Analysis: Learning & Development - Rethinking play

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Adults should not impose their own preconceptions of what is natural or innocent on children's play, argue Sue Grieshaber and Felicity McArdle.


For many early years practitioners, play is the supreme and necessary ingredient in children's development and learning. We agree that play provides a wide range of potential opportunities for children to learn and develop. However, we feel that play is often promoted as a universal and almost magical 'fix' in the early years, and that ideas associated with play in early childhood education are accepted almost without question. These include the ideas that play is natural, normal, innocent, fun, solely about development and learning, beneficial to all children, and a universal right for children.

We challenge taken-for-granted understandings of play in early childhood education, and argue that play in the early years is not always innocent and fun; that it is also political and involves morals, ethics, values and power. Further, there are other sides to play that are not so romantic, natural, nor particularly educative, and there are times when play is not always the best way for young children to learn.

In other words, although the adage that children are 'learning through play' might have a great deal of truth attached to it, we feel it is time to look more deeply at what is being learned, and how that learning is occurring.

It is a difficult debate to have at a time when it appears that we are losing the battle for play in early childhood settings, as regimes of standardised testing, outcomes and academic pushdown overrun the long-established practices of play-based learning.

In the UK, as in other countries (like the US and Australia), early childhood educators often find themselves in 'siege mentality', defending long-held beliefs about the value of play as the best way for young children to learn and develop.

The most recent curriculum documents in these countries continue to feature terms like play-based learning and categorise 'types of play', while simultaneously focusing on measurable outcomes, so precluding the time, space and approach required to make a play-based programme possible, and effective.

Ironically, this is occurring at the same time that other countries (China, Singapore and Vietnam) urge their early childhood educators to introduce more playful approaches to teaching and learning.

Early childhood educators use a number of strategies to defend play, but many of their arguments serve only to reinforce the uncertainties, and do nothing to disrupt the powerful lines along which the debates line up.


The early years has been the focus of government attention in a number of countries, in part because of cost-benefit analyses showing that investment in this area is a cost-saving device for the future (see Belfield et al, 2006).

While play features strongly in recent curriculum documents for young children, this is not without its problems. The way in which play is conceptualised challenges traditional notions of 'free play' and produces concerns about whether play can and should be used to achieve specific educational purposes.

History, traditions and training mean that most early childhood educators believe strongly in play as the crux of child-centred pedagogy and emergent curriculum. The trouble is the fit with learning outcomes and what Wood (2007a: 310) has called 'regulated curriculum and assessment frameworks'. This is a significant difference from play-based approaches where the facilitation of children's development through play is the main concern of educators.

In the UK, the Early Years Foundation Stage documents are highly regulated (by legislation) and teachers are required to complete the EYFS Profile for each child at the end of this stage of learning. But a child who is three years old is not half a six-year-old (Robinson, 2010). This instrumental approach has its obvious flaws.

The educational emphasis on play in recent policy and curriculum documents has seen other words attached to play, such as 'play-based learning/curriculum', and 'playful' approaches to teaching and learning. This shift has come about at the same time as research has challenged traditional notions of play, in particular what has been called 'free' or 'discovery' play (Sylva et al: 2004; Ryan: 2005; Wood: 2007a).

For instance, Ryan (2005) has shown how play in child-centred approaches is political and how power relationships operate under the guise of freedom to choose. Curriculum documents that include 'educational' play lead to questions around 'whose purposes and intentions are paramount ...' and what are 'the modes, intentions and outcomes of adult intervention' (Wood 2009: 166-167).

These concerns sit alongside the long-held worry of the US National Association for the Education of Young Children about the threat to play posed by the push for academic curricula and teaching methods for young children (Bredekamp 1987; Bredekamp & Copple 1997; Copple & Bredekamp 2009).


Lulu's story illustrates some of the competing theories and discourses that might be converging, intersecting and colliding, as the teacher and the children go about what appears to some as simply 'play'.

Lulu was watching a group of three girls playing out the story of Cinderella in the home corner. Fiona, the teacher, noticed Lulu at the edge of their game, but it appeared they were excluding her. Fiona took Lulu by the hand and walked her over to the girls. She explained, 'Lulu would really like to play with you. Can she join in your Cinderella game?' The three girls quickly exchanged glances and then responded to Fiona, telling her that Lulu could play.

