Module 4: Play-based and inquiry learning is differentiated and inclusive

This module will engage teachers in the inherently individualised and strength-based qualities of play-based and inquiry learning as a basis for differentiated teaching and learning.

We acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first sovereign people of this land.

As a community of educators, we recognise with deep respect their continuing connections to lands, waters, knowledges and cultures. In doing so we pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Module 4.1 - Getting started in this module

Objectives of the module

This module will engage teachers in the inherently individualised and strength-based qualities of play-based and inquiry learning as a basis for differentiated teaching and learning.


Welcome to Module 4 of the Differentiated/Play-based and Inquiry Learning for Foundation Teachers Professional Learning Program.

Watch a video where Dr Kim Davies will introduce herself and Associate Professor Liz Rouse as facilitators for this module.

The Victorian context

Victoria is an increasingly diverse community and students arrive at school from a variety of backgrounds, with a range of abilities. Inclusion recognises, respects and celebrates this diversity of students, their families and communities through the provision of differentiated educational experiences for all learners, regardless of their circumstances, experiences and abilities. You can explore tools and information designed for educators to support students with diverse learning and support needs.

Responding inclusively

Catering for diversity within the classroom is not a one-size-fits all approach to teaching and learning. It is a way of practicing, that responds inclusively, positively and respectfully to each learner, facilitating engagement and access to learning opportunities and enhanced learning outcomes through differentiation. We encourage you to extend your understanding in this area by reading our Student Engagement Policy(opens in a new window). The purpose of this policy is to assist schools to create effective local student engagement policies which provide the basis on which schools develop and maintain safe, supportive and inclusive school environments.

Funds of knowledge and the virtual school bag

Students can be viewed as coming to school wearing 'virtual schoolbags', (Thomson, 2020) filled with rich 'funds of knowledge' (Amanti, Moll & Gonzalez, 2005) of what they already know and can do. A virtual schoolbag refers to the knowledge, experiences, skills and interests that a student brings with them to school. Part of the content in a child's metaphorical virtual school bag are their funds of knowledge - collections of understandings and skills that are based in cultural and historical practices of families and communities.

Students' active participation and engagement at school, sense of learner efficacy and self-confidence are enhanced when teachers hold high expectations of them and believe that all their students are talented and capable of success.

The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) practice principle high expectations for every child (PDF, 1.6MB) embraces teacher encouragement and high expectations with the development of students' agency, resilience and identities as capable and successful learners. High expectations are strong motivators and students can be supported to experience success, when their play-based and inquiry learning experiences build upon their existing funds of knowledge and extend their talents and interests. It is important for teachers to value students' strengths and differences and to communicate high expectations to them, respecting their unique abilities.

Module 4.2: Exploring the virtual schoolbag

In the interactive poster below, we expand on funds of knowledge and the ways in which they support students, click on the + hotspots to find out more.

Downloadable version of the examining the virtual schoolbag poster.

Note: This interactive element may not meet our minimum WCAG AA Accessibility standards.

Differentiated teaching and the environment

Environments that support students' interests and strengths are more likely to help students feel a sense of belonging and of being valued. These environments can also support students to develop a sense of agency, as students recognise their capabilities as learners. Play-based and inquiry learning approaches support teachers to differentiate learning and teaching. Learning environments that harness play-based and inquiry learning, support all students to demonstrate their individual abilities and strengths, supporting them to become self-motivated and intrinsically engaged in their learning.

Practising differentiated teaching

In Module 1.2 you were introduced to the concept of differentiated teaching and learning, which is also the tenth of the High impact teaching strategies (HITS). Play-based and inquiry learning caters for all students and their differing abilities as it is open-ended. This enables students to engage in ways that are meaningful and comfortable for them.

Through play, students can call on their existing skills, understandings and capabilities which pinpoint what they know now, and what they are continuing to learn. This creates an opportunity for students to work at their level of proficiency and feel successful. Differentiation recognises and supports students to interpret and approach learning in diverse ways. In addition to this, play-based and inquiry learning allows for learning goals to be relevant to varying activities, resources, and preferences.

In play-based and inquiry learning, teachers use students' existing strengths, capabilities and understandings as the starting point for extending their learning. Students are supported to persevere, problem-solve, challenge themselves, take risks, collaborate and support each other's learning. Further differentiation can occur during play when teachers intentionally interact with students to make adjustments to their learning process. In addition to HITS 10 - Differentiated Teaching, there are other HITS strategies that support catering to all students as individual learners. For example:

  • HITS 3 - explicit teaching
  • HITS 4 - worked examples
  • HITS 5 - collaborative learning, and
  • HITS 7 - questioning.

Further information on the HITS can be found on High Impact Teaching Strategies(opens in a new window).

