The Play-Activated Learning™ model is made up of five different phases: Foundation, Environment, Observation, Prompting, and Validation. This framework was created so educators can unearth their practice in a way that covers all the bases.
Play-Activated learning simplifies play-based education by categorizing and outlining the different components that make up any teaching practice. Whether it’s authentic teaching values, classroom set-up, or your process of facilitating play, consider Play-Activated learning your sculpting tool as you carve out your truest and most authentic practices and let go of the rest.
As what you envision for your practice comes to life, confidence builds, authority flows, and ease follows.
In the Wonder League, our membership-based community, we offer curated courses, printable resources, and much more all designed to co-explore these pathways.
Table of Contents:
PHASE 00: FOUNDATION
The Foundation Phase is exactly what it sounds like: you’re ensuring that you’ve built a strong support for your teaching practice, based on understanding and skillfully practicing Play-Activated Learning®. You know you need to build or strengthen your own confidence and certainty about this educational approach, so you can both use it and advocate for it effectively.
You may have a good idea that Play-Activated Learning® is the educational approach you want to use, and you’re still trying to sort out what fits your teaching heart. Or perhaps you are looking to re-ignite your teaching passion, and are looking for the structure the Play-Activated Learning® Model offers. Either way, the Foundation is essential for all educators in any capacity of education. It is where the passion is ignited or reignited.
This phase can be emotionally exhausting, as it takes courage and resilience to look deeply at your own belief systems, as well as the conditioned beliefs we all have about education, and discover your own way, your personal truth. If you’re feeling drained at this stage, take heart; the work you do here will help you move more skillfully and quickly to the next phases, and before long you’ll be a Play-Activated Learning® pro!
The Foundation Phase is all about owning your own truth as an educator and being clear on what you are committed to bringing to children, through Play-Activated Learning®, that will serve them for a lifetime.
Essentially, by building a strong foundation, you are becoming crystal clear about your teacher “identity” – which includes your belief systems – out of which emerges authentic, congruent actions as an educator.
- Uncover your authentic teaching truths and approach.
- Establish your inner compass of confidence and certainty.
- Develop or re-ignite your teaching heart.
- Self-doubt about your own knowledge or skills.
- Getting overwhelmed by the number of different learning approaches there are.
- Questioning your self-worth as you deal with all the challenges of teaching.
- Feelings of isolation as you explore a path that is less “traditional” than others.
Common Questions At This Phase:
- Is play-based education really what children need?
- Where can I find the right methods and strategies for my personal approach?
- Who else is teaching from their authentic self?
- Why do I feel ill-equipped for this kind of education?
- Where or how do I start?
- Will I be taken seriously?
Pitfalls To Avoid:
At the Foundation Phase, you may be plagued with feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty, simply because there is so much information to observe, and because you’re at an intense phase of learning and growing. This can lead you to spend too much time trying to find the “right” ideas and methods. Duplicating another method can feel easy to execute, but can feel artificial because it is not who you are as a person/educator.
It’s common to believe that once you gather enough information, you’ll feel more confident and inspired to take action. However, too much research can have the opposite effect – information overwhelm can significantly reduce your motivation, and leave you feeling stuck and stalled at this stage.
Of course, not everyone feels overwhelmed and uncertain at the Foundation Phase! You may even feel inspired and motivated quite naturally. If so, don’t question whether you “should” be feeling more confused! This journey will be unique for each and every one of you.
A great majority of educators never quite get out of this phase, and can spend years believing if they could just get enough information, or figure out how to get things “just right” then they’d feel more confident and be able to take action on what they’ve learned.
The FOUNDATION Prescription
If you’re at the Foundation Phase and feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, the answer is to go deeper within instead of dissecting the experience in a way that looks to answer, “Am I doing this the ‘right’ way?”
It’s time to dig deep into your past and work to excavate what lies beneath the surface of who you are, that you can’t quite see, and which is informing your teaching self.
- Put on your detective hat and peek into your own educational experiences, asking yourself how they are impacting your practice today.