All the children, who were in first grade, were engaged in various play-activity for over 45 minutes. Fiona moved from group to group and observed, made notes, and sometimes stayed with some children. As she regularly scoped the room, everyone appeared to be having fun, busy and playing. She glanced over to the girls' game a number of times, but did not go near them. She was satisfied that Lulu remained in the game with the girls.

At the end of the session, when it came time for the 'review' of their morning's activities, Fiona asked the girls about their game. The three girls excitedly recounted their game of 'Cinderella'. The teacher asked who played each of the characters, and they listed who was the Prince, Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother, and so on. Lulu was silent, and was not named as playing a character. Fiona asked, 'Who did Lulu play in your game?'

The girls quickly glanced at each other again, and one girl explained while the others looked at the floor. 'Lulu was the piece of paper that was in front of the fireplace, collecting the cinders.' Lulu nodded (from The Trouble with Play by Grieshaber & McArdle, 2010).

There are those who will read this story and wonder at how children so young could be so mean. Others will smile and shake their heads over the innocence and naivety of the three girls. They're just being children. They don't mean it. They don't know any better.

With either of these ways of reading Lulu's story, it is the discourse of 'natural' that comes into play, shaping how we think and speak about the children. Being natural has generally come to be equated with things wholesome, healthy and good, and our task is to preserve this natural state.

At the same time, we also know that nature brings earthquakes and tsunamis, and these are beyond our control. In this case, we understand the risks, and we take steps to guard against the danger, control the chaos, or at least minimise the damage. We do the same with 'natural, untamed' children.

The trouble with the idea that play is children's natural way of learning is that ideas about what is natural in children are selective. They are a conglomeration of science, tradition, history, culture, and other ideas. And they vary across time and place.

Teachers' practices are shaped by both these (and other) ways of seeing children and childhoods (James Jenks and Prout: 1998). While Fiona may choose to 'do nothing', in the belief that the children's play is natural, Lulu learns something about herself that is quite different from what the other girls are learning - perhaps even that, for her in this classroom, this is the 'natural order of things'.


Children use play for their own particular means and ends. In many cases these involve many identities, where they can position themselves more powerfully than others, sometimes so discreetly that their actions go unnoticed by staff. When teachers are focused only on the educational value of play, or choose not to intervene in children's 'free play', it makes noticing or attending to unjust actions problematic. Consequently, teachers can miss the intricate and complex nature of children's relationships and how they can very capably switch roles and identities to suit the situation.

Long-held beliefs about play and what is 'natural' in children can work for better and worse when it comes to teachers' decision-making. This reflection, in turn, opens up many more thought-provoking questions about whether is normal, innocent, beneficial to all children and a universal right. Our invitation is to 'play' with these ideas.

Sue Grieshaber and Felicity McArdle are educators and researchers at the School of Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology, Australia, and have been teachers in urban, rural and remote early years settings.



  • - Bredekamp, S (ed) (1987) Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age eight (Expanded ed). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • - Bredekamp, S and Copple, C (Eds) (1997) Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs (Rev ed). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • - Copple, C and Bredekamp, S (eds) (2009) Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age eight (3rd edn). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children
  • - Grieshaber, S & McArdle, F (2010) The trouble with play. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press
  • - James, A, Jenks, C & Prout, A (1998) Theorizing childhood. New York: Teachers College Press
  • - Robinson, K (2010) Bring on the learning revolution. Accessed September, 2010
  • - Ryan, SK (2005) 'Freedom to choose: examining children's experiences in choice time', in N Yelland (ed) Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education (pp 99-114) Maidenhead: Open University Press
  • - Sylva, K, Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj-Blatchford, I, & Taggart, B (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-school Education: The final report. London: DfES Sure Start Publications and the Institute of Education
  • - Wood, E (2007a) 'New directions in play: Consensus or collision?' Education 3-13, 35(4), 309-320
  • - Wood, E (2007b) 'Reconceptualising child-centred education: Contemporary directions in policy, theory and practice in early childhood'. Forum, 49(1&2), 119-133
  • - Wood, E (2009) 'Conceptualising a pedagogy of play: international perspectives from theory, policy and practice', in D Kuschner (ed), 'From children to red hatters(r): Diverse images and issues of play'. Play and culture studies, vol 8 (pp166-189). Lanham: University Press of America


The Trouble with Play by Sue Grieshaber and Felicity McArdle (Open University Press, 2010) looks at the 'darker' side of play - one that is not innocent, fair or natural, and that requires teachers to implement more thoughtful approaches to play in the early years. For details visit: Up until 23 October you can buy the book for only £16 - a 20 per cent discount - from the Book Depository at

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