Chapter 2: Conceptual PlayWorlds in support of equity and access

Lara McKinley

Chapter goals

By reading and exploring the content of this chapter you will learn:

  • what Conceptual PlayWorlds look like in practice
  • how Conceptual PlayWorlds motivate children to learn
  • the role of teachers in a Conceptual PlayWorld
  • why Conceptual PlayWorlds create a more level playing field for diverse learners, looking particularly at girls and STEM engagement.


In the previous chapter, you were introduced to Yuwen and Charlotte as they tried out a new idea called a Conceptual PlayWorld.

Marilyn Fleer and her team at the Monash PlayLab have created a whole collection of Conceptual PlayWorlds based on popular children’s books like Rosie’s Walk. They have even teamed up with the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) Kids Early Education team to produce resources for their Play School Story Time program.

These PlayWorlds are all tried and tested in real classrooms, with real teachers and educators from Samoa to China and Indonesia to Norway.

In this chapter, we look at three examples from Australia. In exploring, we can start to understand the mechanics behind a Conceptual PlayWorld and what the research-backed model looks like in practice.

Rosie’s Walk Conceptual PlayWorld: Mount Barker, Western Australia

Everything was quiet in the playground of Mount Barker Community College – until the chickens got loose from the kindergarten classroom. They flapped across the yard, stalked by a group of foxes. Then, a swarm of bees flew out the door and made a beehive.

The chickens clucked but were oblivious to the danger. Every time they turned around, the foxes would freeze. The bees hummed, concerned.

Sprinkled among all the animal sounds was children’s laughter as they played the roles of the animals in Rosie’s Walk. The students especially loved making fox yips – they had just learned the sound from YouTube.

Teachers were equal play partners and also took on the roles of animals.

PlayWorlds don’t require elaborate resources

The game needed no equipment– a simple sign transformed the playground into ‘Rosie’s Farm’. The children’s hands became fox ears and a piece of play equipment, a bee hive.

One of the educators created an imaginary pond simply by making splash splash sounds. When it looked like the foxes were getting too close, the bees would swarm and chase them away.

After about 10 minutes, the children and teachers went back inside – and that’s when the real drama started.

The urgent problem

Marilyn Fleer – who had designed this Conceptual PlayWorld based on decades of research and was testing it with the class – played an urgent message from Rosie’s cousin.

Rosie, Rosie! I need your help! I am trying to visit, but I am lost, and I think a fox is trying to eat me. Can you help me?

A wave of excitement ran through the children. And then Marilyn asked, ‘What can we use to find our way when we are lost?’

The children called out, ‘A map!’ ‘A phone!’.

Then, with the urgent problem to solve, the children were shown different kinds of maps, prompting them to draw their own to help Rosie’s cousin find her way.

This urgent problem to solve is what the research shows is a key to unlocking the power of the Conceptual PlayWorld – as it harnesses children’s curiosity and motivates them to learn.

How the children responded

‘You could see the kids so incredibly engaged, and those learning outcomes were going to be coming in all directions,’ said teacher Belinda O’Dea.

‘Early childhood educators all know the value of play, so for someone like Marilyn to come and say, ‘This is paramount,’ is just perfect.’


Watch this short video to see the Conceptual PlayWorld in practice and hear from teacher Belinda O’Dea about her experience taking part.

Research Readings 2.1: Find out more about how Conceptual PlayWorlds create what researchers call ‘motivating conditions’ for children to learn in by reading ‘How children create their own conditions for learning concepts in child-initiated play: When concepts act in service of children’s play (WP24)

Practice reflection 2.1: Based on your reading of the article, how do you think the research will help teachers like Belinda embrace more play in the classroom? Record your ideas in your Fleer’s Conceptual PlayWorld thinking book.

Learning outcomes

Yuwen: In this Conceptual PlayWorld, the children learned several foundational concepts while immersed in their play.

      • Mathematics – Spacial relationships
      • Prepositional language, using words like over, under, beside and beneath
      • Design and technology – plan view of the farm.

Charlotte: I can see there were also different opportunities for social and emotional development.

      • Empathy
      • Naming emotions
      • Problem-solving.

Figure 2.1.

Charlotte and Yuwen discuss learning outcomes.

Charlotte and Yuwen stand together looking at a clipboard.

Charlotte’s Web Conceptual PlayWorld: Melbourne, Victoria

Meanwhile, at Edithvale Primary School, a group of children in their first year of school all troop into the science lab. They’ve put on their imaginary farm hats and wellington boots and are ready for an adventure.

