7 Apr
Play and Inquiry
Posted by client_admin
By Jeni Wilson


Play and Inquiry – ‘Perhaps the most pure form of inquiry occurs through play. Murdoch (p119, 2015). And people often think they need to choose between inquiry and play based learning. 

But they don’t!


What is inquiry based learning?

“Inquiry-based learning is a more structured approach to developmental learning. Students operate within a framework supported by a driving question or problematic scenario.

As a curriculum approach, inquiry-based learning builds from a natural process of inquiry in which students experience a ‘need to know’ that motivates and deepens learning. Inquiry-based learning requires guidance from the teacher in the role of facilitator: providing structure and support for students as appropriate to their developmental stage.”*


Types of Inquiry

Inquiries may be teacher guided, negotiated, personal, action-based, problem based, issue based or play-oriented. Play-oriented enquiry is more likely, but not limited to, the early years. Hands-on and sensory activities are seen as crucial for younger children, but all children benefit from concrete materials, experimentation and play-oriented inquiry.


Incorporate play into inquiry

In contrast to more structured inquiry, free play is more hands-on, less teacher guided, can be shorter, and is often more free flowing. No matter what level or focus, children will enjoy play being incorporated into inquiry.


Discover through Inquiry

During inquiry, children learn about the world, their role in their world, and explore and create through play. This can be more or less structured depending on the teacher’s intentions. 


Regardless of the type of inquiry, students work through the same stages. In play-oriented inquiry, students are encouraged to ask questions, build on their prior knowledge, and observe and make their own discoveries. Students will rely on the materials provided and make connections between ideas, experiences and concepts. No matter the focus of inquiry, there’s always ways to integrate play. (Refer to table below)


Some ways to incorporate play into inquiry stages


Stage of Inquiry

  Examples of how to integrate play

Tuning in

  For immersion 


  To gauge prior knowledge


  As a stimulus for developing questions

Finding Out

  Exploration and Experimentation


  Simulation/Role play

Sorting Out

  To practise skills, eg cooperative group *


  As part of skills based workshops


  To process, organise and represent what  has been learnt


  To show learning through play

Reflection & Action

  To demonstrate what has been learnt


  For creation 

*Could be used at multiple stages of Inquiry.


While some materials will be suitable for all inquiries, other materials will depend upon the inquiry focus. 


Materials that might support play within inquiry


Inquiry Concept

Example materials for play

Design and Innovation 

 Recyclable materials such as boxes, cylinders, yoghurt containers, foil, broken   toys and pieces of jewellery.  

Living things

 Seeds, leaves, shells, fossils, magnifying glasses

Expression and performance 

 Steps for a stage, pieces of fabric, scarves

Force- Push and pull

 Levers, wedges, pulleys, ramps, cars, cylinders

The Nudel Kart Teacher and Facilitator Manual provides ideas for multiple focuses.  This includes thirty-six possible curriculum based contexts and extension ideas, with examples for different levels of the curriculum. (4-12 year olds)

Children interacting with the Nüdel Kart as part of curriculum and play based learning

What is the Nüdel Kart?

Playground Ideas created the Nüdel Kart, a social enterprise by non-profit Playground Ideas, ​where 100% of the profits go towards creating stimulating play spaces for children anywhere in the world. The Nüdel Kart is a deconstructable, mobile play kart that can be reconfigured in endless ways to encourage self-directed learning. It contains research-backed specially selected materials to stimulate children’s development.

The Nüdel Kart packed up

For a list of example materials for loose parts play.

When play is incorporated into inquiry, teachers have the opportunity to observe and respond to skills development. These skills are pertinent to all students across different inquiries.


Examples of  skills and dispositions





Asking questions


 Managing  impulsivity

 Speaking respectfully

Generating ideas

 Taking turns

 Showing  initiative

 Explaining procedure

Using imagination

 Managing conflict

 Staying on  task

 Recounting what was done


 Building resilience

 Using trial  and error

 Reflecting on achievements



 Being curious

 Expressing feelings

Being open-minded

 Showing empathy

 Managing time

 Justifying actions




 Speaking assertively


 Being accountable

 Seeking  and using   feedback

 Using language for different   purposes


 Accepting      responsibility

 Being self- motivated

 Presenting information in   different ways

Play enhances inquiry

Whether teachers start with a focus in mind, skills to be developed, a question, issue, problem to be solved, or a collection of materials, play can enhance the inquiry experience providing inclusive opportunities to promote student voice and agency.

 In conclusion, I need to mention the ‘f’ word that is linked to curiosity, self-motivation and resilience.  We can so easily forget the impact when the focus of learning is shifted away from the learners.

…play is the icing on the cake – FUN!  




Murdoch, K. (2015) The Power of Inquiry. Seastar Education, Northcote.

Murdoch, K. and Wilson, J. (2004) Learning Links. Curriculum Corporation, Carlton South.

Sewell, C. Wilson, J. Laing, B. and Veerman, M. (2020) Nudel Kart Teachers Manual (2020)

Wilson, J. and Wing Jan, L. Focus on Inquiry (second edition). Education Services Australia, Carlton South.