Module 4.3: Knowing students as players and learners

Getting to know students: informal and formal assessments

Play-based and inquiry learning supports teachers to know the child as a player and a learner. When engaging in play, students, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds, can engage in learning in ways which authentically support them to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. Other ways teachers can collect information about their students is through conversations with families and more formalised assessment processes and tools.

The results from these tools add to teachers' knowledge of students, drawn from classroom observations and interactions and provide detailed and specific information to enable teachers to design and provide play-based and inquiry learning experiences that are differentiated and inclusive.

Available tools and resources

There are a number of tools and resources available to support Foundation teachers to develop accurate and useful learner profiles to inform instructional planning and program delivery, including:

Transition Learning and Development Statements (TLDS)

Students transitioning to school from kindergarten will have a Transition Learning and Development Statement (TLDS). Completed by the early childhood educator together with the family and the student, the information contained in the TLDS provides Foundation teachers with individualised information about their students. This helps teachers get to know the students starting in their class and plan appropriate learning and teaching programs that support continuity of learning.

The TLDS provides teachers with key insights about the student by:

  • summarising a student's learning and development
  • identifying their individual approaches to learning and their interests
  • indicating how the student can be best supported to continue learning.

The TLDS captures descriptions of the student's learning progress against the VEYLDF learning and development outcomes and the Victorian Curriculum F-2, as well as specific intentional teaching strategies to support the student's continuity of learning when they start school.

Other tools and resources for teachers to draw on

There are a number of other tools and resources that teachers can use in diverse ways to get to know the students in their class:

  • English Online Interview(opens in a new window) is an online tool used to assess English skills of students in the Early Years of school (Foundation to Level 2). It assesses students across the three modes of English in the Victorian Curriculum F-10 - reading, writing and speaking and listening. The interview is one-to-one between a teacher and student, using texts and downloadable resources. Teachers record each student's responses directly onto the online system. This data is used to generate reports that provide an overview of student achievement and diagnostic information to inform program planning and resource allocation.
  • Early ABLES (Abilities Based Learning and Education Support)(opens in a new window) is a strength-based observation tool used to assess student learning. It supports educators to provide a more individualised learning experience for children aged two to five years with disabilities and/or developmental delay and includes assessments that align with five of the learning and development outcomes of the VEYLDF.
  • Literacy Teaching Toolkit(opens in a new window) is an online resource that supports teachers to implement the Victorian Curriculum F-10 and the VEYLDF. It offers practical advice and high impact teaching practices that improve outcomes in reading, writing and speaking and listening.
  • The Numeracy Focus Areas(opens in a new window) provide dynamic approaches to developing student numeracy across the following stages of learning
    • Birth to Level 2
    • Levels 3 to 8
    • Levels 9 to 10

The guide is designed for school leadership teams, teachers, early childhood practitioners and families. The resources presented extend learning through practice and application across education and home settings. Numeracy is explored through six numeracy focus areas, developed from the Victorian Numeracy Learning Progressions and numeracy research.

Interacting with multiple layers of differentiated teaching

There are many connections between differentiated teaching strategies and play-based and inquiry learning that are evident and emerge organically as the play develops. In this interactive video, Foundation teacher Kelly shares her practice and the "different layers within activities".

As you are watching this, listen to how she promotes high expectations for every child and consider how this practice encourages positive learning dispositions and intrinsic motivation for her students. Think about the teaching strategies that are evident in Kelly's practice by engaging with the interactive questions within the video.

Reflecting on Kelly's practice

In the above video, Kelly talks about how she incorporates "different layers within activities" to enable students with different abilities and learning needs to engage with shared learning intentions. There are prompts in the video that ask you to imagine some of the ways that you might differentiate the learning process, content and outcomes to respond to the specific needs of particular learners.

Through observing students engaged in play-based and inquiry learning, teachers find out more about students as learners. For example:

  • what students freely choose to do,
  • who they freely choose to do it with, and
  • how they choose to do it.

These observations provide teachers with authentic evidence of students existing funds of knowledge, preferred ways of learning, dispositions and capabilities. When students are engaged in play-based and inquiry learning, the wider group of learners also engage with and build an understanding of each other. They learn about their differences, strengths, and ways to build an inclusive classroom community.

Module 4.4: Differentiation as a teaching approach

Differentiated instruction

Differentiation as an approach to teaching and learning was popularised by American academic Carol A Tomlinson. In this short video, Emeritus Professor Tomlinson outlines what she means by differentiated instruction.

Based on Professor Tomlinson's explanation, the key features of differentiated instruction can be summarised as 'a way of thinking about teaching' that is

  • student-focused
  • actively incorporates teacher knowledge of individual student's learning preferences in conjunction with curriculum content
  • establishes clear and substantive learning goals, and
  • closely observes students and their learning process and products to identify where learners are at and make appropriate adjustments.

These key features of differentiated instruction align well with a play-based and inquiry approach in classrooms.

