Principal Investigators: Martha Gabriel, Ray Doiron Research Project Officers: Anna Baldacchino, Jessica McKenna, and Alaina Roach O Keefe

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1 Final Report Play in Early Learning Programs: Beliefs, Practices and Professional Development Principal Investigators: Martha Gabriel, Ray Doiron Research Project Officers: Anna Baldacchino, Jessica McKenna, and Alaina Roach O Keefe June, 2012

2 Table of Contents Forward - The Road to Somewhere Better...4 Abstract...7 Literature Review...9 The Context Defining Play Stakeholders in Play Emergent Learning and Play Based Curriculum Questioning Play Creating Conditions for Quality Play Inclusive Play The Play Environment Educator and Facilitator Parent and Community Understanding Play Observing Play Recognizing and Supporting Play Documenting Play Reflective Practitioners and Collaboration Action Research: Practitioner as Researcher Conclusion: The Value of Play Methods Introduction Site and Population Selection Researchers Role Data Collection and Procedure Data Analysis Findings Four Learning Stories Centre A - Research Officer B Learning gained through this process for Centre A Centre B - Research Officer B Learning gained through this process for Centre B Centre C - Research Officer A Learning gained through this process for Centre C Centre D - Research Officer A Learning gained through this process for Centre D Sharing Sessions/Workshops Workshop #1: Understanding Action Research in Early Childhood Education and Practice 51 1

3 Workshop #2: Doing Action Research in Early Childhood Education and Practice Workshop #3: Using Action Research in Early Childhood Education and Practice Themes that Emerged from the Research Project Documentation and Reflective Practice Play Environments The 3Cs: Communication, Communities of Practice, and Confidence Leadership Roles The Facilitator... Mentor...Coach...Teacher (the Research/ Project Officer) I am a researcher Discussion and Recommendations: Future Considerations for Professional Development A Professional Development Model: Considerations for Practice Future Interests and Topics for Professional Development Sustainability of Action Research as Professional Development/Learning Time Leadership Common Language and Enthusiasm Future Research Concluding Thoughts References Appendix A Online and Paper-Based Surveys Who were the respondents? Beliefs Children s engagement in a number of activities Learning stories Focus group invitation Focus Groups Themes from Focus Group Interviews Beliefs about play in early years education (EYE) Professional practices: Reading and writing through play Transition of kindergarten to the public school system: Concerns of educators General concerns of participants Relevant training and professional development Continuing professional development

4 List of Figures Table 1. Summary of Data Collection Methods...31 Table 2. Action Research Questions, Discoveries and Developments...50 List of Tables Figure 1. The Action Research Cycle...27 Figure 2. The Action Research Process: Observations and Events

5 Forward The early childhood educators involved in this project took part in a series of workshops on action research. One early childhood educator included this poem in her final presentation to capture her experiences. The Road to Somewhere Better An Epic Poem Written by: A Dedicated Early Childhood Educator in PEI One day at the Children s Centre it was said we need a change So Janie* and Suzanna* began to rearrange. The toddlers don t like that little room, said Janie, as they started to think It s too far from the bathroom and doesn t have a sink! Jonny* and Jack* don t want to go in, said Suzanna with a sigh, And Fae goes in and out each day sixty-seven times! The toddlers need more space, we thought, where teachers can help out. More room to roam, more room to grow and bounce and run about. The big room for the toddlers meant more teachers and more space, That leaves the little room to fill, said Janie with a smile across her face. Suzanna thought of running fast and far away, But belief in teamwork got the best of her and Suzanna had to stay. It was going to be a lot of work, to move and change our space, But, the older children would benefit from the quiet, slower pace. The little room will be great for them, Suzanna suddenly agreed A smaller space, less room to run, means more focused play indeed! No sooner had we made the switch, and began to start the day When who should come right in the door, but Martha Gabriel and Ray. Join our action research, they said, this new change is a great place to start Do we have to do it alone? we thought, or write a big report? Never fear, they said, we provide support, Alaina s on her way. When she stepped in the door, Handel s Hallelujah seemed to play. We sat down with Alaina every Wednesday afternoon. 4

