(Originally published in Early Childhood News, by Marie W. Sloane, M.S.T.)


“Why do the children just play all day?” asks a parent. “How do you know if they are learning?” Teachers in child-centered classrooms are often asked these questions because parents (and administrators) sometimes have difficulty discerning whether real learning can take place without teachers using worksheets and children sitting at desks. As teachers abandon “refrigerator” art projects and holiday curricula in favor of following children’s interests, they must learn to explain what they are accomplishing, both to themselves and to others.

Do children “just play” all day? Yes and no. Teachers and children both generate ideas that guide learning in an emergent curriculum (Jones & Nimmo, 1994). Children actively follow their own interests by experimenting regularly, trying out new ideas, and representing what they are doing in many different ways. At the same time, the teacher’s role is extremely important. By acting as a facilitator and guide, the teacher helps transform simple play into active, hands-on learning (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992). Children left alone to play will certainly discover new things independently. However, these same children working with a teacher to extend their activities learn a great deal more because they are challenged to develop knowledge and skills beyond what they can do on their own.

Extending Children’s Activities

How does one extend a child’s activities? The trick is to conduct interactions using three key questions:

  • What do I already know about this child?
  • What can I add to what he or she is doing?
  • What sort of feedback am I getting?

Question #1: What Do I Know?

Activity time is in full swing (note it is not called “play time” or “work time”). The hum of busy children fills the air. You cross the room moving toward the block area after helping Charlie get started at the easel. Sara is busily setting up blocks to form small enclosures. You hear her say, “Zoo. I’m makin’ a zoo.” Assuming you have the time to sit and work with Sara for a few minutes, you have the opportunity to extend Sara’s learning through play. Start by thinking about what you already know about the child and by asking yourself the following questions:

  • How long does this child usually stay with an activity?
  • What kind of depth will this child add on her own?
  • What does she know about this topic?
  • What are some new facts she might be ready to learn?
  • What does this child know about letters and numbers?
  • Is it appropriate to think about teaching her letters or numbers?
  • What other goals do you have for this child’s development?

If you cannot answer the bulk of these questions, you need to observe the child further and learn more about her current abilities and interests. If you have enough background information, think of the direction you and the child might go with play.

Question #2: What Can I Add?

You sit down next to Sara and comment on how hard you see her working. You ask her to tell you about what she is making. She explains that she is building a zoo.

“A zoo sounds interesting,” you reply. “What might go in a zoo?”

“Animals,” she says firmly as she gets up and brings over a bin of small animals.

“Oh, animals. What kind?” you ask.

“Tigers,” she says, placing two into one of her cages. “And lions, and bears, and gorillas…”

Sometimes asking children one or two simple questions about what they are doing will stimulate further thinking and help them add more depth and detail. As they pursue their ideas, you can move off and work with others. After a short time, ask yourself again, “What can I add?”

You return a few minutes later and ask, “How’s the zoo coming?” Sara is apparently finished adding animals.

“Fine,” she replies.

“What are you going to add next?” you ask, sensing that she is about at the end of her own ideas.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what else do zoos have besides animals?” you probe.

“I don’t know,” she says again.

At this point you have a number of options. You could suggest getting a book and consulting the pictures to learn more. You could change the approach and suggest counting the animals or writing signs for the zoo, or you could suggest that she tell a story about her zoo. Deciding which avenue to pursue relies on thinking back through what you know about Sara and the goals you have for her. After you have chosen an approach and tried it out, ask yourself the final question.

Question #3:What Feedback Am I Getting?

“How about people?” you suggest. “Are there people at this zoo?”

“No,” she replies firmly. “This zoo is only for animals. No people even come to it.”

When a child responds negatively to an idea, let it go. You may have gone in a direction that has lost his or her interest, or you may have exceeded a child’s attention span for this activity. He or she may feel like saying “no” to a teacher! Pay attention to your third question, “What sort of feedback am I getting?” Try another approach.

“No people, I see. There are certainly a lot of animals. I wonder how many animals there are?”

“Well, I see two tigers,” Sara volunteers.

“Yes, two tigers. I see them too! I wonder if we could start there and count all of the animals?”

“Sure, one, two, three…” Sara counts up to 21 with your help, higher than she has ever counted before.

“Wow, 21 animals!” you exclaim. “That is great! I wonder if we could write that down so we can remember it?”

“Why not?” Sara says as she grabs a marker and the piece of paper you have strategically placed near the block area.

“What should we write?” you ask.

“Twenty-one,” she replies. “Write, ‘There are 21 animals in Sara’s zoo.’”You print her words in large letters.

“Sara!” she exclaims. “I see the part where you wrote my name!”

“Good reading,” you reply. “So, do you want to show your zoo to the rest of the class during Sharing Time?”

“Oh yes,” she answers. “Help me put my name on the list so everyone can see what I did!”

As you work with children to extend what they would have done on their own, you are helping them develop new knowledge and skills. However, as a facilitator of learning you should not take over completely. Instead, pay attention to the question, “What feedback am I getting?” and tailor your suggestions to each child. Their reactions to your ideas guide how far you pursue particular options. Following their interests, you help children increase their attention spans, add more depth to their work, and practice academic skills in meaningful contexts.

So, What Are They Learning?

Teachers in child-centered classrooms need to make special efforts to document and share children’s learning with parents and administrators. Take pictures of the children hard at work and with their finished creations. Post these photographs around the classroom with short explanations of what was learned. Show parents children’s work and explain skills a child practiced or knowledge that he or she gained. Invite administrators into your room to see you and the children in action. As you extend their activities, share the work that both you and the children are doing with others on a regular basis, and they will begin to understand the true value of emergent curriculum.

Woodland Park Zoo is located directly north of Northwest Montessori School’s Woodland Park branch, and provides a host of opportunities for early childhood education. We encourage you to take advantage of this great local resource. Don’t miss WildLights, now through January 1st, 2013. See the zoo in a whole new light! WildLights features wild animals and wild places recreated in thousands of sparking LED lights. Make it your family’s new holiday tradition!

Marie W. Sloane, M.S.T., is the assistant director of The Little Ones Nursery School in Northbrook, IL. Her experience includes multiple years of designing, implementing, speaking, and writing about developmentally appropriate learning environments.


Bredekamp, S., & Rosegrant, T. (Eds.) (1992). Reaching potentials: Appropriate curriculum and assessment for young children.Washington, DC: NAEYC.

Jones, E., & Nimmo, J. (1994). Emergent curriculum. Washington,DC: NAEYC.