Is It Time For All Leaders To Understand The Value Of Play?

I initially trained as a Primary School Teacher starting with a class in Year One before moving into the Early Years Foundation Stage. During this time my team noticed a continued pattern year on year, of some children struggling to adjust to the pace, layout and style of a teacher-led learning environment from the play based learning they had experienced in Reception.

In my attempts to make this a smoother and more comfortable experience for children beginning school, I started to develop an interest in the learning journeys and experiences of the children prior to reaching my class. Little did I know at the time that this was the start of my own learning journey where ultimately, my perception of play, teaching and learning would evolve and change.

During my first few observations in the rooms of tiny chairs and tables, my knowledge of the Early Years Foundation Stage was very limited. I knew within what looked like an organized chaos of children gluing, painting, dressing up and building dens that the children were highly engaged in play. Adults circled, giving out praise, supporting and extending challenges for children. Some children would invite me to their play show me their picture or confidently ask...

'Who are you?'

'What are you doing here?'

'What's your favourite colour?'

'Do you know my sister?'



The outside area come rain or shine was full of a different range of activities. From digging, fence painting, football and pavement chalking I could see the children freedom to explore and choose where they wanted to play in all weather. Through the loud noise, I could feel the excitement, interest and energy of the environment. The joy and the excitement of the children was infectious and I later found out that this was called 'freeflow'.

As someone new to this approach of teaching, identifying the learning was less than straightforward when children are freely flowing between the different games and activities both indoors and outdoors. I was used to having the children in my class working on the same objectives in a maths lesson, at the same time, with differentiated support and challenge. The children in the Early Years freeflow were moving at their own pace and being taught a mixture of different skills and subjects at the same time.

Identifying exactly what was happening everywhere was much more difficult than the standard literacy or maths lesson. My natural response was to find something tangible and familiar that I could track such as behaviour, reading, writing, spelling or maths. Unbeknownst to me, this was just the tip of the iceberg to what learning was happening as the subtle approaches by staff through their planning, interactions and environmental design enabled a much deeper learning experience that would require me to have a much more extensive understanding of child development to comprehend. It took me years of teaching in the Early Years to fully see the multitude of learning that was happening everywhere!



There can be no arguing that there is a juxtaposition between the traditional Primary classroom and an Early Years environment but where the difficulty seems to be is the view of how we transition between these in the most effective way to support the well being of the children and maximize the progress of their education.



A bottom-up approach would be to continue the play-based learning into Year One and possibly increase formal teaching over time when children are ready. This would require key stage 1 teachers to have a solid understanding of the EYFS as well as the Primary Curriculum and trust and value in the impact that purposeful, play-based learning can have.

The opposite of this would be a top-down approach where the Early Years environment is gradually made more school ready, increasing formal learning times and decreasing free flow leading up to the end of Reception, or earlier.

In my experience, private nurseries and preschools have tended to keep the bottom-up approach. Whereas school-based Early Years departments have been very mixed.


There are many disagreements in this area. In my opinion, The pressure that schools have for good exam results often mean that a top-down approach can seem like a good idea, children get started earlier on subjects that contribute to the measurement of a school's success such as reading, writing, or maths. Also the temptation to introduce longer formal lessons to accelerate learning means that play can be pushed out of the timetable.

The concern of early analysis of young children to fit them into developmental expectations is not new. Since the introduction of new EYFS the early childhood action group which contains members from over 50 major figures and organizations from academia talked about it's key short comings.

'The schoolification of early childhood with it's over-assessment and excessive monitoring, with normalised measurement impeeding, in particular, the progress of boys, Summer born children and those with English as an additional language and Special Education Needs.'


In my opinion, confident school leaders who embrace and support the play based approaches of the Early Years ethos instead of formalizing the environment will actually see children build a love of learning, have more confidence, imagination and creativity. Play is a crucial time for children to explore their own feelings and behaviour so they can be more emotionally in tune with their peers. With the time taken to develop their behaviour and self worth the outcomes will be a more emotionally mature, resilient, well rounded citizen. That will not only succeed with the pressure of exams but the unexpected difficulties and surprises that life has to offer.