6 Planning the best way to organize the big and little rooms. The little room needed the pre-k s to be engaged in something fun, In the big room, Janie needed help getting portfolios and documentation done. We talked about some strategies that may lead to satisfaction, The kicker came when we were told to put them into action. You see, Janie and Suzanna liked to talk and strategize, But when the best laid plans did not work, defeat would often rise. Try something else, Alaina said, in her optimistic, cheerful way, Not letting us give up this time and throw our plans away. What things went well? And what did not? What things can you now change? Try again, and I ll be back, more ideas to exchange. So, guess what? We tried, and tried, and tried some more. We couldn t even sneak, Because we knew she would be back every single week! The pre-k room began a project about different kinds of bears, Then soon the children were making caves from the tables and the chairs. The cave project was a success with cave paintings and cardboard caves, A virtual tour of the ancient cave s in Lascaux kept everyone engaged. After caves, the pre-k s became interested in spring. So now we are beginning a project about discovering new things. Now, each day in the pre-k room, the children take the lead, A hands-on approach to discovering spring helps everyone succeed. The small room has become a place where the children are in charge They are able now to plan their day, to focus and recharge. With the pre-k room successful, and the children most content We turn the story to Janie, and her challenge to document. There are twenty-seven binders to fill with children s pictures and work samples! She wanted to fill them up and set a good example. But no one else was comfortable with child observation and note-taking To develop twenty-seven portfolios alone would be quite an undertaking. Through Alaina s coaching and weekly Wednesday meetings Janie found the encouragement and the time she had been needing. 5

7 She developed some guidelines concerning children s portfolios, This plan would help more staff be involved, an example goes as follows: Take pictures, plan an activity, take notes on sticky pads The children do great work each day, let s show their moms and dads. A form was made that connected play to the Framework that we follow, For the staff, this made documenting clearer and easier to swallow. Portfolios are up and running, becoming more elaborate every day, Since everyone is pitching in, documentation no longer feels like a train that s run away. So, the Children s Centre had a successful action plan, The pre-k s are much more focused and the staff now understand How important it is to capture small moments everyday And write them down to show the world, these children are the way. The way to bigger and better things when given opportunities to explore and question They will face the world with more confident, leaving lasting true impressions. As for Janie and Suzanna, they sit back now quite at ease, Glad it was successful, hoping everyone is pleased! So, In the tradition of old English poetry and prose we would like to leave you with some words of wisdom and morals we have discovered Embrace changes Don t be afraid to ask for help Make time for what s important Believe in your abilities and the abilities of the adults and children around you And, if at all possible have Alaina on your team! (Re-printed with permission from the author) *ECE s and children s names have been changed to protect their privacy 6

8 Abstract Major efforts are underway in Prince Edward Island to build research capacity within the early childhood community with particular attention to examining the changing role of Directors of Early Years Centres (EYCs), exploring early childhood educators beliefs about play and learning, as well as developing action research projects within the early childhood system. This report summarizes the fourth phase of Play in Early Learning Programs: Beliefs, Practices, and Professional Development project funded by the Early Childhood Association (ECDA) of Prince Edward Island (PEI). In it, we delineate details about the development, facilitation, and process of how Directors and educators learned to conduct action research projects in four Early Years Centres. The report also provides a summary of findings, and recommendations based on the numerous sources of data that were collected. Data included researchers logs and final learning stories developed from these logs, reflections of the participants, and evaluations from the workshops. These data were coded and themes emerged. Quotes were included in the report to illustrate the context and to support conclusions. The themes that emerged during the data analysis cluster into six general areas: (a) documentation and reflective practice; (b) play environments; (c) communication, communities of practice and confidence; (d) leadership roles; (e) the role of the facilitator, mentor, coach and teacher; and (f) I am a researcher. Throughout the project, early childhood educators (ECEs) expressed the belief that this action research project impacted their own practice, and that there is now: (a) an affirmation of their values and beliefs in early childhood pedagogy; (b) increased awareness of play-based pedagogy and personal practice; (c) increased communication with fellow staff, colleagues, children and parents; (d) a better understanding of how to make children s learning visible, and how to connect play to learning outcomes in the new PEI Early Learning Framework; and (e) they began to recognize their personal resilience and increased self-efficacy, as educators gave evidence of a strong belief in themselves and in the work that they do. 7