- After a deep detective dive, the next step is to bring your own teaching truths to the surface, making them visible to yourself and others as you share them. Don’t let feelings of uncertainty keep you from owning your truths.
If you’re in the Foundation Phase, you MUST go deep to discover your authentic teaching self, and work to consciously bring it to the surface.
If more educators took the time to do this in the initial stages of their teaching practice, the educational field would be filled to the brim with dynamic and passionate practitioners!
This ability to reflect deeply as you negotiate your way through this stage will ensure you come out on the other side much stronger and more confident in yourself and your teaching practice.
WHAT To Focus On
Identifying and practicing teaching congruent with:
- Your view of the child
- Your view of learning
- Your view of the educator
- Your view of the family
- Your view of education
- Your view of school
PHASE 01: ENVIRONMENT
The Environment Phase is much more than your classroom, it is where your inner teaching heart becomes more visible, and you’re able to now have an impact on children through the teaching truths you’ve established and become clear about.
Once you’ve identified your own truths about Play-Activated Learning®, and gained clarity and certainty about your authentic teaching heart – It’s now time to bring these elements into the teaching environment so it accurately reflects these values.
Preparing a dynamic teaching environment is as much about the emotional climate you create for children – the safety, belonging, and inclusiveness they feel, individually and collectively – as it is about the materials and aesthetics you make available to them.
The Environment Phase is when you have the ability to make your values, teaching truths, and teacher identity visible – catapulting children’s play through the opportunities and choices you make available in your environment.
- Create an intentional and challenging environment for learning through play.
- Create a deep sense of belonging and kindness in the classroom.
- Ensure your environment lines up (including your inner environment – your mindset, self-talk, and self-care) with the authentic teacher identity you’ve established and clarified as your Foundation.
- Comparing your teaching environment to others (in person or on social media).
- Getting overwhelmed by all the options and struggling to implement them.
- A limited budget (and the belief that you can’t create the right environment without a bigger budget!).
- See the characteristics of your environment as limitations (size, architectural features, existent furniture, absence of outside space).
- Needing buy-in from colleagues, administrators, and families.
- Feeling like it has to be “all or nothing”; believing you have to have the perfect environment all at once.
- Forgetting that your relationship with the children accounts for a large and important part of the environment.
Common Questions At This Phase:
- How can my classroom environment support my authentic teaching identity?
- How do I powerfully introduce materials?
- How can I create an environment of belonging and inclusion?
- How can I bring an anti-bias approach to teaching?
- How can I bring an aesthetic of beauty and joy?
- How do I get my co-teachers, administrator, and licensing on board?
- How do I find time to set up an intentional environment and continue to manage it?
Pitfalls To Avoid:
While it can be helpful to see what your colleagues have created or browse Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook for inspiration and ideas – it’s far too easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged if you spend too much time comparing yourself to others at this stage. You’re wearing 100 different hats in your classroom, and juggling your many other roles with setting up the teaching environment.
At this stage, as you prepare an environment of kindness for children, it’s crucial that you be kind to yourself, too. You may not even feel all that skilled at creating an environment, to begin with, and unless you have a lot of money, there is a limit to what you can do. There are lots of creative ways to solve these challenges, but be sure to acknowledge them and give yourself the patience and time needed to move through this phase.
Even those who are naturally skilled at aesthetics can feel challenged by this phase! There is quite a bit of work involved, so please know you are not alone.
Managing your mindset is critical at this stage. When feeling overwhelmed and or questioning your self-worth, your thoughts can be overtaken with questions like:
- Am I really cut out for Play-Activated Learning®?
- How am I going to find time to get the environment set up powerfully when I’m already overwhelmed by so many menial to-do’s?
- Is it hopeless to try this with a co-teacher who doesn’t get what I am trying to do?
- How will I explain the environmental choices I have made to parents and colleagues?
- How will I find the time to keep up with cleaning and maintaining the environment?
The long hours you spend creating your teaching environment can lead you to feel irritable, lose your temper more easily, or simply feel exhausted, burned out, or even hopelessly overwhelmed. Like any creative project, sometimes it seems it will never end and the “finished product” will never see the light of day.
