The Power of Play
A recent tweet from @thisisFINLAND stated that “In Finland, we believe that play is the work of children. We want to make sure every child can play, explore and grow up to be the best version of themselves.” It is a philosophy that runs strongly throughout their education establishments, which give play a central role in Finnish early childhood pedagogy.
Ofsted’s Research and Analysis paper, Best Start in Life part 1: setting the scene, published in November 2022, states that, “Play is essential for children’s development. This includes children both leading their own play, and taking part in play that is guided by adults.”
This research review has not been greeted with wholehearted enthusiasm by all in the sector. In an open letter to HMCI Amanda Spielman, regarding the review, and signed by numerous experts in the field, Early Education, the British Association for Early Childhood Education, stated that, “While we welcome the review’s recognition of the importance of play, this section is also a poor reflection of the complex and nuanced literature on the topic. It fails to recognise the importance of play in its own right, as well as its role in children’s learning and development.”
Are we prioritising play enough?
There is significant concern from many experts on childhood development that we are not giving a high enough priority to play in all senses of the word (for example, guided by adults and self/peer-guided). Helen Dodd, a trustee of Play England and Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Exeter, is keen to highlight the critical importance of play in a child’s school career. She told Eteach that, “Research shows that playtime in schools has been decreasing over the past 10-20 years. Playtime is a vital part of children’s school day because it gives them unstructured time where adults aren’t telling them what to do. It’s an opportunity for them to not only move their bodies but also to express themselves and socialise with other children. So much of children’s lives are structured by adults, this time is precious and must be protected for children’s overall wellbeing. We know that being outside and being in contact with nature supports children’s development and their mental health and break times are therefore crucial for these reasons. The opportunities offered during playtime are particularly important for children who may not have the opportunity to play outdoors or with friends outside of school.”
These sentiments are shared strongly by Dr Pam Jarvis, Chartered Psychologist and researcher. She said, “The concept of mass, state funded schooling is less than 200 years old. In a post-industrial high-tech society of course, some schooling is necessary. But human beings naturally learn to be human through play, and did so long before Homo Sapiens walked the earth.”
Concern about the new iteration of the EYFS includes alarm at play being seen as an “extra” to other forms of learning. Writing in Yorkshire Bylines, Dr Jarvis explains the conclusion of research undertaken with three colleagues (see below) which examined the likely fall out from disappearing free play. “The main conclusion we came to was that psychological damage is emergent from a lack of childhood opportunities to independently collaborate, cooperate and compete with peers, because these are core primate skills that socially competent adults must be able to independently deploy. In human society, we draw on these skills in all social situations where negotiation occurs, from parish councils to international negotiations.”
How can we introduce opportunities for play?
Recently, the National Literacy Trust 10 reasons why play is important | National Literacy Trust summarised ten reasons why play is so important. These include the fact that play lays the foundation for literacy, and it encourages communication between children and the adults in their life. Play also gives children choice and space in which to move physically.
The evidence in favour of giving children as much opportunity to play as possible seems to be overwhelming, so, the key question is, do children in our schools get that opportunity? And if not, what can we do to change that? Some food for thought…
- Get on with it! Incorporate opportunities for play throughout the school day. Make board games, puzzles, cards etc available during break times and beyond.
- Teach children how to play group games in the playground. Or better still, watch as they develop their own games, only making suggestions for improvements when not to do so may lead to health and safety risks or friendship difficulties.
- Consider employing a play leader.
- Play games and matches during sports lessons.
- Consider running a play day once a term.
- Think about how playfulness manifests in your school. Could you have a joke of the day? Or some funny poetry in assembly?
- Encourage families to play together more.
- Avoid using the removal of playtime as a punishment.
- Talk about play opportunities in staff meetings. Share ideas and outcomes.
As Dr Jarvis explains, play is an intrinsic part of education not an optional extra. And undoubtedly, if we listen to experts in the field, when it comes to opportunities for play throughout the school day there is still work to be done before we compare favourably with the early childhood pedagogy of Finland.
Find out more…
- Best start in life part 1: setting the scene - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
- Get back to play: concerns that children’s lack of unstructured play leads to social anxiety (yorkshirebylines.co.uk)
- On ‘becoming social’: the importance of collaborative free play in childhood: International Journal of Play: Vol 3, No 1 (tandfonline.com)
- 10 reasons why play is important | National Literacy Trust
- Why is PLAY Important in Early Childhood | Teaching Through Play
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world. Elizabeth has also taught on education courses in HE and presented at national and international conferences.