Why Does Play Elicit A Stress Response?

Why Does Play Elicit A Stress Response?

As many people know, I’m a strong advocate for play-based learningReal, authentic, student-driven and led play. Free play. I’ve called this play many things over the years, including “free exploration time” and “work time” — for play is a child’s work — but this year, my teaching partner, Paula, and I switched to just calling it “play.” If we believe in play, and have seen the value in play for academic, social, and emotional learning, then we should be standing behind it and calling it what it is. The problem: supporting play isn’t easy.

Ontario has a wonderful, updated Kindergarten Program Document, which stands behind play-based learning. In fact, the front matter of the Document is explicit about pedagogy, and truly puts the child at the centre of the learning. This Program Document makes me happy, especially the huge focus on Self-Reg. Not just any self-regulation, but Self-Reg as defined by Stuart ShankerIt’s often the Self-Regulation and Well-Being Frame, which has Paula and I talking the most.

  • What are we noticing about our students?
  • Why might this be?
  • What are their stressors and how can we address them?
  • How might we modify our program and/or environment to better meet their needs?

Sometimes we pose these questions with multiple students in mind. Sometimes we talk primarily about just a couple of students. But everything we plan and everything we do starts with the kids.

It’s for this reason that I struggle the most with some comments that I’ve heard recently — not necessarily even directed at our classroom, but just play-based rooms in general — that kindergarten is a “free for all.” The implication is that …

  • the environment is chaotic,
  • little planning is involved,
  • and learning cannot possibly happen here.

Every day, I have the pleasure of seeing that the opposite is true. As much as Paula and I record these videos of the classroom for our reflection, I think that we also do it to show others — parents, educators, and administrators — that play is working.

  • Kids are engaged.
  • Learning is evident.
  • Play may be “free,” but with an environment that is set-up to maximize its success.


As I think back to my feelings when I overhear these comments about play and kindergarten, I realize the dysregulation that they can cause. Even as a strong advocate for play, these words always cause me to stop and reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing and how we know that it’s working.

I wonder though about the stress response that these kinds of comments lead to. Do they stop some individuals from embracing play, or questioning why they do embrace it in the first place? How might we change this play dialogue to a more positive one? I would like nothing more than for people to see the wonderful that Paula and I see when looking at photographs like the ones below, and realizing the value in this child-centred approach for kindergarten and beyond.


Aviva Dunsiger has been the Portal Plus Moderator for over a year now and completed the Foundations 1 Certification Program. She has taught everything from Kindergarten to Grade 6 and enjoys blogging about her teaching and learning experiences. She blogs professionally on her blog, Living Avivaloca. Aviva is excited to contribute a monthly post on The MEHRIT Centre Blog.

By | 2019-10-22T08:21:27+00:00 October 22nd, 2019|


  1. Carey October 23, 2019 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I love it through and through! Play is learning. Your advocacy for Play in the early years as key to learning, thriving and growing, as well as your fabulous ability to capture the evidence of play as an authentic learning path for young children is valuable and appreciated. I know I am grateful for the documented success that you have offered and shared, as I’m sure many, many others are as well!

    • Aviva Dunsiger October 23, 2019 at 10:45 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Carey! I know that you’re also an advocate for this kind of play, and I think that sharing these stories as well as the play in action can sometimes help reduce the stress that comes from this play. I wonder though how people respond when they hear these comments about the “chaos” of play. Is it chaotic? If it’s not, what’s causing these feelings, and is there a way to reframe them?


  2. Connie October 24, 2019 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Aviva writes,

    “I wonder though how people respond when they hear these comments about the “chaos” of play. Is it chaotic? If it’s not, what’s causing these feelings, and is there a way to reframe them?”

    I think somewhere in the Self-Reg Misconceptions videos (#17 I can teach Self-Reg with a One-Size-Fits-All approach), Susan mentions looking at teacher stress, teacher Self-Reg, and helping.

    Susan: “If you truly feel it’s 25 separate [inaudible] that’s stressful, on anybody, and no wonder they are overwhelmed.”

    Maybe the same can be said for play:

    “If you truly feel [play is a free-for-all and/or chaotic], that’s stressful, on anybody, and no wonder they are overwhelmed.”

    Unpack why it’s a personal stressor and maybe see things differently?

    Just some thoughts.

    • Aviva Dunsiger October 25, 2019 at 6:16 am - Reply

      Connie, I really like this thinking. I wonder how we might respond to this stressor though. From what I see, these feelings tend to stop people from embracing play or lead to the addition of more structure. When does play then not become play anymore?


