How Can We Honour Our Students Through Play-Based Learning?

The term play-based learning refers “to the learning and/or the activities that a student is experiencing in a play-based environment” (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016, p. 3). Within this pedagogical approach students are not able to progress through play if they are expected to discover everything on their own. This makes the teacher’s role in play vital, as they must work with students during the play process to help build and connect new knowledge. However, many students do not view their teacher as a learning collaborator. Students often find themselves in a hierarchical relationship with their teachers that reflect “power over rather than power with” (Evans & Vaandering, 2016, p. 95). Howard, Jenvey and Hill (2006) state “it is important that children become used to adult involvement in play and view adults as cooperative play partners” (p. 392). This leads to the question what are schools and classrooms currently doing to develop this view of partnership? One such philosophy that would build success of play based learning is the implementation of restorative justice.

A restorative approach is “attentive to the promotion and protection of positive relationships within a learning community” (Llewellyn & Llewellyn, 2012, p. 11). Western social structure tends to continually hold onto the view that “a lot of power and authority is vested in teachers in terms of a traditional expectation that they know best” (Hopkins, 2011, p. 180). Due to this hierarchical view, students often see the teacher as the leader of knowledge not as a facilitator of learning. Within play-based learning, “play between a teacher and child can temporarily even the power structure of the adult-child relationship as the child is in control, thus allowing more intimate and trusting relationships to form” (Joseph & Strain, 2004, p. 26). The teacher is relying on conversational and physical exchanges to allow for learning; however, this cannot occur if healthy relationships have not been established. Therefore, the success of play based learning relies on giving students autonomy over their own academic and social learning. For students to feel and see this autonomy, teachers need to build, reflect and practice their understanding of restorative justice.

Gardner (2016) states “adults must hold themselves to the same expectations to which they hold to their students” (p. 118). If we want our students to express what is in their heart and listen respectfully to others, then we must be willing to do this with them, not for them. Just as students have needs, so do teachers. It is essential that all individuals understand the impact each person has on one another. Shifting our mindset in which “adults’ views and perspectives are the most important, to a situation where all the views and perspectives in the room are valued and heard, is perhaps the biggest shift for some adults to make” (Hopkins, 2016, p. 34). However, it is possible with an open, positive and dedicated mindset.

An intersecting focus of play based learning has been pedagogical documentation. Wien (as cited in Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013) describes pedagogical documentation as:

A process for listening to children, for creating artifacts from that listening, and for studying with others what children reveal about their competent and thoughtful views of the world. To listen to children, we document living moments with images, videos, artifacts, written or audio recording of what children have said, or other digital traces. These documented traces of lived experiences, when shared with others, become a tool for thinking together. (p. 27).

It is evident that a key component of pedagogical documentation is social exchanges between students and students as well as teachers and students. If we are moving away from standardized instruction and assessment, then we are putting great conviction that students will accurately and confidently share their knowledge with their peers and teachers. As a result of this movement, educators may find themselves in a dilemma if they have not developed a learning environment where children feel safe sharing their thoughts and ideas. Boyes-Watson and Pranis (2015) state “students need to feel safe with their teacher and with their peers in order to ask questions, admit confusion, and try new skills” (p. 69). Developing Restorative Justice practices would lay the foundation for students to truly reveal their past and current learning successes.

Within play-based learning, conflict inevitability occurs due to the high level of personal interactions. However, children need to be aware of the context of their own and others emotions. Students learn by doing and educators must give them opportunities to resolve their own conflicts. As Hopkins (2011) presents:

In a restorative classroom the adults model a willingness to express their own thoughts and feelings as well as curiosity and empathy for thoughts and feelings of the young people in the room. They create opportunities for young people to learn to express themselves in this way, and also become active listeners for each other. (p. 36)

Vaandering (2013) presents the notion “learning contributes to the development of the person as a whole being, not only to intellectual growth” (p. 4). Connecting Restorative Justice Philosophy to play based learning leads to the holistic development of students. Without healthy, established relationships conflict acts as a barrier to developing and demonstrating learning. To overcome this, school communities must take the lead in viewing relationships with a restorative lens: while asking am I honouring? Am I measuring? What message am I sending? (Evans & Vaandering, 2016, p. 33)


Boyes-Watson, C., & Pranis, K. (2015). Circle forward: Building a restorative school community. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press.

Davis, B., Sumara, D. J., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2015). Engaging minds: Cultures of education and practices of teaching. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Evans, K., & Vaandering, D. (2016). The little book of restorative justice in education: Fostering responsibility, healing, and hope in schools. NY, NY: Good Books.

Gardner, T. (2016). Adult Restorative Circles and Adult Reflection. Chapter 9 in Discipline over punishment. Rowman & Little Publishers.

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador (2016). Full –Day Kindergarten Play-Based Learning: Promoting a Common Understanding.Retrieved from

Hopkins, B. (2011). The restorative classroom: Using restorative approaches to foster effective learning [Teach to Inspire eBooks].

Joseph, G., & Strain, P. (2004). Building positive relationships with young children. Young Exceptional Children,7(4).

Ontario Ministry of Education (2013). Think, feel, act: Lessons from research about young children. Retrieved from

Howard, J., Jenvey, V., & Hill, C. (2006). Children’s categorisation of play and learning based on social context. Early Child Development and Care,176(3-4), 379-393. doi:10.1080/03004430500063804

Llewellyn, K. & Llewellyn, J. (2015). A restorative approach to learning: Relational theory as feminist pedagogy in universities. In

Light, T., Nicholas, J., Bondy, R. eds. Feminist Pedagogy in Higher Education: Critical Theory and Practice (pp. 11-32). Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Vaandering, D. (2013). Implementing restorative justice practice in schools: What pedagogy reveals. Journal of Peace Education. doi:10.1080/17400201.2013.794335



Play-Based Learning and RJE

Christa Bambick has taken our ED 6463 course, offered through Memorial University.

Winter 2020 registration is now open!

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This is her final project for the course, exploring the connection between restorative justice in education and play-based learning, and how learning is tied to feeling interconnected through healthy and nurtured relationships.

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