Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Animating Early Childhood Play Within Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model of Development

  • Nóirín HayesEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_163-1


Play is frequently identified as a central process in early childhood learning and development, and yet it is a slippery and contested concept, often understood in multiple, sometimes conflicting ways. There is concern in early childhood education that contemporary Western fiscal, social, and educational policies are threatening childhood play with an overemphasis on academic learning and standardized measurement of child learning outcomes. Research has identified the important role of the early educator in finding a balance where play can be enhanced and enriched to contribute both developmentally and academically to children in their early educational experiences. However, research has also identified challenges in pedagogical practices which may limit the extent to which play is allowed to flourish. Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of human development allows us to explore the interactive, dynamic, and entangled relationships across and within systems that impact directly and indirectly on children’s play to explore and perhaps explain how we can foreground and support play and pedagogy to enhance the development of culturally sensitive, positive learning dispositions.

Play in Early Childhood Education

Contemporary early childhood scholarship characterizes children as active agents in their learning and requires educators to recognize and respond to the reality that even the very youngest children contribute to the context and content of their own development. Children are understood as curious and interested in mastering their worlds, and it is held that through play they become competent and confident learners, prepared to take risks, and challenge themselves to learn more. Observations of very early caregiver-baby interactions show that both partners create a play world together, by imitating each other, through eye contact, by repeating, varying, and improvising sounds. These earliest playful interactions are context-specific and require supporting, intimate relationships. In their play, toddlers will often blur the boundaries between play and not-play activities. This can result in children experiencing confrontations and commands from adults where the adult may misinterpret adaptive processes of learning as children’s misbehavior. Young children of three to five move beyond context and, in their sociodramatic or imaginative play, begin naturally to separate objects and actions from their meanings in the real world, giving them new possibilities and meanings.

Although the mechanism is poorly understood, there is broad agreement that play forms the basis of childhood development, and research suggests that children learn best in an environment that allows them to explore, discover, and wonder in play. Through their play young children create, imagine, innovate, experiment, manipulate, negotiate, problem-solve, and consolidate their understandings. It is not surprising, therefore, that play and play-based learning is identified as a key component of the unique nature of early childhood education, and many early childhood curriculum frameworks have incorporated play as a means of learning for children.

While play is seen as a central process in children’s learning in early childhood in particular, there is no universal definition of play. However, there are some aspects often mentioned in the play literature. These include play being:
  • Based on a sense of free will and control, either individually or within the group.

  • Motivated for its own sake rather than any external reward.

  • Pleasurable and positively valued.

  • Flexible and adaptive, using objects and rules in a variety of changing ways.

  • Nonliteral, “as if” behavior – it can rearrange or turn the world upside down.

  • Unpredictable, spontaneous, innovative, and creative (Lester and Russell 2007).

A Pedagogy of Play

Drawing on research into playful activity, where young children, in their play, explore, wonder, laugh, and make connections, Mardell et al. (2016) investigated how play can build discipline knowledge and critical thinking skills. Their work reflects a shift away from considering how children learn through play toward a more critical exploration of play and how effective educators encourage and progress children’s learning through play. Through the lens of playful learning, they identified a set of indicators for a pedagogy of play, a term originally coined in the 1990s by Lindqvist, drawing on the work of Vygotsky. The indicators are located within three child-based categories: delight, wonder, and choice. Arranged in three overlapping circles, the center point of overlap across all three categories represents playful learning. These categories were selected because of their unique relationship to the idea of playful learning and their contribution to realizing a pedagogy of play:
  • Choice: Choice gives the playful learner a sense of empowerment, autonomy, ownership, spontaneity, and intrinsic motivation, all of which can be experienced individually or as part of a group. Learners demonstrating choice set goals, develop and share ideas, make and change rules, and negotiate challenges.

  • Wonder: Indicators of wonder include curiosity, novelty, surprise, and challenge and involve improvising or exploring, creating or inventing, pretending or imagining, and taking risks or learning from trial and error. Wonder can be experienced through play with materials, ideas, perspectives, music, symbols, words, languages, stories, movement, or other modes of expression.

  • Delight: Delight can be indicated through excitement, joy, satisfaction, inspiration, anticipation, pride, and belonging and seen in learners who smile, laugh, joke, or perhaps be silly. It can also be experienced through playful competition, celebration, or engaging in an altruistic act (Mardell et al. 2016, p. 7/8).

