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The Value of Authentic, On-Going, Play-Based Assessment for Exceptional Learners

By Holly Delgado | April 29, 2019

For many of us in early childhood, on-going, play-based assessment has become second nature. The sticky notes, clipboards, or the electronic tablets on which we record anecdotal notes to document learning have become extensions of ourselves. Over time, we have become experts in our assessment tools and can easily identify the goals we have for children as they progress throughout the school year. We can describe each indicator and we know how to scaffold learning for children to move from one level to the next accordingly.

Who are exceptional learners?

Although all young children construct knowledge as they engage with and manipulate materials located in their learning environment, every now and then, the learning may look and sound different. Exceptional learners are the children for whom learning looks and sounds different – they are children who have delays in one or more domains of development. These children may have disabilities that have been formally diagnosed, or, their delays may not yet be identified, but a disability is suspected. Exceptional learners may experience difficulty acquiring, maintaining and using their knowledge and skills across learning environments and, as a result, require additional support, interventions and curricular modifications to fully benefit from the education process (Brillante, 2017). For these reasons, when children with special needs are enrolled in our classrooms, we often ask ourselves if we will be able to document learning in the same ways as we do for children without disabilities?

Is play-based assessment the “right-fit” for our exceptional learners?

To tackle these questions, let’s first look at the numerous advantages of play-based assessment in early childhood settings:

When we consider these advantages from the perspective of children with special needs, the benefits of play-based assessment become even more apparent. Per research, when data is collected consistently in environments that are familiar to the child, the play-based approach to assessment provides early childhood educators a more complete, strengths-based picture than standardized tests alone (Kelly-Vance & Ryalls, 2015). In addition, the anecdotal information received from play-based assessment is often presented in an uncomplicated format, making it easy for parents to read and comprehend (Kelly-Vance & Ryalls, 2015).

When trying to determine ‘if’ children with special needs are learning, early childhood educators may need to take a more in-depth look at their play-based assessment indicators. The very nature of anecdotal evidence helps educators and parents visualize growth in small, incremental steps. Thus, even if children have not yet moved from one level to the next per the assessment tool rating scale, play-based assessment can still provide a window into the learning, growth and development that is occurring on a daily basis in the classroom. Asking the question, “For this particular child, ‘what does mastery of these skills and concepts look like?’” (Brillante, 2017, 40) may help educators individualize the assessment process even further.

Finally, considering the depth of child-focused information that results from play-based assessment, early childhood educators can intentionally link these results to more targeted and specific interventions (Kelly-Vance & Ryalls, 2015). Authentic observations from play-based assessment can guide future lessons, activities, and strategies for intervention. In essence, ALL children benefit when the data received from play-based assessment drives instruction in the classroom. Play-based assessment is absolutely a “right-fit” for our exceptional learners.


Brillante, P. (2017). The Essentials: Supporting Young Children with Disabilities in the Classroom. Washington, D.C. National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Epstein, A. (2011). Essentials of Active Learning in Preschool. 2nd Ed. Ypsilanti, MI. HighScope Press.

Kelly-Vance, L. & Ryalls, B.O., 2015. Best Practices in Play Assessment and Intervention. Best Practices in School Psychology, 33(2). 549-560.

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In partnership with HighScope Educational Research Foundation, the Exploring Early Childhood Newsletter is a twice a month collection of topical research articles, tips for educators, and unique ways COR Advantage can support the documentation and communication of child development.

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COR Advantage is HighScope’s flagship observation-based assessment. COR Advantage is the leading research-backed assessment for all children from birth to kindergarten. From comprehensive planning tools to dynamic family engagement, COR Advantage offers a complete picture of child growth for schools and families.

About Holly Delgado

Holly is an Early Childhood and Assessment Liaison as well as a former Demonstration Preschool teacher at HighScope Educational Research Foundation. She holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Central Michigan and a master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from Northeastern Illinois. She has spent more than 10 years working in self-contained early childhood special education classrooms, inclusive classrooms, and home-based environments for children ages birth to five. She is a certified teacher in Michigan and Illinois and has experience as an education administrator for Head Start/Early Head Start programs. Holly is currently an adjunct professor of Early Childhood Education at Madonna University.