9 Introduction The project Play in Early Learning Programs: Beliefs, Practices, and Professional Development was funded by the Early Childhood Association (ECDA) of Prince Edward Island. This project began in the spring of 2011, when the ECDA contacted researchers at the Research in Early Child Development Initiative at the University of Prince Edward Island. The need for research on a number of issues impacting Early Childcare Centres on Prince Edward Island (PEI) was discussed. A research plan was developed to explore the beliefs and practices of educators in the early years field, as well as to provide the opportunity for Directors and educators to learn how to conduct action research projects within their centres. Components of the project included (a) the development and dissemination of online surveys; (b) focus groups; and (c) the development, facilitation, and support of action research projects in four Early Years Centres. This report is organized into the following sections: (a) a review of the literature which underpinned the entire project; (b) the methods used in this project, in particular, methods used during the action research phase; (c) findings of the study, focusing on the action research projects of the four Early Years Centres; and (d) recommendations for the future. The appendix attached to the report includes a summary of the initial phases of the research project: the survey and focus group data (see Appendix A). 8

10 Literature Review This review of the research literature presents a range of themes regarding play and its place in early childhood education, including definitions of play, play-based curricula, quality play, stakeholders, and the importance of observing and documenting play. The United Nations recognizes play as a specific right that children hold in addition to, and separate from, a child s right to education, leisure, and recreation (Goodine & Doiron, 2009, p.1). Research also shows that play provides children with important learning and critical developmental opportunities that set a course for future learning (Krentz, 2008). Vygotsky grounded this belief that in order for children to work within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZDP), they must be involved, active participants in their learning processes (Vygotsky, 1978). Harnessing children s interests, behaviours and desires when it comes to learning motivates children in the early years (0-8) to construct new knowledge when there is a balance of challenge and mastery. Children learn best through their natural play, where they are able to implement strategies that guide their investigations of their world through physical experiences, social interactions, and reflections (Kostelnick, Soderman & Whiren, 2011; Wein & Stacey, 2008). Through their play, children: a) make sense of the world around them; b) expand their social and cultural understandings; c) learn to consider other perspectives; d) practice fexible and divergent thinking; e) encounter and solve real problems; f) express thoughts and feelings; g) negotiate play roles and plans; h) develop self-control; i) extend language and literacy skills; and j)enhance their brain and motor development (Goodine & Doiron, 2009, p.1). Children have an extremely high level of motivation and engagement in their education, 9

11 and they are born with the desire to learn and grow and with an innate capacity to construct new knowledge and build understanding (Olfman, 2003; Lifter, Mason & Barton, 2011). The enthusiasm felt and illustrated by young children should be the inspiration behind creating the conditions for valuable and quality play-based and playful learning experiences. It is from this interest and connection to their environment and the people within they interact that children will take the most away from what they are learning (Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). Children are naturally intrigued by their surroundings and quality early childhood education can enhance this experience and potential. The Context Early childhood education (ECE) and the impact it has on the early learning community has been of utmost concern for Prince Edward Island families and educators. This is most evident in several transformations that have taken place over the past few years as different theories of early learning have taken centre stage (Flanagan, 2010). The values and developmental benefits of play have been well established in the literature and it is clear that play has been a component of the structure of ECE, both on Prince Edward Island and around the world, and that the value of play is generally understood by practitioners and policy makers alike (Howard, 2010; Flanagan, 2012). Despite the support within the minds of early years stakeholders, it appears that play has been lacking endorsement and emphasis on the pages of the policy documentation in the past and thus, suggesting a lack of importance in its implementation as a primary learning medium (Howard, 2010) within the early childhood centres. Although the term play is prevalent among stakeholders in early childhood education, it often carries a unique definition among the individuals involved and its place of value within these facilities 10