  3. Connie October 25, 2019 at 12:53 pm - Reply

    Hey Aviva,

    If we stay with teacher stress, teacher Self-Reg, and helping, my thoughts are:

    -Is there something about being in a play based environment setting off the teacher’s physiology?
    -Is it a lack of training or,
    -Are there cognitive blinders? For example, in terms of child development?

    What do you think?


    • Aviva Dunsiger October 25, 2019 at 10:58 pm - Reply

      These are good questions, Connie! I would say that cognitive blinders are particularly interesting. I know that teachers are often not as formally trained around child development, but DECEs have a strong background in this area. Can they be the co-regulators in this regard? Is this enough? I wonder if feelings of “benchmark pressure” also make educators feel as though play isn’t enough. The funny thing is that I’ve noticed in the past few years that our students actually have way stronger reading and writing skills in a play-based environment than in any of the more formal academic environments that I’ve taught in before. Does it come down to us seeing play differently, and how hard is this to do?


      • Connie October 26, 2019 at 9:20 pm - Reply

        Hey Aviva,

        I was reading Arlene’s blog “Chaos or Kaleidoscope? A Friday in the Life of an Elementary School Principal,” and this paragraph got me thinking:

        “Interactions with parents used to be so scary because my lens was: what was I (or we) doing wrong? Now I know that parents are simply looking out for their kids and doing the very best they can. They have a need to be met and I can be a small part of their solution.”

        Could hearing other educators describe play in Kindergarten as a “free-for-all” or “chaotic,” lead to the same thoughts?

        What was I (or we) doing wrong?

        Maybe hearing “chaos” or “free-for-all” sparks a reaction because we think somehow it reflects something true about our practice when it may or may not.


        • Aviva Dunsiger October 27, 2019 at 1:21 pm - Reply

          Thanks for making this connection, Connie! I absolutely think that this is true. Even when the comments are not being made to me directly, or even when I know that our classroom is anything but chaotic, I still stop myself and question. Thankfully talking through this process with my teaching partner, reflecting on our video documentation, and looking at how we plan, proves to me that our room isn’t a “free for all.” But this reflection process is necessary. I wonder if having these connections with others to reflect together could help reduce some of the stress that comes from comments such as the ones I shared around “free play.” Could these conversations change the dialogue around play?


  4. Dawnette Hoard October 25, 2019 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    It is really interesting to me that you posted this blog. This week I challenged our educator teams to really become reflective practitioners and look at the statement, Play Is Learning, and reflect on whether or not we truly believe this statement. We say it and we see it but do we truly know what it means. I am a huge advocate for play in our Kindergarten classrooms as how we see and challenge learning. I am hearing the fear of this from educators as they say “it’s one more thing I have to see on top of everything else.” This really tells me they haven’t truly found the value in play as learning in our classrooms. I appreciate the post above and I will share it with them to see if I can continue to try to get them to reframe their view on play in the classroom. It truly isn’t an addition to what they “have” to get done however it is our work to document and shift our own pedagogy within this space.
    This also has me reflecting on the continued conversation around the children coming into kindergarten and the heightened behaviours we are seeing. Is it the children that are telling us that we need to shift our environments and ways of moving the learning forward by demonstrating it through behaviour? Have we thought that maybe it isn’t the children but our programs that are no longer meeting the needs of our youngest learners? We have permission, as our Kindergarten program has given us flexibility, to meet the needs of the whole child in a play based environment, why are we fighting it? I truly believe the children are speaking and we need to be present and listen. Let the children play!!

    I was privileged to be involved in the first cohort for the Early Childhood Development Self Reg certificate program and it change my life!! It was an incredible learning opportunity and I continue to use it to this day. I believe all who work in Kindergarten really need to be a part of this learning. It has allowed me to grow as an educator after 26 years and I love it!

    Thank you Aviva and team as I enjoy reading every post you put out. It really provides a space of reflection and consideration of Why?

    • Aviva Dunsiger October 25, 2019 at 11:02 pm - Reply

      Thank you, Dawnette, for your comment! I LOVE everything you’ve said here, and would be very interested in the conversations that stem from your more challenging questions. I wonder if these questions would lead to some good conversations around the value in play. I also think that kids tell us what they need, and we need to listen to them. By focusing on Self-Reg, listening and being responsive to the child, and creating an environment where kids can flourish, they really do. I see it again and again!

      Your comment reminds me again about the importance of asking, “Why?” It’s something that my teaching partner, Paula, and I do in just about every conversation that we have … and that started thanks to Stuart Shanker and Susan Hopkins.


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