Doctoral research highlights value of play in class

Dr Sarah Aiono’s research explored the value of play as a way of learning in the classroom.

Highlighting the value of play as a valid way of learning is the essence of Dr Sarah Aiono’s research. The Hawke’s Bay-based educator graduated from Massey University this week with a Doctor of Education.

“Play is often seen as a less superior way of learning when we get into the more formal side of school life. It’s misunderstood as a teaching practice,” she says.

“The more I studied it, the more I came to appreciate the complexity of it and then what support teachers needed to be able to teach well through play.”

The basis for her research was the increasing popularity of play as a teaching tool in primary school classrooms. “However, there is a tension between what teachers know and believe, and how they use play successfully as a tool to support learning.”

What is ‘play’ in the classroom context? 

“It really comes down to enabling children to follow their own passions and their own interests,” Dr Aiono explains.

She discovered through her research there is a need to clearly define for teachers what “play” means in the classroom setting and then to assist them through the use of practice-based coaching, along with support and feedback.

A firm advocate for the role of play in formal education, she says play is increasingly touted as the way 21st century students are going to develop the skills they need. “It’s about more than just knowledge but also adaptability, creativity and innovation.

“There’s lots of talk on how important innovation and creativity is. But this is not shown in what teachers are required to report on. What teachers are asked to assess and report on is what they teach to.”

Dr Aiono was a teacher first, having graduated from Massey with a Bachelor of Teaching. She taught intermediate level pupils in Auckland then Hawke’s Bay, where she moved into Special Education. 

“I like working with kids who don’t comply, who don’t fit the box and who think differently,” says Dr Aiono, who spent most of her teaching career working with children with severe and violent behaviour and who’d been kicked out of the school system. 

“That was where I started to question what we are doing in our classrooms to make learning engaging and fun.”

Dr Aiono, who is currently CEO of Longworth Education – a consultancy based on supporting schools who want to implement learning through play into the primary education environment – says she was tentative about the shift from teacher to researcher. “I didn’t want to lose my roots. I’m proud to be a teacher.”

But she came to appreciate being able to view teaching practice through a different lens and to be able to ask questions.

She says she now understands the importance of research informing practice, particularly in a digital age “when there is so much in front of teachers. They need to know they are getting quality information that’s going to affect their practice.”

Dr Aiono’s thesis is titled: An investigation of two models of professional development to support effective teaching through play practices in the primary classroom, and her supervisors were Dr Tara McLaughlin and Professor Tracy Riley.