At this stage, some educators may doubt that they can create an environment that adequately reflects their teaching values and their authentic teacher identity – particularly when they are working in an environment that is layered within the teaching practices of other, more traditional colleagues or administrators.
The ENVIRONMENT Prescription
There is a way of thinking you can implement to help you with the Environment phase: imagine your environment as a “third teacher” versus a space that needs to be crafted and organized. In other words, an intentionally created environment can act as a “third teacher” in your space – as if you had an extra pair of hands helping you during the day. When you focus on the “third teacher” system, you can remain anchored in the core idea that the environment is there not just as another massive “to-do” on your already-endless list – but that it is a dynamic, constantly evolving resource that is available to help you strategize and implement your own work, and effectively support children’s learning.
To build your “third teacher” system, take a look at the rhythm and routines of your day and how the environment supports your “third teacher”, providing security and belonging to the children in the different areas of the classroom, embodying their interests and needs. Observe how much usage each area of the classroom gets, and what activities are most aligned with your teaching truths and your children’s essence.
In the Environment Phase, remember that what you’re really focused on is getting your classroom set up to reflect your authentic teaching identity – NOT to create the Most Beautiful Classroom On Pinterest. Creating a powerful teaching environment is not so much about the “what” – the materials and how perfectly they are put together – but about the relationship you and the children have to the classroom – the “why”. Ultimately the environment is a place where you and the children feel belonging as a home-away-from-home.
Intention goes a long way, so stay focused on your positive intent, rather than the deficiencies you may feel exist in your budget, your skills, or the general atmosphere around you. Oftentimes building an authentic relationship with the environment comes through the process, not the end product.
Activities To Focus On
To unfold your environment, focus on:
- Developing your materials in diversity and quantity to ensure play in its multiple expressions. Start your loose parts collection – learn how to do it with our Get Started with Loose Parts Guide.
- Articulating to others the power of your environment as a context for Play-Activated Learning®.
- Identifying the single most important value in your environment.
- Developing your strategy for clean-up and classroom guidance.
- Developing relationships with each child and really getting to know them.
PHASE 02: OBSERVATION
The Observation Phase is almost like being in a laboratory — where you’ve designed your experiment, you have a hypothesis, but you’re there to educate yourself on what you actually see, not force the process and make things turn out the “right” way. The Observation Phase is critical! If you don’t know what you’re looking at, you won’t be able to move into the Prompting and Validation Phases effectively.
Remember, by the time you reach the Observation Phase, you’ve clarified and solidified your internal teaching truths, and practiced making them visible in your teaching environment. Now it’s time to develop effective systems within your teaching practice that allow you to powerfully facilitate and support each child’s learning in play.
You’ve already created a living, dynamic environment in the previous phase, which now gives you the freedom and confidence to truly dive deep into the art of reflection and observation.
As with all the phases of your play-activated education journey, you may feel cautious (or overwhelmed) about which techniques and strategies work best for observation. It can also be daunting to try and step back and get a clear picture and understanding of what you are observing – what to look for, and why.
During the Observation Phase you might feel as if your brain is on high alert and spare ‘mental time’ is non-existent. There is great capacity required to observe the children and process and reflect on all the new insights that appear, so be patient and understanding with yourself during this stage!
The Observation Phase is all about witnessing the power of play in action. We’ve already compared it to the laboratory, but it’s more than science. Like an artist, you’ll also be capturing the traces of each child’s unique strengths — the soul of each child — and using your observations to share more of your own teaching heart.
- Understanding what is happening in play (the “story behind the story,” so to speak).
- Observing developmental growth markers in play – cognitive, emotional, and physical.
- Maintaining a manageable system of observation notes.
- Lack of time to get deep observations, as your attention is dissipated over many children at once.
- Overwhelm and indecision about what to observe – what to focus on, and when.
- Communicating your observations to families and colleagues in meaningful ways.
- Dealing with the feeling that when you are observing you are doing nothing – and the need to justify it.
Common Questions At This Phase:
- How can I observe the children without things falling apart?
