Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Learning through Exploration, Play and Inquiry

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE

This is the third blog written during self-isolation imposed by the spread of COVID-19, intended to support early childhood educators committed to continuous professional learning. It is the second in a series focused on the pedagogical approaches from Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years: How Does Learning Happen? (2014). The first post, Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Responsive Relationships has a strong relationship to the topic of this post. “Evidence from diverse fields of study tells us that children grow in programs where adults are caring and responsive. Children succeed in programs that focus on active learning through exploration, play, and inquiry” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 4). It is my hope that these posts will be engaging and joyful. I will be including a PowerPoint, videos and handouts connected to the topic. During this difficult time, it is important that we share what we can. I am so inspired by others who are sharing tips and resources to stay connected with our youngest children through technology and by those now teaching early childhood education students in virtual classrooms. At the same time, I am thankful that in my stage of semi-retirement, this is not something I have to grapple with. It must be difficult to readjust how we approach teaching and learning, for all learners. For me, what this pandemic has provided is time. With workshops and conferences cancelled I am home looking for something to do. I know that many early childhood educators in my province and elsewhere around Canada and the world are looking for free professional development to support their goals to continuously learn. This is something I can do. It is my pleasure to give back to a profession that has given me so much in return. I am choosing to create content for early childhood educators related to the six pedagogical approaches from How Does Learning Happen? (2014). These include responsive relationships, learning through exploration, play and inquiry, educators as co-learners, environment as third teacher, pedagogical documentation and reflective practice and collaborative inquiry. Examining the pedagogical approach, learning through exploration, play and inquiry requires coming to terms with terms. What is exploration? What is play? What is inquiry? Children learn best when they are fully engaged in active exploration, play and inquiry which will lead to higher-order thinking. What is higher-order thinking? The PowerPoint embedded below will help you come to terms with the terms used in Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years.

It is important to focus on play, but play can be misunderstood. When we tell children what to do, that is not play. Even if we tell children to “play” with certain toys or materials, if it is our agenda and the play is not freely chosen, it is not play. We may be trying to “teach” the child about the weather by asking them to use the crayons to draw a picture of a sun, but we need to recognize this is not play. As early childhood educators we are obligated to provide children with opportunities to play. Adult-directed activities are not play. This video from Dr. Peter Gray, helps to define play and makes the link between play and learning.

Play is the way children learn. In my heart of hearts, I believe that early childhood educators recognize this but sometimes struggle to articulate the importance of play-based learning to others. I have found two documents that help build the case for play. If you click on each image, you will be able to download a PDF version for your use.

In Ontario, the practice of early childhood education is defined as, the planning and delivery of inclusive play-based learning for children according to the ECE Act (2007). Play-based learning is legislated! For those who want to improve the provision of play-based learning in their own contexts, think about the environment. The environment as the third teacher is another pedagogical approach that will be explored further in another post. How the environment is set up for children, is key. Does the environment that you provide for children lend itself to active exploration and play?

Seneca College Newnham Campus Labschool

Children need time to play. They have to be interested in what is provided in the environment for there to be active exploration and meaningful engagement. This is where inquiry enters the picture. What is inquiry, anyway? In my workshops with educators, I often provide an experience based on the six pedagogical approaches of How Does Learning Happen? I ask participants in groups, to arrange the approaches from clearest to muddiest. I have done this all over the province and invariably the pedagogical approach of exploration, play and inquiry is usually the clearest with pedagogical documentation, the muddiest. Yet, with further probing exploration and play is clear but what is not so clear is what inquiry is. According, to a Ministry of Education document published in 2013, inquiry-based learning is described as “an approach to teaching and learning that places students’ questions, ideas and observations at the centre of the learning experience” (p. 2). If you look for on-line resources on inquiry, you will find many focused on older children. As early childhood educators who work with younger children, our approach to inquiry-based learning has to be different. We often have to interpret children’s questions, theories and ideas. Here is a video of my grandson playing with a stick. I received this video from my son who had taken Griffen for a walk to the river. Without having been there I interpret that there is an interest in sticks and what they can do, and I wonder how this can lead to further inquiry. Watch the video. What do you see? How is this experience meaningful? What would you do next, if this was a child in your program? How might you expand on this interest?