A pedagogy of play is a systemic approach to playful learning supporting the educator to unlock the pedagogical potential of play. Scholars have noted the tension that exists between supporting play-based approaches in early education while responding to the emergence of centrally defined curriculum goals, which challenge educators in combining freedom to play with the demands of achieving prescribed learning outcomes, particularly in the education of children of 3 years and older. There is a vast literature on play debating both its psychological and educational value and whether the pedagogical focus should be on engaging young children in make-believe play as a developmental activity or in teaching academic skills. However, it has been argued that through scaffolding make-believe play early educators can positively impact not only the development of play but also the development of early academic skills. Scholars caution that early childhood play is too often conceptualized in terms of its pedagogical value, overemphasizing a focus on the academic as children’s “real” learning. However, research has found that careful exploration of imaginative play demonstrates its role in the development of both children’s psychological functioning and their cultural awareness giving a more enriched reading of the importance of play. In such play children “hover and flit” (Fleer 2014) between the imagined world and the real world and back again contributing to children’s psychological development in terms of self-awareness and sense of place within the world.

The tension between the developmental and academic potential of play presents significant challenges to early educators in practice, among them increasing external demands on staff to respond to regulation, inspection, monitoring, and standardization all of which can compromise the provision of opportunities for play and limit the physical and psychological space for playfulness. This may account, in part, for the extensive research suggesting that early childhood educators are unclear about their unique role and often adopt simple playful orientations to teaching and learning without a deep engagement with the process of play and its pedagogical and developmental potential to support and extend children’s creative and conceptual learning.

Unlocking the developmental and academic potential of play through pedagogy is a complex combination of facilitation, collaboration, and guidance. It involves a carefully designed interaction between the learners, the educators, and the learning environments [indoor and outdoor], elements that are often considered in isolation. Traditionally, much emphasis had been placed upon human development and learning as an individual progression from relatively dependent immaturity to more mature competence in adulthood. However, understandings have moved beyond limited and restrictive linear concepts to a more comprehensive and holistic conceptualization of learning as dynamic and lifelong. This shift is evidenced in, among other things, the growth of interest in the ecological approach to understanding development, which takes account of the actual environments and systems within which human beings live, the relationships between individuals and these systems, and the relationships between the systems themselves. The work of Urie Bronfenbrenner has been a central influence and response to this shift in thinking (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006) and offers a valuable framework of human development within which to examine the complex and dynamic nature of play and the critical role of the early childhood educator in animating play to its full potential for each child (Hayes et al. 2017).

A Bioecological Model of Development

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model of development was a response to the increased understanding of the nonlinear nature of learning and development and the value of considering multiple theoretical positions within which to consider both psychological theories of learning and development alongside theories of educational practice. It is a framework, which can accommodate the multiplicity of factors, proximal and distal, influencing learning and development. Bronfenbrenner originally introduced the idea that humans develop within a nested and interconnected ecology of micro-, meso-, exo-, and macrosystems (Bronfenbrenner 1979). These interconnected systems are organized from those closest, or proximal, to the child to those whose influence is indirect or distal. Later, he included the chronosystem, acknowledging the importance and influence of time and history. In its final iteration, he extended the focus to a bioecological model (Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006) foregrounding the importance of the developing individual and the relational nature of development in context – an emphasis Bronfenbrenner felt was lost with too much focus on systems in the earlier iteration. This new model stressed that context is not only something that impacts on the child but is more dynamic reflecting the view that the context or environment impacts with and through the child’s participation. Giving children a central role in their own development acknowledges children as agents who can express desires and wishes but also negotiate and interact within their environment and ultimately change these environments.

Within the bioecological model of development, a critical distinction is made between “environment” and “process,” with process occupying the central, driving position in development. The construct of process (P) relates to the interaction between the individual and the environment, and key are the proximal processes located within the microsystems of development. Proximal processes are bidirectional and operate over time and are considered the primary mechanisms, or engines, of development. Bronfenbrenner and Morris (2006) highlighted the importance of proximal processes in children’s development:

Especially in its early phases … human development takes place through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction between an active, evolving biopsychological human organism and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate external environment. To be effective, the interaction must occur on a fairly regular basis over extended periods of time. (p. 797)

The power of these processes [(P)] to influence development varies based on characteristics of the person (P), the immediate and remote environmental contexts (C), and the time periods (T) in which they take place. The PPCT framework captures the dynamic complexity of development and explicitly identifies the environment, and those within it, as both a context for development and a source of development. The bioecological model addresses both the structural and biological aspects of development alongside the process or sociocultural dimensions and emphasizes the dynamic, bidirectional relationships of people and context. Bronfenbrenner’s model has been recognized as valuable across disciplines as a model that can bridge both the social and psychological aspects of human development.

Through the contemporary postmodern and post-developmental lens, our understandings of learning, and the processes underlying learning, have moved beyond limited and restrictive linear concepts to more comprehensive and holistic conceptualizations towards recognizing its dynamic nature. This shift has posed a number of challenges to early childhood education. While attention to the dynamic and playful nature of early learning has grown, the routine application of this understanding is less evident, and much early educational practice continues to be mediated through the more traditional lens.