- What is the point of observation? Am I doing it right?
- What is the best practice of reflection?
- How do I organize all of my observations and reflections?
- How do I guarantee that I observe every child?
- What about the things I miss?
- What to do with my observations?
- What resources can I use to register my observations?
- Where do I get the time in my day to observe/reflect — what if I am the only teacher in the room?
- What are hard copy observations “supposed” to look like?
- How detailed do they need to be?
Pitfalls To Avoid:
At this stage, your understanding of the children is directly correlated to real-time observation. You may even be a “pro” at in-the-moment responses to what’s going on in your teaching environment. Give yourself a hand for the considerable wisdom and skill you’ve gained to reach this phase!
However, without an effective system that includes capturing all your observations, processing them, taking time for reflection, and gaining new insights – the idea of more observation will only exhaust you. You may even resist the Observation Phase, and choose to keep yourself in an endless loop of new ideas for the environment.
It’s crucial to set up your Observation System, though. Without it, you’ll never quite know what is working and what isn’t, which will result in many long, unnecessary hours “reinventing the wheel” or focusing on things that don’t matter, simply because you aren’t clear on what does matter.
The OBSERVATION Prescription
At this stage, your focus is not just on “observing” but using your observations and systemizing the observation and reflection side of your teaching practice. It is a process of 1) recording what you observe, 2) reflecting on what you observed, and 3) planning what’s next.
Explore the potential of children’s play including Self-Identity, Play Interests, Urges and Patterns, Friendships, Self-Expression and Family Narratives – and use these as guides to set up your observation system.
Use a system that works best with how you think and operate. As with all the phases, it’s best not to compare yourself to others or try to adopt their systems – unless they work well for you, of course! It’s ok to try out a few different methods until you find one, or a combination of a few, that work for you.
What’s most important is that your system works for you – that it is manageable, replicable, and invites deep exploration and insight for your teaching practice.
Activities To Focus On
To be confident with your observation system focus on:
- Be consistent. If you are not able to observe anything in one day don’t give up. Start again the next day.
- Observing and reflecting with regularity will bring you mastery.
- Adapt your current routine to accommodate your observation system that is aligned with your teaching truth.
- Explore different resources to find what best to capture and process your observations so they can be shared with others.
Review your organizational system – is it working? Could you answer a parent’s curiosity quickly? When you make regular observations and document it consistently, the ability to respond to families’ curiosities is something that comes naturally because you know those children.
PHASE 03: PROMPTING
By the time you’ve reached the Prompting Phase, you will have a good observation system in place and will be ready to use those observations, and your relationship with the children, to guide and strengthen your interactions and their play experiences.
At the Prompting Phase, you support children in moving to the next level of their own stages of learning and development. Without effective prompting, play will stagnate, and learning along with it.
One of the most common experiences for educators at the Prompting Phase of Play-Activated Learning® is struggling to identify children’s interests and ideas! This is where the observation skills and systems you have developed become so important. Having progressed through the Observation Phase, you’ll be more skillful in knowing what to look for at this point. This is why each phase of the Play-Activated Learning® Model is so critical.
In the Prompting Phase, there may also be communication gaps (as occurs in all human interaction) between you and the children, and it may take great patience and empathy to truly understand what drives a child, and how they see their world.
Here’s the great news: understanding the unique interests and ideas of children can make all the difference. By taking the time to become truly skillful at the Prompting Phase, you’ll create a highly effective learning environment. At this stage you’ll notice children developing their own rules in play, which is when play becomes self-sustaining for them (and rewarding for you as the educator!).
It may also help to remember, at this stage, that you are doing incredible work to create a foundation for the future – not just of a child’s individual life, but of our world! You have an incredibly important role to play, and the work you are doing here can change the trajectory of a child’s life and create a ripple effect that positively impacts their future and, in turn, our world.
The Prompting Phase is when you nurture and support children’s play through play invitations.
- To support children’s interests, ideas, and theories.
- To expand what’s possible in play.
- Uncertainty about what will support specific children’s play.
- Limited resources and budget to respond to children’s identified needs.