Early childhood educators may be more familiar with the term emergent curriculum which is an inquiry-based approach. In emergent curriculum, the emphasis is on planning that emerges from the daily life of children and adults, particularly from the children’s own interests. An emergent curriculum builds on the theories of constructivism. The emphasis is that learning takes place through joint activities and interactions with others. Early childhood educators may also be familiar with the Reggio Emilia Approach™ which is also based on inquiry. Emergent curriculum is very different than the traditional theme approach that has been commonplace in early childhood education. I have been studying emergent curriculum for many years. In fact, it was the topic of my doctoral dissertation. What I found in my research, is that it is not easy to fully transition away from the limitations of themes to an emergent curriculum. Yet, it is worth it. Children feel capable and competent because they see themselves as co-learners. Teachers feel capable and competent because they are using their own research, theories and ideas about children rather than blindly following a prescribed theme. Years ago, I wrote an article that summarized my research, From Theme-based to Emergent Curriculum: Four Teachers Change and Learn about Themselves, the Children, and Authentic Practice. An emergent curriculum is one that is focused on inquiry. Inquiry is activated by children’s curiosity. I did a porch drop off to my grandson of bags filled with items and materials that I thought might spark his curiosity. In one bag, I gave him wool, sticks, pine cones and some electrical tape with the invitation to possibly create a journey stick. It really reinforces what I wrote about in a blog for Storypark – that the stick does indeed belong in the toy hall of fame!

Think about the invitations that you can provide for children. Ask yourself what would spark their curiosity and be something to actively explore? Of course, what you would provide an infant or a toddler would be different than what you would provide for a preschooler. Think about how you would set up these invitations for children. Remember that invitations are inviting. They will draw children in and spark their interest. This chart is from a resource intended for kindergarten children, but it is valuable to help us consider the elements of the inquiry process.  

Inquiry is a process. It is aligned with the scientific method. It is about exploration and discovery. For the inquiry approach, rather than acting as “keepers of knowledge” or the sole planners of programs, early childhood educators “engage with children, planning, participating, and learning with the child and about his or her questions, theories, and curiosities”. This may involve educators interpreting children’s questions, theories and curiosities. “When educators take a purposefully curious approach to new experiences and ideas rather than acting as the expert, children are more likely to engage in creative problem- solving and more complex play and inquiry” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 35 ). Children need to time for this. Educators need time to observe, record, interpret and document their theories about children’s theories. In order to take this pedagogical approach into practice, look to your “flow of the day” which is the daily schedule, routines and transitions. Is there enough time for children to actively engage in in-depth exploration and can these experiences be extended over several days? An inquiry approach should involve short-term and long-term investigations. It is an investigative approach. To understand inquiry is to know that it is an approach that is referred to in multiple different ways. The inquiry approach is sometimes known as project-based or experiential learning. Early childhood educators may be familiar with the project approach. My colleague and critical friend, Cindy Green and I wrote this blog last year where we wondered about what early childhood educators are doing now in practice to support inquiry-based learning. We still wonder! An inquiry approach to play and learning needs to involve long-term investigations as children will be more actively engaged when they have opportunities to visit and revisit their theories and ideas. In my search for resources to share on this blog, I wanted a video that demonstrated this in practice. The video, Amusement Park for the Birds, is long and the production quality reflects the 1994 release date. It changed my view of teaching and learning in early childhood education when I first viewed it in the 1990s. Please take the time, while you have the time, during this difficult time, to watch the video and please, provide your comments and feedback to the video and this blog as we share and learn together.

In closing, let’s look at Ontario’s pedagogy for the early years, How Does Learning Happen? (2014) as it provides early childhood educators with questions to ask about the pedagogical approach of exploration, play and inquiry. These include:

  • What questions and theories do the children seem to be exploring through their play?
  • What are they wondering about in the ways they use materials (e.g., what does their non-verbal communication tell you)?
  • How can you make these visible?
  • What are families noticing at home?
  • What next steps might you take, based on these observations, to support more complex play and inquiry? For example, how can the children’s questions and theories be tested, revised, and communicated?
  • What questions do you have?
  • What sparks your curiosity?
  • Since educators are researchers within their programs or communities, what would you like to investigate further in your program?
  • How would you further complete this investigation with your colleagues or with the children in the program?

How Does Learning Happen? (p. 39 – 40).

These are excellent questions! I remain hopeful that we will once again return to a state of being that is not socially distant, to a time where we can be with children, families and colleagues to consider these questions. Until then, I invite you to take the time to reflect and continuously learn as the amazing professionals that you are.

7 thoughts on “Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Learning through Exploration, Play and Inquiry

  1. Diane thank you for generously sharing your wisdom time and and time again. I appreciate your work as I am sure many others do too.


  2. Pingback: Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Educators as Co-Learners | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  3. Yes children learn through Play, and the an adult/teacher/facilitator can find out how much the child/children are learning through communication/interaction and just being a part of their play/interest. Thank you for sharing.


  4. Pingback: Continuous Professional Learning for Early Childhood Educators: Reflective Practice and Collaborative Inquiry | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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