrinsic motivator can we have than ‘play’?


Here are some tips to use play as a pedagogical tool in educational and other settings:


Craft a range of play experiences with materials and tools drawn from everyday contexts, which is interesting and has positive affordances for play for both, you and the children. The affordance theory (Gibson, 1979) describes the potential of enriched spaces with opportunities for children and educators to play and learn. Create a space where children will feel safe and secure with a relaxed environment – remember children take cues from adults – if you are relaxed and comfortable; children will also be so .


Be present and responsive in the play – Observe, wait, listen - identify children’s interests and follow the child’s lead by joining in, imitating, interpreting and commenting. Each child engages in play in a unique way, invite children to initiate interaction. If a child is hesitant to interact – play along with the materials in the environment. For example, if a child is hesitant to play with clay dough, begin to play yourself with clay and invite the child to join in. Promote interaction strategies – match your turns with the children’s turns, cue children to take their turns, ask questions that keep the conversation going. It is important that the educator become a part of the play extending and expanding ideas that children have and making connections. Use guided participation (Rogoff, 1990.), for children who do not initiate the play – start playing in the process of play, invite children to join.


In play use language that you are most fluent in even if it is not the home language of the child. Research indicates that, the child’s language development benefits from the input of adults who talk to them in the language in which the adults are most competent and most comfortable with. Children are looking for messages. Language modelling strategies are useful – match what you want to say with what is actually happening now, repeat important words, use a variety of words, comment, interpret – expand children’s messages.


Use materials that help relate to children’s worlds. Children’s play often reflects the world they live in.  Some of the playthings of today particularly those that are technology driven are vastly different from the historical representations. Historically, for example, looking at artefacts from thousands of years ago indicates that ordinary living worlds of the time, found their way into play. Playthings represents the world of the time. We are entering a space, which is very different from the world of play that existed in a different time. Technologies provide a platform for children’s interaction with the popular culture – therefore it is important to make play dynamic as it is ever changing, both, in its manifestation and outcome - using digital artefacts and media – such as mobile phones and other screens that children are accustomed with reflect children’s everyday worlds! Remember while children enjoy fantasy, the take off point is always something that they are familiar with – you may have noticed, for example, children will use a mobile phone to start an imaginary conversation. As children play, they use these objects technologies as pivots (holding devices) in their play, as Vygotsky (1967) theorises. These pivots are substituted from concrete objects to images as reflected in children’s use of language and these shape their thoughts. The digital tools that children often use in their play, serve as pivots for expansion of ideas, language and actions. In play, children are mastering the tools and then internalising for transformation and creativity.



Play, as I said earlier, is intrinsically motivated and provides a natural context. Play as we see it, is also constructed by the player or players and influenced by the surrounds in which they grow, develop and learn the language of the adult world. It is ever changing. However, adding playful elements to a lesson will not turn it into play. A careful curation, expansion and enrichment of the environment that provides affordances, will enable children to feel safe to play. Educators can perhaps design an integration of activities that are uniquely defined as literacy – such as reading writing and numeracy into play worlds. There is a need to teach young children to play, but I would caution educators to allow play to remain a childhood engagement instead of making it a lesson plan!






Gibson, J (1979) The Ecological approach to visual perception. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum


Rogoff, B (1990) Apprenticeship in thinking: cognitive development in a social context. New York: Oxford University press.


Vygotsky, L V (1933) Play and its role in mental development. In J.S Bruner, A, Jolly and K. Sylvia (Eds.) (1976)  Play – Its role in Development and Evolution. Great Britain: Penguin books






The worksheet available at the link below will help you to identify children’s favourite playthings and play.