Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (College of Education)

Schools and Centres


First Supervisor

Professor Marguerite Maher

Second Supervisor

Professor Kevin Watson


Commitment to improving the literacy and numeracy results of children from low Socio Economic Backgrounds (SES) has long been a priority of the Australian Federal and State Governments. Upon entering formal schooling these children frequently start on a back foot compared with their middle and high SES counterparts. Often this is because of differences in their upbringing, including limited access to educational toys, more limited vocabulary as they engage with adults and other children and infrequent attendance at early learning facilities.

Over the past decade, as identified by the Australian Chief Scientist, the number of children selecting career pathways into areas such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has been steadily decreasing. Lack of engagement in these subject areas will limit job opportunities for children in the future, cause problems for the economy and diminish Australia’s capacity to develop new technologies and advance science research. For these reasons it is imperative schools provide positive, engaging experiences in these areas.

To help address the specific needs of low SES children in improving their academic results and building greater capacity for engagement in the areas of science and mathematics, this thesis explored the implementation and evaluation of a study entitled Playing to Engage in a formal school setting. Specifically, Playing to Engage encompassed the development and implementation of a play-based program, Active Learning in a series of lower primary classrooms. Simultaneously, to help support and strengthen the outcomes from this program, a professional development package targeting science and mathematics play-based experiences was created, and a strategic campaign was implemented to engage parents and promote this style of learning in the classroom.

This study utilised a mixed methodology approach incorporating a single case study with action research and participant evaluation to present an holistic interpretation of the research. These approaches provided a cohesive environment where the researcher was able to transition between leading the study and also being a participant, which added an innovative double helix representation to the traditional action research model. A significant focus of the methodological approach was helping teachers to evolve from a passive recipients of professional development, moving along the continuum into andragogy and ultimately higher order heutagogical dimensions where they were able to identify gaps in their own learning and source methods conducive to their personal learning style to meet their learning needs.

Throughout the study four meta-themes intertwined to impact on the discussion and findings. These included 1) teacher, parent and children’s differing interpretations of the term play in a primary school context, 2) implementing an inclusive Lesson Study model of professional development specifically linked to play-based learning, science and mathematics to build confidence and versatility in teachers, 3) identifying the significance of and nurturing the development of 21st century skills in both children and teachers in preparation for an unknown, evolving future, and 4) the impact of an Active Learning play-based program on academic achievement including NAPLAN results. Without these four elements interacting with one another, the research would have been incomplete; together they cohesively encapsulate the vision of the study to improve engagement levels in children and teachers in low socioeconomic regions through science and mathematics play-based learning, and their achievement in national testing.

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