12 may differ as the understanding of what play is, unfolds (Lifter et al., 2011; Sherwood & Reifel, 2010). Defining Play Play contributes to the emotional, intellectual, physical, social and spiritual development of the child in ways that cannot be taught through instruction. (Susan J. Oliver, Executive Director, Playing for Keeps; Zigler, Singer & Bishop-Josef, 2004, p. vi).there is no one single commonly accepted meaning of what play is and this often accompanies multiple conceptualizations, such as what the characteristics of play are, the types of play that can occur, and where play can occur (Sherwood & Reifel, 2010). Some of the many ways in which play can be defined include: spontaneous, voluntary, child-determined and intrinsically motivated, flexible and changing, inquiry, open-ended discovery where the participant is fully consumed by the experience, where no specific outcome is imposed or expected (Mastrangelo, 2009; Ortlieb, 2010; Sherwood & Reifel, 2010). Play characteristics or how play is illustrated and demonstrated when acted out often defines the play itself (Luckey & Fabes, 2005; Sherwood & Reifel, 2010). These differences in definitions of play can be addressed by the multiple conceptualizations of play in the minds of the stakeholders of early childhood education (Lifter et al., 2011). Piaget (1962) suggested that children learn most through their play experiences. It is evident from educational and psychological research that play in early childhood education has the capacity to illustrate the development in children s knowledge of the world around them as they apply all the things they have been learning and test these experiences in a safe environment (Olfman, 2003; Lifter et al., 2011). This is a flexible method of learning as it can be included across cultures as a means of communication, locations and contexts. The value of play in 11

13 allowing the application of new skills and knowledge is rich in illustration to those who work with children on a regular basis (Lifter et al., 2011; Zigler et al., 2004). Stakeholders in Play The development of the child is holistic and must be understood in relation to her/his interaction with family, community, society and the world around and at the same, these interactions are equally influenced by the child (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Flanagan, 2012). Individuals who have a direct relationship with the value that play has in the developmental domains of children are the ECE educators, parents and guardians, the children, and extended community members. It is paramount to develop relationships and communication among these systems of interaction as all stakeholders in ECE are affected (Flanagan, 2010). Emergent Learning and Play-Based Curriculum Emergent curriculum is not linear it is organic, constantly growing and evolving. Sometimes it is even circular, as we observe, discuss, and examine documentation, raise questions, and observe again (Stacey, 2009, p.13). Emergent learning in a play-based learning centre is a method under constant reflection, adjustment and action. It is a cycle of nurturing and observing the curiosity of children and creating a condition for those interests to flourish (Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). The process is much like that of action research in that observations promote discussion among early childhood education practitioners who examine the documentation, the stories of learning from the children, frame questions around what they observe and understand and work to answer questions through action and reflection (Stacey, 2009). This is a never-ending process that allows for the most relevant issues to be in the forefront of both the educators minds as they create a supporting environment that allows 12

14 learning through play to happen, as well as the children s minds as they investigate and make sense of the world around them (Zigler et al., 2011). Early Years Centres rooted in emergent learning programs allow children to pursue activities that enthrall them, with support of centre staff. In doing so, they draw on prior knowledge and skills and build understanding and an increased awareness and knowledge of their abilities (Lifter et al., 2011; Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). Practitioners apply their understanding of play through learning theorists such as Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky through an emergent approach, while playing the part of facilitator by creating the conditions for learning through child-directed experiences and document the journey which makes learning visible to ECE stakeholders (Stacey, 2009). Questioning Play Play is difficult to categorize in terms of play developmental stages. Piaget focused on experimental and discovery learning and the need to be aware of the many stages of learning (Olfman, 2003). Both social and cognitive stages are often used to categorize play (Zigler et al., 2004). The social stages are: solitary, parallel, associative, and cooperative play. The cognitive stages are: exploratory play, functional, pretend/symbolic play, and games with rules. Many of these stages have characteristics that exist across as well as divided into further sub stages within each stage. These play skills typically develop as the child ages and progresses in development (Goodine & Doiron, 2009; Mastrangelo, 2009). Play is often viewed as an addition to learning the reward after the work has been done. Children play during their time outside of the early years centre and it is believed by some that there should be separation of what is going on inside the centre and what happens outside of 13