Effective teaching and learning is differentiated

In the following interactive experience Associate Professor Liz Rouse and Dr Kim Davies provide practical insights into the ways in which differentiated teaching and learning is demonstrated through play-based and inquiry learning.

Note: This interactive element may not meet our minimum WCAG AA Accessibility standards.

Building on children’s diverse abilities, differentiation and HITS

Effective and appropriate differentiation is evidenced to increase student engagement and learning outcomes and is included as the tenth of the HITS. In Module 1 you were introduced to the Practice Principles for differentiated play-based and inquiry learning. We will now re-visit these through the lens of play, as a vehicle to support differentiated teaching and learning.

Remember that all play experience should recognise and respect the diverse backgrounds and experiences of students and their families. Access to and engagement with play-based and inquiry learning must be facilitated by sensitivity to the languages, cultures, religions and circumstances of all the students in your classroom.

Education for all means offering play-based and inquiry learning experiences that reflect and respond to the diverse backgrounds, experiences and abilities of all members in the school community.

Differentiation and HITS in practice, planning and teaching perspectives

In the interactive poster below, we revisit the potential of play-based and inquiry learning through the lens of differentiated teaching and learning. Click on the + hotspots and read the teaching thought, consider how this resonates with your practice.

Note: This interactive element may not meet our minimum WCAG AA Accessibility standards.

Infographic on play-based and inquiry learning

Diverse abilities and excellent teaching and learning practices

The infographic below provides a visual poster of the connections between practice principles in the VTLM and the VEYLDF in relation to differentiation in play-based and inquiry learning.

Explore the connections between differentiation and the Practice Principles for excellence in differentiation in teaching and learning in a play-based and inquiry learning approach.

Practice principles for excellence in teaching and learning poster

This poster provides you with an illustrative map of how you differentiate teaching and learning through a play-based and inquiry lens. It resonates with both the VTLM and VEYDLF.

To further support your learning about the links between these documents with regards to differentiation, please refer to the VEYLDF illustrative maps.

Teacher reflection

Watch a video where Foundation teacher Elise talks about how she utilises play-based and inquiry learning to support the learning and development of all learners. As you watch the video, think about Elise's comments in relation to:

  • knowing children's individual interests, and
  • teaching strategies such as questioning, modeling, and mediating.

To view Elise in action, this interactive video revisits Elise’s classroom as seen in Module 1. However, in this instance note how Elise differentiates her teaching strategies in play as she interacts with each student.

The strategies that Elise talks about in her interview are put into practice. These strategies come to life as she engages with the children. Consider the questions, roleplay and provocations that makes the play richer.

Module 4.5: Differentiation in practice - goal setting

Setting open-ended goals

Setting open-ended goals in play helps students experience success in different ways and assists teachers to adopt differentiated teaching strategies. In this video excerpt, we see how having an open-ended goal, such as exploring patterns, supports students to draw on their existing understandings, and to share these with others to further develop their own knowledge. Even though the question was teacher-led, the play context enabled students to explore the topic in their own way and demonstrate their current knowledge.

Watch a video where Marie discusses open-ended learning goals that support diverse capabilities in her classroom.

More professional perspectives

Although play provides students with open-ended opportunities to learn, effective differentiated play-based inquiry learning, from a teacher's perspective, is deliberate and strategically planned with student learning as the top priority. We invite you to look at open-ended play from another Foundation teacher's perspective. This demonstrates different ways in which explicit planning for play-based and inquiry learning can be approached.

Kelly reflects on play-based practices and goal setting

Watch a video where Kelly discusses how she incorporates play into her weekly classroom planning, cycling from explicit teaching to open-ended play, through different group formats, individual instruction, and students' own choice of learning activities.

Listen to her explanation of how she approaches planning for student differences in terms of their readiness to learn, prior knowledge and understanding, interests and learning needs. Now, consider how you might differentiate a similar play experience for your students, to accommodate their learning progress and needs. What options for engaging with learning about shapes could you provide to support your student's understanding of this area of the Victorian Curriculum? Could you modify and adapt any of Kelly's practices in your own classroom?

Personalised learning, IEPs and differentiated play-based and inquiry learning

In the previous section, we explained how differentiated play-based and inquiry learning can facilitate the learning and development of individual students within a safe and inclusive learning environment. In this module, we consider how play can support the diverse and personalised learning goals of individual students, including students requiring an Individual Education Plan (IEP)..

Types of play experiences and differentiation

The following interactive considers each of the types of play introduced in Module 2 and how each play type can support students and their learning goals as identified in their IEP's or other personalised learning plans.

The material in the interactive below draws on the 8 types of play focused on in Module 1. This framework emphasises learner profiles and the learning goals that can be addressed through play. It is important to note that play-based and inquiry learning can be differentiated to respond to the personal learning needs of all students, regardless of whether or not they have any diagnosed or identifiable additional learning needs addressed through an IEP.

