Some thoughts on ‘Play’ in school.

Here are my current thoughts on play in school reception and nursery classes…

The trouble with learning through play is that many professionals cannot agree on just exactly what that should look like. Throughout my career, I have always advocated that young children learn best through play but I have come to realise that my current view of learning through play may be different to others’ views.

It’s no wonder we’re all so confused either, as when we look in the dictionary there are quite a few definitions of play and some are not really very helpful. For those who advocate a play-led approach in education, the definition  ‘to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose’, seems to mock the serious business that is, learning through play.

For me, an experienced early years teacher, that definition is not enough when it comes to learning through play. This definition seems to me to imply that play is just for fun, and could be re-defined as ‘mucking about’. It is not helpful to think that children go to school for ‘enjoyment and recreation’, if this is the case, why are we spending money on qualified teachers and TAs? If play is purely about letting children enjoy themselves and have fun, then why do we insist on sending them to school at such an early age to do this? Most young children would rather stay at home for enjoyment, I’m sure! Is this definition why so many teachers struggle with teaching in reception and nursery classes? Is the definition of play the reason it is so hard to get teaching and learning right for young children? 

‘Play’ is difficult to define, particularly in the context of learning. I have struggled many times, to explain it to others and justify what I am teaching and how. Yet, I still uphold that learning through play is the best way for young children. Young children are not good at sitting in large groups to listen and learn, they aren’t ready for this developmentally. They don’t have the knowledge or skill to read and write before they come to school, few are lucky to have had books and tools for mark-making at home. They need adults who are skilled in teaching through play to help them to learn at school.

For me, ‘play’ is about practising and becoming skilled. Playing a sports game, a board game or a musical instrument involves practise and knowledge. As adults, we don’t get involved in a netball match without any knowledge of how the game is played or without the skill of being able to catch a ball, nor would we sign up to perform Mozart’s Concerto No. 5, without first having learned to play the piano! I advocate that learning through play for young children should be thought of in the same way.

Letting children loose in an Early Years environment for ‘enjoyment and recreation’ is asking for trouble, and yet this happens all too often. When they come to school, children need to be shown, taught, how to play. They need to know the name of each resource, what it is for and how it can be used. They need to be shown how to use each resource appropriately to get the best results, whether that’s how to use a pencil to form an ‘a’, or how to use a bucket and spade to make a sandcastle. Children have to be taught to use the resources and play equipment before they can then ‘practise’ or ‘play’ with them. If children are not taught how to play with equipment appropriately, resources will be broken and children will simply engage in ‘mucking about’ at school. Play requires both knowledge and skill, and the only way for our children to acquire these is for them to have access to well-qualified adults who understand how to teach them to play.

I recognise that many Early Years experts have written extensively about play and learning through play. They are much better than I am at explaining how learning through play works for young children – Margaret Edgington, Mary Jane Drummond and Janet Moyles are experts without whom I would never have survived in a nursery class! A great blog for learning about play, teaching and early learning environments is