15 centre (Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). However, play has high potential in supporting the exploration of learners and their application of discovery by using this tool as a means for development across the many facets of learning (Ortlieb, 2010; Zigler et al., 2004). ECEs are especially cautious during outdoor play as it is viewed as rough and risky (Little, Wyver & Gibson, 2011). While children are exploring the outdoor environment, they are determining what their own abilities are when it comes to walking, running, climbing and jumping. They are learning to understand their own perception and judgment of risky behaviour in a more independent world (Tannock, 2008). It is here that children are running, jumping and climbing, often independent of assistance of an educator. Outdoor play provides opportunity for children to develop the ability to judge and assess risks as they avoid injury while developing their gross motor skills (Little et al., 2011). While in a supportive environment with safety as a top priority in the engineering of the play space, children can develop their risk judgments, allowing them to make sensible choices when it comes to the way in which they play outdoors. Little and Wyver (2010) found that children as young as four and five years of age were able to identify equipment that they would have trouble safely using when it came to their own abilities. It was well illustrated from this study that these children were able to establish an understanding of what was safe for them when it came to their own play on the outdoor playground and their risk assessment was a judgment they understood. Providing an environment where children can learn new skills and better understand themselves while making risk assessments in an environment that appropriately challenges them will motivate them to take these risk assessments into consideration in the future (Little et al., 2011; Zigler et al., 2004). When educators can provide the appropriate amount of assistance and support for these children on their learning journeys, they can get a better sense of their abilities to apply to the future, while in an 14

16 environment that is promoting their learning of themselves (Little & Wyver, 2010; Tannock, 2007). Rusty Keeler s work (2008) supports this notion and stems from his deep belief in the beauty and importance of play in the development of children. His designs reflect his sincere desire to create a more beautiful world in which to grow and explore, and he presents this work to encourage early childhood educators to see their outdoor space as an extension of their classrooms. When educators can provide outdoor playscapes, they create opportunities for children to develop observation skills, a sense of visual-spatial relationships, and exploration encourages confidence and risk taking. 21 st Century skills are emphasizing critical thinking as one of the most important that our children will need. They also learn science, life cycles, math, interdependence of the plants and animals. Creating Conditions for Quality Play The culture of the classroom is created through play experiences and it is from these interactions that children will begin to create their identity, both inter- and intrapersonal, and their understanding of their place in the world (Curtis & Carter, 2003; Kostelnick et al., 2011). This self-construction is crucial in a child s identity, and support from an early childhood educator on that journey as children interact with their peers is paramount in ensuring that the environment is culturally competent and inclusive (Earick, 2010; Lifter et al., 2011); this allows children to observe, test, and make discoveries, and have reflective play. When children are participating with their peers through play, with the materials in the classroom which will build on their learning, they will be more likely to be motivated to understand what is going on in their play (Ortlieb, 2010). The children themselves should be an active part of the planning process for 15

17 play environments as teachers take cues from their interests and motivations to incorporate into future learning experiences (Lifter et al., 2011; Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). Creating a condition for quality play allows for a setting that is open-ended and welcoming, building children s experiences, while leaving room for development based on the interests of those involved. In creating such an atmosphere, educators are supporting the implementation of good play environments, materials that promote valuable play, and adequate time in the day for good play to occur (Sherwood & Reifel, 2010; Zigler et al., 2004). Inclusive Play Adults can help facilitate inclusive play by promoting discussion among playgroup members, which helps to build social participation (Lifter et al., 2011). Playing as a part of the group, the early childhood educator can be involved through occasional dialogue, posing questions that allow members of the group to contribute in their own way, regardless of ability (Howard, 2010). Even those children who cannot express themselves through speech can participate with help of an educator who takes on a role of a member of the playgroup. While keeping themselves at a distance and allowing the play to happen, independent of guidance, educators can contribute moments of involvement in support of those children who may otherwise be left out (Howard, 2010; Theodorou & Nind, 2010). The Play Environment Reggio Emilia educators consider three teachers when it comes to education in early childhood: the parent, the teacher and the environment (Stacey, 2009). Educators take into consideration how children use the space and where they hope to take children s learning by creating an environment where children are engaged in sensory experiences (Howard, 2010; Kostelnick et al., 2011). 16

