Comprehensive resources for parents and professionals in play-based early childhood education


Providing assessment, or feedback, is essential for learning. Teachers use a variety of assessment practices to determine a student’s level of understanding. In an early learning environment, teachers observe everything from how students interact and play with each other, to examining their body language when taught new concepts. This information gives the teacher further feedback on how to continue with the lesson. Assessment is an ongoing process, where children’s learning is documented over time over many different situations. Determining a child’s interests and strengths and building towards individual milestones is an important part of assessment.

Effective assessment also allows for students’ thinking to be made visible. Talking through the process of learning and sharing that information with others is essential.

Given the goal of learning with understanding, assessments must tap into understanding rather than merely the ability to repeat facts or perform isolated skills.


  • Bransford, J., A. Brown & R. Cocking. 2000, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, Washington (DC), National Research Council, National Academy Press.
  • Genishi, C. & A. Haas-Dyson. 2009, Children Language and Literacy: Diverse Learners in Diverse Times, New York, Teachers College Press.

The term plasticity refers to the capacity of the brain’s architecture and function to change. Plasticity peaks in childhood and declines with age. This is a major reason why early childhood experts stress the importance of the first few years of a child’s life – they need to be exposed to as many learning experiences as possible. Scientists have found although there are so-called windows of opportunity for skill development and behavioural adaptation over the years, trying to change behaviour or build new skills on a foundation of brain circuits that were not wired properly when they were first formed, requires more work.


Working memory, attention, remembering, learning and thinking – how successfully these skills are performed depends on our cognitive ability. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s early theory on cognition – that cognitive development proceeds through certain stages, each involving radically different– is considered foundational knowledge of how children learn.

Self-reflection is key to learning. Metacognition is the set of skills that allow students to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses, the demands of the task at hand, and to have the insight to correct any errors along the way. Without these skills, it’s difficult for students to make their way through a task or project. Metacognition develops gradually, and is dependent on the student’s prior knowledge and experience.


Language and social skills, concentration, memory and adaptability in the face of change contribute to a child’s executive functioning, or self-regulation skills. Research has found executive functioning skills are poorly developed in most preschoolers, and are slow to mature. Positive executive functioning skills are the foundation upon which academic concepts can be successfully learned.

Refers to the behaviours seen in young children who are not yet literate. They may mimic reading and writing, for example. Emergent literacy is tied to every aspect of a child’s intellectual, cognitive, emotional and social development. It encompasses all activities and learning that a child does to contribute to his or her eventual ability to read and write.

A relatively new science, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code, but still get passed on to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome. It is these so-called epigenetic marks that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next. For example, scientists have determined an extreme childhood experience, such as near-starvation, could affect the lifespan of future generations.


Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. A wider view of literacy must also be acknowledged to include newer forms of communication technology – whether it’s oral, printed, or multimedia. A literate person, therefore is not only able to communicate across all mediums, but knows how to access and learn new literate practices. A repertoire of skills, including how to gather information, process it, and pass it on, is necessary in today’s world.

Language is considered an inherent ability, using a set of specific mechanisms that guide its development. By around six months of age, infants distinguish some of the properties that characterize the language of their immediate environment.

The connection between language and literacy is powerful, according to the HighScope Preschool Curriculum. There are four components of early literacy: Comprehension and vocabulary, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and concepts about print.

Other points on language and literacy:

  •  Language and literacy are connected from infancy onward. Speaking, listening, reading, and writing develop concurrently (together) rather than sequentially (one after the other).
  • The acquisition of language and literacy skills is social. It happens because young children want to interact and communicate with others.
  • Literacy learning occurs during meaningful interactions, experiences, and activities.
  • Children differ in how they learn and also, how fast they learn.
  • Some language and literacy learning happens naturally during play and everyday experiences, and some depends on explicit instruction from observant and sensitive adults.
  • Differences in children’s home language and culture can affect literacy development. Classroom literacy experiences should allow for and value these differences.


According to Dr. Lloyd Rieber, professor of Learning, Design and Technology at the University of Georgia, play is generally defined as having the following characteristics:

  • It is usually voluntary;
  • It is intrinsically motivating, that is, it is pleasurable for its own sake and is not dependent on external rewards;
  • It involves some level of active, often physical, engagement; and
  • It is distinct from other behavior by having a make-believe quality.

Another expert on the importance of play is Dr. Stuart Brown. A psychiatrist, doctor and researcher, he’s also founder of the National Institute for Play, based in California. His research indicates that play is a biological drive as integral to our health as sleep and proper nutrition. Throughout life, play continues to be an important factor in determining success and ability to thrive. It is through play that we learn how to solve problems, interact with others and test our limits.

Known for her research suggesting educators focus on a child’s social, emotional and physical well-being, in addition to academic content, Dr. Adele Diamond and several of her colleagues have determined most children today do not engage in the kind of intentional make-believe play that fosters self-regulation, an important characteristic for children to succeed in school. Today’s children are more likely to be entertained by technological devices, and/or to be signed up for lessons than to play for hours in the backyard with other children.

Mature, intentional play has the following characteristics:

  • There is planning ahead of playing (I’ll be the doctor, and you are the mom with a sick baby). Through this, extensive use of language is used.
  • There are explicit roles with rules on how to act. For example, the doctor will act in a specific way, as will the mother and the baby.
  • Play lasts over an extended period of time, from hours to days.
  • Play involves an imaginary or pretend scenario. For example, the child can pretend they’re going for dinner on the moon.

Both reflective thinking and metacognition are abilities considered to be part of executive function and are dependent on working memory.

To engage in reflective thinking, you must have metacognition, which is the ability to think about how one has arrived at a solution, or solved a problem.

Caregivers and teachers attempt to build on what children know and extend their competencies by providing supporting structures or scaffolds for the child’s performance. Scaffolding involves several activities and tasks, such as:

  • Interesting the child in the task.
  • Reducing the number of steps required to solve a problem by simplifying the task, so that a child can manage components of the process and recognize when a fit with task requirements is achieved.
  • Maintaining the pursuit of the goal, through motivation of the child and direction of the activity.
  • Marking critical features of discrepancies between what a child has produced and the ideal solution.
  • Controlling frustration and risk in problem solving.
  • Demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed.


Is defined as the process of providing, then gradually removing external supports for learning. During scaffolding, the task itself is not changed but what the learner initially does is made easier with support. As the learner takes more responsibility for performance of the task, less assistance is provided. In Tools, scaffolding is given on an individual basis, only if a child needs it, and is given in a way that is removed over time. For example, if a child needs to remember to begin writing from left to right, a mediator, such as an asterisk, is placed on the page to remind the child of where to start. Once the child starts in the right place, the asterisk is removed.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed this concept of learning. It is defined as the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers. What children can do with the assistance of others is even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone. It embodies a concept of readiness to learn that emphasizes upper levels of competence.