Name a job where you can act like a child?

This question was asked recently during a weekend primetime TV family quiz show. Among the top three answers? Clown, childcare worker and kindergarten teacher. It made DR CAROLINE COHRSSEN reflect on play in early childhood learning and a ‘game’ approach to preschool mathematics by the Northern Territory Government. Find out more about her work and this playful approach at the 2018 ECA National Conference (September 2018).

Babies, educator in mud

I didn’t see the TV show myself—someone else told me about it, and that made it worse because hundreds of thousands of other people would have watched the show as well. This highlights again how important it is for early childhood educators to advocate for the profession. Sharing with families what children have learnt each day, rather than just what children have done each day, is an important part of changing families’ perceptions of play-based learning.

It also shows that we need to reflect on what (and how) we communicate with families and the broader community about the impact of our teaching practice on child learning outcomes. To see the impact we have, we need to look for evidence of what children already know, have clear learning aims for the play that we facilitate, and then see if children achieve our learning aims. Those aims may be related to social interactions or communication skills and children may reveal their thinking and learning to us through painting, drawing, speaking or showing. We may help a child to learn new words, to collaborate with peers to solve a problem, to manage conflict independently or to sustain attention. Assessing our impact on child learning also calls for honest, critical self-reflection—if we see evidence that our practice is impacting on child learning outcomes, what are we doing that makes our practice effective? If we see that our practice is not impacting on child learning outcomes the way we expected, what do we need to do differently?

The Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009) describes the importance of educators intentionally moving in and out of different roles during children’s play. At times children learn best while playing independently or with peers, without our input. At times we join in the play while the child leads, and at other times we guide the play to achieve particular learning aims. All the decisions we take need to be intentional and be in response to our evaluation of the evidence of what the child knows and what comes next on the learning continuum.

For many years—and not just in Australian early learning contexts, but around the world—early childhood professionals have been calling for assistance to include science, technology, engineering and mathematics (so-called STEM) concepts in an integrated manner in play-based curricula. In the Northern Territory, the Department of Education introduced the Northern Territory Preschool Curriculum in 2016, and is in the process of providing preschool teachers with a suite of resources that support the teaching and learning of STEM concepts. The Northern Territory Preschool Maths Games were released in 2017 and the Northern Territory Preschool Science Games are due for release later this year. These games include explicit learning aims, extension and drop-back ideas as well as the words that educators need to model while playing the games with children.

The games also help preschool teachers describe to families how intentional teaching is enacted through play. When families know about the learning happening in preschool, they are more likely to see evidence of this learning at home. Many is the time that a parent has told me that they were ‘amazed’ by how much their child has learnt. Talking about learning that is happening in prior-to-school settings sets up shared opportunities for ongoing formative assessment—by preschool teachers, teaching assistants, early childhood educators and family members. Preschool teachers and teaching assistants using the Northern Territory Preschool Maths Games say that the games have supported their sense of self-efficacy—they see that their teaching is making a difference to child learning outcomes. The games also help them to explain how learning is happening during play. Testing the impact of the Northern Territory Preschool Maths Games has shown that the games are associated with gains in children’s learning outcomes.

So yes, early childhood educators and kindergarten teachers may well have the opportunity to play like a child. Other professions that have children as their focus such as occupational therapy and speech therapy use play too, at times. They use play as a vehicle to apply professional expertise. As education professionals, we play too—as a purposeful vehicle for teaching and learning.


Dr Caroline Cohrssen will be presenting as part of the concurrent sessions at the 2018 ECA National Conference in Sydney, to be held from 19–22 September. Join almost 2000 early childhood education and care professionals to learn more about her work fostering young children’s foundation mathematical and spatial skills and reflective approaches to practice. To book now, click here.

Dr Cohrssen is a senior lecturer/researcher on the Master of Teaching (Early Childhood) at the University of Melbourne and is currently working with the Northern Territory Department of Education to develop STEM resources that support the Northern Territory Preschool Curriculum. She is also collaborating with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority in the development of supplementary resources to augment mapping the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework to the Victorian Curriculum F–10.


Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia.

Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is Professor in Early Childhood Education at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW. As she is particularly interested in children’s learning from birth to five years, her research encompasses the home learning environment as well as early childhood education and care settings. Her research ranges from fine-grained analyses of interactions, to collaborations with quantitative researchers in Australia and overseas. She recently collaborated in the development of the Early Childhood Learning Trajectories that have been published by the Australian Education Research Organisation. These assist educators’ enactment of the early years planning cycle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top