The lab has been transformed into the barn from Zuckerman’s farm in the book Charlotte’s Web. Barn doors and animals mark the entrance, and a bale of hay adds an air of authenticity. Specialist teacher Ashlee McCarthy is dressed in overalls and her farming hat, ready to go.

For the past term, the science team has been exploring the lifecycles of animals that produce offspring similar to their own. And they’ve done it all through the lens of the imaginary world of Charlotte’s Web.

The urgent problem

Today, the children are learning about butterflies. Ashlee is reading from the book when a letter falls out – it’s from Wilbur. The children smile and jump in anticipation.

I am scared and lonely. Up until yesterday, I was living a happy life. I had a cosy home under the apple tree and drank milk, so much milk!

And now everything is dark, sticky, and smelly. I don’t recognise anything or anyone, and my tummy is rumbling. I don’t see any milk to drink or hear any kind words. I don’t know where Fern is. How will I survive here? What do I need? Can you help me?

It looks like Wilbur is stuck inside a chrysalis. Miss McCarthy asks, ‘Can we help Wilbur?’ The children respond with a resounding yes.

Learning about life cycles

And so begins the children’s exploration of the life cycle of a butterfly – from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to metamorphosis. When the vocabulary is confusing, Miss McCarthy becomes Charlotte and drops in from her web on the ceiling to explain.

Wilbur – a special stuffed toy the children have quickly come to love – also drops in to check on their learning and asks for help.

The role of the teacher in the spider’s playground

The class goes outside – via a ‘magical portal’ – to visit the ‘spider’s playground’ and roleplay the different stages of the lifecycle. An outdoor climbing gym forms a web, perfect for the children to hang from when they are in a chrysalis.

‘Everything is still and quiet because something special is happening inside these cocoons. They are undergoing a change called metamorphosis,’ Miss McCarthy says in character.

Together, the butterflies slowly emerge. They need to dry off. They need to be strong enough to fly and then the butterflies flit all over the playground.

Miss McCarthy flaps and flies with her students. ‘You quickly get over feeling silly. You get wrapped up in the kids giggling and having fun … it’s giving [the students] permission to play’.


Watch this video for how Edithvale Primary School broke down the steps of the Conceptual PlayWorld.




Research Readings 2.2: Teachers and educators must be active play partners in Conceptual PlayWorlds. Utami, Fleer & Li’s (2022) study originally published in the International Journal of Early Childhood shows how these interactions transformed play for teachers in Indonesia. Read this study, available as working paper 46 in Conceptual PlayLab working papers.


Practice reflection 2.2: Ashlee McCarthy played various roles in the Conceptual PlayWorld, including Charlotte, Wilbur, and – along with the children – a butterfly going through a metamorphosis. What position did she take in each: equal, below, or above?

Practice reflection 2.3: A Conceptual PlayWorld has five key characteristics that are informed by research. In addition to the video below, these PlayWorld starters from the PlayLab offer more ideas. Which ones would you like to try? Remember to record your ideas in your Fleer’s Conceptual PlayWorld thinking book.

Learning outcomes

Charlotte: I am starting to understand how versatile PlayWorlds can be. I can see three key science concepts being taught here at a very low cost.

      • Science – life cycles
      • Scientific language, using words like pupa, chrysalis and metamorphosis
      • Science – ecosystems.

Yuwen: In terms of social and emotional development, the children were also able to:

      • learn about regulating emotions
      • cooperate with each other
      • understand friendships.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Conceptual PlayWorld: Brisbane, Queensland

Wonderland is a long day care centre at Sheldon College in Brisbane. Educators Kristy and Tiana both participated in professional development at the Monash PlayLab to learn how to run a Conceptual PlayWorld.

They based their first Conceptual PlayWorld on the classic children’s story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. After reading the story, the children – all aged between three and five – ventured out into their imaginary garden by crawling through a special tunnel.

There, they met Kristy, playing the role of a very hungry caterpillar, and helped her find food. The children learned what caterpillars eat and used B-Bot coding as part of the activity.

‘The children were instantly mesmerised and that level of excitement remained throughout the PlayWorld,’ Kristy explained.

Tiana said it worked well for the group’s younger and older children and ‘was quite easy to differentiate their learning according to their abilities’.