Note: This interactive element may not meet our minimum WCAG AA Accessibility standards.

Thinking about your own differentiated play-based and inquiry learning approach

Go back to one of your existing learning plans and review it from the lens of differentiated teaching in play-based and inquiry learning. Reflect on how open-ended your learning goal is and how this allows for differentiation and demonstration of learning. How could you incorporate play into your plans to better support diverse learners? Specifically, what adjustments might you make to:

  • content
  • process
  • products, and
  • learning environment.

Module 4.6: Supporting dispositions for learning through student agency

Making connections between being agentic and feeling capable

As discussed in Modules 1 and 3, play-based and inquiry learning provides opportunities for students to strengthen their personal and social management and awareness. For example, students may become more socially perceptive, develop self-awareness, and build capabilities and dispositions that foster resilience, tolerance, and self-managing behaviours (VCAA, n.d). These are all capabilities that promote students’ feelings of connectedness and acceptance within the classroom, helping students to feel confident and capable as a learner (Porter, 2016; DET, 2016).

When students feel confident and capable as learners, they are more able to be agentic. The VEYLDF Practice Principle Guide: High Expectations for Every Child (DET, 2017) (PDF, 429KB) explains that students who are agentic construct their own understandings and co-construct understandings with others by:

  • contributing to others’ learning
  • initiating and leading their own learning
  • having a right to participate in decisions that affect them, including their own learning, and
  • being capable of making choices and decisions.

Resources to support teachers to promote student agency

Students are supported in the development of agency when teachers have a high expectation of all learners in their classroom. In a play-based and inquiry approach, teachers show high expectations by providing rich and open-ended learning experiences that respond to all student’s strengths, interests and dispositions.

Let’s take a look at some of the resources that support to develop high expectations of students in the classroom:

Practice Principle Guide

For further information about how to support student agency, the VEYLDF Practice Principle Guide: High Expectations for Every Child (DET, 2017) (PDF, 429KB) provides some practical examples you can use in your play-based and inquiry learning approach.

Amplify Toolkit

Our student voice practice guide (Amplify) explains how to create the conditions, implement the practices and develop the behaviours, attitudes and learning environments that are conducive to empowering student’s agency (DET, 2019).

Discussing agency from the perspective of the Amplify practice guide

The interactive diagram below identifies some of the ways that play-based and inquiry learning can form part of the Amplify agenda by giving students voice and agency. By moving through the video and written content, your understanding of Amplify, through the lens of play-based and inquiry learning will be strengthened.

Associate Professor Liz Rouse and Dr Kim Davies provide some practical examples of how teachers can support learning dispositions in a play-based and inquiry learning approach that upholds students as agentic learners. They draw upon the Amplify practice guide (PDF, 2.5MB) to provide a framework of differentiation.

Note: This interactive element may not meet our minimum WCAG AA Accessibility standards.

Module 4.7: Building community - webinar

I am determined to become more present with the students while they are participating in play-based learning - moving myself from supervisor role to a player and questioner role.

2021 professional learning program participant

Developing knowledge and insight into my students and their learning styles provides opportunities to facilitate differentiated play base learning experiences to allow all students access to the curriculum in meaningful ways.

2021 professional learning program participant

Throughout Module 4 you have been prompted to reflect upon your own practices and consider ways in which you can use play-based and inquiry learning to support the learning and development of all students in your classroom.

The following questions may guide your reflections:

  • What adjustments might you make to play-based and inquiry learning experiences to enable your diverse learners to access and participate in the learning opportunities afforded by playful inquiry?
  • What benefits will be differentiated play-based inquiry learning have for the inclusive culture of your class of diverse learners?

Webinar 4: Play and differentiated learning

In webinar 4 we hear from Associate Professor Liz Rouse and Dr Kim Davies whose extensive practice and research has looked at differentiated teaching and learning, using play-based and inquiry learning, and a panel of teachers.

This webinar:

  • unpacks how play enables teachers to differentiate learning and increase access, participation and enhanced learning outcomes
  • explores parent views of their children's success though engaging in play based and inquiry learning
  • discusses how teachers reconsider differentiation through experiencing play-based and inquiry learning.

Summary of the project and invitation to keep reading and keep in touch

Congratulations! You have come to the end of the Differentiated, Play-based and Inquiry Learning in the Early Years of Schooling professional learning program.

On behalf of the department and the Deakin University team, we hope you enjoyed engaging with each of the four modules, and their accompanying webinars.

We encourage you to share this resource with your colleagues to stimulate collegial discussions about play-based and inquiry learning approaches to teaching and learning in the Foundation year.

Course wrap-up from Professor Andrea Nolan

Watch the wrap-up video with Professor Andrea Nolan.