18 It has been made evident in the literature that children take more away and are more attentive during activities that are new than those they are familiar with (Lifter et al., 2011, p. 284), suggesting the importance of constant updates to the play environment. When creating or updating a play environment, considerations to the safety, comfort, flow of sound, equipment and material size, and the arrangement of space for both large and small group work and the transition between spaces (Kostelnick et al., 2011) have to be taken into consideration. The emergent learning environment allows children to work together during play. It is an environment that allows for the development of the social, physical, emotional and cognitive development. An early childhood environment provides activities that allow for children to work together creating a sense of community while still providing opportunities for their own creativity (Hyvönen, 2008; Zigler et al., 2004). Educator and Facilitator According to Howard (2010), practitioners of early childhood education felt very little confidence in defending play as an educational practice, felt untrained in how to encourage and support play, and felt a lack of understanding in how play benefited the child. They also felt that the standard curriculum objectives were a barrier in allowing for time and space for learning through play (Ashiabi, 2007; Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). Many educators believe that play is too subjective, since there may not be a physical product to base assessment after the playing has been done (Ortlieb, 2010). With the added pressure to meet the expectations of standardization, ECEs may feel that unscripted play cannot meet the challenges and outcomes expected to be experienced in these learning communities. With the growing focus on evaluation and structured and scripted lesson plans and curricula, some early childhood educators may feel uncertain about the role that play 17

19 should have in the learning environment and that understanding the early childhood framework can be overwhelming to address through play (Kostelnick et al., 2011). With all the cognitive goals that are expected to be achieved in early childhood education, there may be a perception that this cannot be achieved entirely through play alone but rather structured instruction time (Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). This is the argument that play does not have a place within the early childhood setting as a primary method of learning and development and the supporting factor for why play is pushed to the backburner when there are so many outcomes and objectives to reach within the day (Ortlieb, 2010). Vygotsky suggested that learning should be scaffolded, supported, and mentored (Olfman, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978) and ECEs in a play-based, emergent centres engage in many roles and are crucial in the facilitation of this learning journey (Zigler et al., 2004). The educator is a lifelong learner of pedagogy and child development and has a curiosity about how to create the conditions of developmental success for each individual child in their care while remaining a reflective practitioner of their practice (Stacey, 2009). Educators who have a deep understanding of child development and learning are more effective in their delivery of developmentally appropriate curriculum (Howard, 2010). Keeping in mind such things as: holistic development, the varying rates at which children develop, children as active learners, and the implications of one's understanding on the daily experience of the children (Kostelnick et al., 2011) allows an educator to feel confident in a play-based learning journey. In the highest levels of engagement the teaching and learning relationship is a constant back and forth as educators co-construct the learning as they play the role of both teacher and learner in what they experience from the children and how it helps to build and enhance their practice. Likewise, the child plays the part of learner as well as teacher as they share the 18

20 knowledge with their peers as well as play a large part in shaping the experience of their educators (Goouch, 2008). Parent and Community Parents and educators may feel obligated to direct a child s play in an attempt to facilitate deeper learning. This temptation must be resisted to allow for natural learning to occur while supporting learning by asking questions and investigating that natural route that the play is taking. Allowing for what happens to take place to build confidence and individuality in a child s play (Mastrangelo, 2009). Graue (2009) found that many parents believed that too much play in early childhood education would leave their children behind in an academic comparison in the years to follow. Many parents felt that time would be better spent during instructional lessons (Ashiabi, 2007; Schwartz & Copeland, 2010). Through the strengths of home, school and community, children will build and enhance their knowledge of themselves, and the world around them in a safe and friendly environment where success can flourish. There is immeasurable worth in involving the whole family on the educational journey of the child and the day-to-day experience in the ECE centre. Involving members of each child or youth s family creates another level of support and motivation (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Brumfield & Christensen (2011) found that in general, parents supported the idea of play as a means for development and learning in their child s educational journey, especially during the early childhood. They encourage play, not only in the ECE environment, but also in their own homes and communities. Understanding Play Many educators enter the field of early childhood education with a set of well-established beliefs about play and that value of play in the early childhood centre (Zigler et al., 2004). This 19

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