Keeping girls engaged with STEM

As the playworld progressed, Kristy and Tiana noticed something special was happening in particular with the girls.

The girls loved the dramatic play and had plenty of opportunities to choose different characters and activities, which had a flow-on effect on their learning.

‘It helped them become engaged, and they were more invested in solving the STEM problem,’ Tiana observed.

Kristy also noticed that the girls in the group were very engaged with the engineering and architectural problem-solving within the Conceptual PlayWorld.

‘It just changes up the way you teach a unit. It’s just so much more exciting for the teachers and for the children,’ Tiana reported.


Tiana shares what she loves about using the Monash PlayLab Conceptual PlayWorld model in her classroom. Watch Tiana’s story below.

The difference Conceptual PlayWorlds make for girls

A big area of focus for the Monash PlayLab researchers has been to investigate the differences in how girls engage in STEM inside and outside of Conceptual PlayWorlds.

Studies show that in kindergarten, girls have a science achievement gap. A report released by Australia’s Chief Scientist found the origins of this to be under-representation and unconscious gender biases in early childhood education.

Building on previous research, the PlayLab team reported in traditional early childhood spaces girls:

  • get pushed aside in spaces like construction areas without intervention
  • play differently to boys
  • experience accumulative micro-aggressions that lead to them disengaging with STEM.


In contrast, Conceptual PlayWorlds have been shown to create safe and positive spaces for girls to learn alongside boys. In particular, the team found Conceptual PlayWorlds:

  • transform the role of teachers to be play partners who then intervene early
  • motivate girls to learn through stories and dramatic play
  • enable girls to experience collective imaginary play on an equal footing.


This video of Conceptual PlayLab researcher, Tanya Stephenson, explains how the gap in girls’ engagement with STEM can be addressed by participation in conceptual playworlds.


Research Readings 2.3: Girls experience accumulative micro-aggressions in traditional early childhood spaces. Read Increasing Girls’ STEM Engagement in Early Childhood: Conditions Created by the Conceptual PlayWorld Model understand how teachers and educators can disrupt this.

Practice Reflection 2.4: Go through your notes from your research readings. What are the key ideas you will apply in your own practice?

Learning outcomes

Yuwen: It’s pretty powerful to learn how we can influence how girls engage in STEM as educators.

Charlotte: I’m feeling inspired to give it a go. Who knows, maybe we will be teaching the next Chief Scientist of Australia.


Figure 2.2.

Charlotte and Yuwen feel inspired!


Charlotte and Yuwen stand with smiles and hands raised in the air in a celebratory manner.



In this chapter, we learned about the practical ways that Conceptual PlayWorlds have been applied in three different early childhood spaces in Australia. We explored some of the research behind the model and from the teachers themselves. We covered the different ways the Conceptual PlayWorld model can motivate children to learn by:

  • introducing urgent problems into imaginative scenarios
  • having teachers as play partners in the scenario
  • equalising power dynamics through collective imagination.Charlotte and Yuwen have been learning and reflecting together.

In the next chapter, we’ll dive deeper into how a teacher’s role is transformed from supervisor to play partner.

To find out more about Fleer’s Conceptual PlayWorld read the research on the Conceptual PlayLab website.




Education Services Australia. (2018). Optimising STEM industry-school partnerships: Inspiring Australia’s next generation. Final report. Education Council.

Fleer, M. (2022). How an educational experiment creates motivating conditions for children to role-play a child-initiated PlayWorld. Oxford Review of Education, 48(3), 364–379.

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., & Maczuga, S. (2016). Science achievement gaps begin very early, persist, and are largely explained by modifiable factors. Educational Researcher 45(1), 18–35.

Stephenson, T., Fleer, M., & Fragkiadaki, G. (2022). Increasing girls’ STEM engagement in early childhood: Conditions created by the Conceptual PlayWorld model. Research in Science Education, 52(4), 1243–1260.

Utami, A. D., Fleer, M., & Li, L. (2022). The ‘Player’ role of the teacher in Playworld creates new conditions for children’s learning and development. International Journal of Early Childhood. 55, 169–186.



“Figure 2.1.” by Adriana Alvarez, based on an image by Anne Suryani, is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

“Figure 2.2.” by Adriana Alvarez, based on an image by Anne Suryani, is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

About the author

Lara McKinley is a content producer and digital strategist with a passion for authentic storytelling that connects audiences and builds communities.


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Why play works Copyright © 2024 by Lara McKinley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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