In seeking to understand the resistance to change evident in early educational practice, scholars have identified an absence of theoretical understanding of pedagogy, limited appreciation of the multiple influences on child development, uncertainty about the role or positioning of the educator in a play-based curriculum, and a restricted understanding of the role and position of play as a site for complex, conceptual development.

Animating Playful Learning in Early Childhood Education

The bioecological model and particularly the PPCT framework, when applied to early childhood education, can assist in locating play in both development and academic learning, crystalizing the unique role of the early childhood educator and contextualizing complex ideas such as the emergent curriculum. In so doing it provides a frame within which to identify and make visible early educational curriculum content as emerging from the playful child mediated through the informed relational and nurturing pedagogy of the educator. This provides a clear role and positioning for the educator at both the proximal level, through direct relational and nurturing pedagogy and, indirectly at the distal level, through creating rich learning opportunities in the early childhood environment, communicating across and beyond the mesosystem and making learning visible through careful pedagogical documentation. Within play-based practice, this foregrounds the potential of play pedagogy in balancing the contribution of play to both developmental and academic learning.

Using the bioecological lens, Bronfenbrenner explored the interconnectedness of the developing person and the changing micro and macro contexts within which development occurs. The model foregrounds the ongoing changes and adjustments in development and highlights the importance of recognizing the progressive and dynamic nature of development, reflected in the emphasis on proximal processes.

The value of such a model in relation to playful learning is that it provides a framework to visualize complex dynamics in different contexts and reflect on the various different factors impacting on children’s play. The concept of proximal processes highlights the power of interactions and the position of play as one of the crucial forms of proximal processes.

Bronfenbrenner identified three key characteristics within the child contributing to this critical interactive engagement with the environment – active behavioral dispositions, resource characteristics, and demand characteristics:
  • Active behavioral dispositions relate to variations in motivation, persistence, and temperament, and children with different characteristics will interact differently within environments. Dispositions can be either generative [developmentally positive] or disruptive. The reciprocity between children and the environmental affordances and opportunities will influence their development and, in turn, change the environment. Guided by this information, pedagogical observations can be enriched and inform how early educators might create new affordances to challenge particular children in their play and allow for further developmental and academic learning.

  • Resource characteristics are those which involve no selective disposition to action but rather are described as “biopsychological liabilities and assets” influencing the capacity of the child or individual to initiate and sustain interactions (Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006, p. 812). They include skills, knowledge, and experience. Here the early educator has a role in providing meaningful relational opportunities to unlock and strengthen these characteristics.

  • Demand characteristics can invite or discourage reactions from the social environment, influencing the way in which proximal processes are established. They can include appearance, age, gender, or skin color and can affect the establishment of effective interactions. In playful pedagogy early educators can examine their own biases to ensure the generous availability of rich play opportunities for all children.

These characteristics appear as an influence on development and, at the same time, as a developmental outcome or as a result of development. Through observing children in their play, educators develop an understanding of the characteristics of the child and the environment, which facilitate development of the generative dispositions valued by Western culture such as the extent to which the child tends to engage and persist in progressively more complex activities; restructure and create new features in an environment, not only physical and social but also symbolic; and, as they grow older, conceptualize their experiences. As well as progressing development in general, this contributes to personal belief systems, which emerge in early childhood and are the foundations for self-directed learning, attention, and problem-solving (Bronfenbrenner and Morris 2006).

Clear communications between home and early childhood education are important as the home provides opportunities for learning which children bring with them into other microsystems. In early education parental involvement provides a good illustration of how, within the concept of the mesosystem, two elements of the microsystem (home and early education setting) interact with each other. The mesosystem can act as a site for bidirectional communication between parents (the family microsystem) and educators (the microsystem of the early childhood setting) about the child’s experiences within a playful learning environment. Such connections can facilitate greater understanding on the part of parents of the role that play has in learning during early childhood while also providing information to inform educators of the child’s exosystem and macrosystem, especially with regard to family culture and other important details in their lives. The mesosystem is also important in terms of children’s transitions and the quality of links between early education settings, and primary schools can have important implications for children’s later learning. This becomes particularly important where the play pedagogy of the early education setting may differ from the approaches to play in a primary school.


Bronfenbrenner’s model presents a valuable framework of development within which to link psychological and educational theory to early educational curriculum and practice from both a research and pedagogical point of view. Through the systems approach and the process-person-context-time [PPCT] framework, Bronfenbrenner’s model provides a focus, a language, and a vocabulary which allows early childhood educators to explore and elaborate the unique role of play of early childhood education and the unique pedagogical approach necessary to respond to and enhance children’s capabilities, curiosities, creativity, imagination, and innovation manifest through their play.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EducationTrinity College DublinDublinIreland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Michael Kamen
    • 1
  1. 1.Southwestern UniversityGeorgetownUSA