- Lack of clarity about what are the children’s interests and what to provide next.
- Balancing administrators’ requirements to plan ahead and meet standards, with your own desire to stay aligned with your teaching truths.
Common Questions At This Phase:
- How do I get up underneath a child’s interests?
- How do I identify play urges, patterns and narratives to base play invitations?
- What is the best way to set up play invitations?
- What is a highly effective play invitation?
- How can I address multiple interests inside my classroom?
- How do I know my play invitation is the correct one?
- How many play invitations do I need in a day?
- What if the children aren’t interested in what I set up?
Pitfalls To Avoid:
A priceless benefit of the Prompting Phase is the opportunity for you to truly facilitate the unleashing of children’s theories. A common pitfall at this stage is falling back on themes as a driver of the curriculum. It is easy to make assumptions about children’s ideas and apply a topic or theme too quickly. It’s a major understanding, however, to separate our own ideas from those of the children.
For example, if a classroom becomes interested in insects, it can be common to zero in on the “insect” theme. With effective prompting, however, you can expand the theme to include “things beneath my feet” – opening up an overarching idea that offers limitless possibilities (vs. a fixed, noun-based theme).
Working through the challenges that are presented at this stage will result in your support of children’s play. Their ideas and interests are what will yield the most valuable outcome of your teaching practice. The beauty of the Prompting Phase is that it will separate your teaching practice from both traditional curriculum AND from simply falling back on traditional ideas under the umbrella of play-based curriculum.
Deeply understanding and experiencing that “The Child is the True Curriculum” is the outcome of this phase. To develop this understanding and experience how it plays out is rewarding beyond measure. It is why we educators do what we do to begin with! We want to make a positive impact on children’s lives and futures.
When you undertake the challenge of the Prompting Stage, you can be more than assured you are having that impact!
The PROMPTING Prescription
Focus on developing your listening of the children’s play. Work at building up your capacity to identify the interests, ideas, and theories expressed in play. Be patient with yourself as you do.
Practice setting up play invitations that are designed to deepen and expand upon children’s play interests. Use your observations to practice making more meaningful connections and develop a greater understanding of the children’s interests and theories.
Allow yourself space to miss the target. Powerful play invitations are not a science – rather, they are an art. Art is messy, and its beauty lies in the process it takes to create it. Consider yourself and your teaching practice a work of art in the making – and children as both your subjects and your greatest teachers!
Activities To Focus On
- Children need time, repetition, and space to feed their natural curiosity and creativity. It’s tempting, but don’t worry about making different play invitations every day. For example, provide plenty of exploration time for each new material you introduce to them.
- Make time to experiment with materials yourself. You can only make proposals when you know the potential of multiple languages of materials
- Capture and reflect on children’s engagement with your play invitations. This is how you can assess your work and improve every day.
PHASE 04: VALIDATION
The Validation Phase is where you are able to share (with children, parents, the community) the engaged learning that is taking place, and demonstrate that the Play-Activated Learning® Model works. At this phase you are empowering and honoring children, yourself, and contributing to a new view of education in your community at the highest level. Validation is not simply documenting and recording, although it includes artifacts that demonstrate the learning.
However, Validation is much more than that – it is “soul work” that allows you to connect with your highest calling as an educator. If you have ever had that “goosebump” factor or been deeply moved by the demonstration of children’s learning – then you know the power of this phase. If you’ve ever been so inspired by a play invitation that you immediately “get” its value without needing a lengthy explanation – then you know the power of this phase. If you can remember just one teacher who had an impact on you over your lifetime – then you know the power of this phase, and ALL of the phases of Play-Activated Learning®!
At the Validation Phase, there may be a mixture of emotions where you are feeling burnt out, but you may also feel proud of the growth and learning that you know is happening in your classroom. In this phase, you will work on finding ways to share the children’s growth with them, their parents, and even your greater community.
There is something of incredible value for everyone involved: you as an educator, as you see the process of play in its magnificent unfoldment; parents, as they see clearly what their children are doing in a day; and children themselves, as they recognize that they are heard, seen, and valued. Nothing is more powerful than showing a child that you see what they are doing, and sharing with others just how amazing they are!
At the Validation Phase, you are making a powerful difference in each child’s life! All of the hard work you’ve done to reach this stage, and all of the little victories you’ve experienced along the way, will give you confidence and strength to dive into this stage wholeheartedly.
The Validation Phase is built on the solid foundation of the relationship we have with children. It’s a concrete way to ensure that they feel seen, heard, valued, and understood – not just with our words but also through demonstration.
The Validation Phase is all about valuing and making the process of learning visible in a deeply moving way that satisfies both the intellect and the heart. At this phase we are creating evocative, memorable communication channels that powerfully unite all the protagonists in the process: children, families, teachers and community.
- Use the artifacts that emerged from the pedagogical practice and use them to reflect, interpret and relaunch new learning opportunities.
- To make learning processes a common asset to your class, and your community.
- To provide communication to each child that leaves them feeling seen, heard and understood.
- Limited time as you balance an intense workload.
- No clear methods or models to carry out your intentions for validation.
- Feeling unworthy of the task of shaping another person’s self-image and life.
- Difficulty in assuming our choices and fear of judgment by others.
- Not comfortable with writing.
- Limited knowledge of resources like software and hardware.
Common Questions At This Phase:
- How can I engage families in children’s learning processes and help them to understand the value of play-activated learning?
- How do I document each child’s play as an affirmation of their personal brilliance?
- What are some ways to have each child seen, heard and valued?
Pitfalls To Avoid:
By the time they’ve reached this stage of their teaching practice, many educators may be losing their passion for their work. They may feel drained and discouraged with the challenge of being understood – and yet, the key at the Validation Phase is to pay attention to children’s learning how the child is receiving their progress and growth, not necessarily to our own agenda for the child.
There’s nothing better than truly feeling seen, heard, and understood. If you’re at this stage and feeling burned out, take some time to reflect on your own very human need for validation. Think about the times when someone else has come along and said, in effect: “I see you.”
It is our communication with, and understanding of, each child that brings the greatest fulfillment in teaching. And it is the child who is our priority in our teaching practice. Be sure to seek out and get the validation you need as well. Practice extreme self-care, as you should at all phases of your teaching journey!
Remember that you can only give to others what you can accept for yourself – so be gentle and patient as you explore your own need for understanding, and create more space to provide this for children, as well.
Rather than thinking of Validation as being yet another “to do” on your ever-growing list, the skills you develop in the Validation Phase offer a way to bring intention and meaning to the demonstration of learning. You’re also powerfully demonstrating that Play-Activated Learning® works – in ways that not only move people emotionally, but are so evocative that people will share them on social media, talk about them at the dinner table, and remember them for a lifetime.
The VALIDATION Prescription
At the Validation Phase, you have the opportunity not only to affect a child’s life in terms of their love of learning, their well-being, and their ability to adapt and grow over a lifetime – but to instill a deep sense of their own identity.
It can help to remind yourself that there is no greater purpose in life than to be a catalyzing force for good in someone else’s life. Many professions offer the opportunity to do this, but education uniquely offers the opportunity to effect change early on in life – potentially helping a child avoid many costly and unnecessary mistakes that can significantly determine their entire life’s path.
Remember your “why” and shore yourself up with the resources you need to play this crucial role. The rewards will be beyond anything you can imagine!
Activities To Focus On
- Invest your time in mastering documentation of child’s play.
- Using Learning Stories as a way of communicating with children.
What are your authentic teaching truths and approach?
What is the single most important value in your environment?
Cutter-Mackenzie, Amy; Edwards, Susan; Moore, Deborah; Boyd, Wendy (2014). Young Children’s Play and Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education. SpringerBriefs in Education.
Singer, Dorothy G.; Golinkoff, Roberta M.; Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy (2006). PLAY = LEARNING, How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth. Oxford University Press
Weisberg, Deena S.; Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy; Golinkoff, Roberta M. (2013). Guided Play: Where Curricular Goals Meet a Playful Pedagogy. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society and Blackwell Publishing, Inc.