The value of play-based learning as a vital tool for early development is not a new concept with many educators, scientists, researchers and psychologists analyzing and supporting these pedagogical approaches for hundreds of years.



Pioneer Friedrich Fröbel designer of the kindergarten and supporter of women becoming teachers wrote at length of the importance of play in his essay, The Education of Man (1887)

'Play is the most purest most spiritual product of man at this stage, and at the same time, typical of human life as a whole - of inner hidden natural life in man and all things, it gives, therefore, joy, freedom, contentment, inner and outer rest, peace with the world. It holds sources of all that is good. A child that plays thoroughly, with self active determination, persevering until physical fatigue forbids, will surely be a thorough, determined man, capable of self-sacrifice for the promotion of the welfare of himself and others.'

The idea that play helps the developmental character of a child should be valued equally alongside academic development really helped me justify my continued use of free flow in my Early Years classroom. More modern interpretations of Fröbel's theories such as Tina Bruce's '12 Features of Play' also highlight play as a learning process.

'Play allows children to express their own ideas feelings and relationships and to be comfortable in their own bodies as well as finding ways to challenge themselves.'

When I observe free flow with large amounts of children playing it looks like a mini world, a microcosm of their society where they experience social situations and begin to develop their own character. In my opinion, Adults supporting children in the moment of an incident to reflect and learn is far more effective and impactful as it is relevant to the child. A standalone lesson or assembly could never recreate the feelings and attention that children give to a situation that is still raw and relevant to them.


Some conversations I have had with children have supported our understanding of prejudice, injustice, racism, compromise and forgiveness to name but a few. If we take away these experiences too early from children and force activities the children aren't developmentally ready for in the hope of quick progress we are not only running the risk of killing their love of learning but they lose out on the time to process, experiment, explore and reflect upon their life experiences. This, in turn, can lead to children with gaps in their personal, social, and emotional development which I've seen firsthand turn into behavioural problems as they get older. This often impacts upon their progress throughout their later years in school and in turn exam results.

Rushing children can be damaging to a child's self-esteem and confidence. Frobel talks about beginning where the learner is rather than where the practitioner thinks the learner should be. For example: the pressure to rush children into holding pencils and writing letter formations before they have had the opportunity to train and strengthen the muscles in their hands can be detrimental on many levels because some children may initially produce work below their expected literacy standard due to a physical development gap, not their knowledge of letters or formations.

This may be more evident in children who were summer born and the youngest in the class who have had up to a third less life experience than some of their peers. They need time to build up the muscles in the hands and pivots in the wrists with activities such as rolling balls of play-doh, or using pincers, attaching Lego or threading as well as practising vertical, horizontal, diagonal and anti-clockwise patterns. These kinds of physical activities lend themselves to a play based environment as these are interesting and exciting and therefore children often will engage with them for longer.

In my experience reducing these activities for the illusion of rapid progress can be detrimental to children and in turn, give some children a reduced confidence and resentment to writing.

Children's emotional development is a key factor to success in the classroom and I truly believe we must value the moments in play that allow children to reflect with their feelings and emotions just as much as a child doing well on an exam.



Maria Montessori, the revolutionary scientist and visionary who pioneered environments and approaches where children learn through play in the early 20th century also believed in the wider goals of autonomy, perseverance and
concentration. She found that this age was the optimal time to develop their human characteristics. This outlook is still being supported by modern neuroscientists who support this stage of the absorbent mind.



I truly hope to find that the future education of all children is supported by school leaders who understand and value the major developmental opportunities that play has to offer at this crucial time in a child's life. I hope as an awareness of the value of play in schools increases it helps shift that stigma that play is a mindless break from learning. I wholeheartedly agree that we should celebrate children's progress and achievements but also not let the pressure of exams, gradings and levelling take away the unmeasurable human characteristics that are taught through early education's play-based approach, for these are the true foundations of our society and humanity.

Leave a comment

Name .
Message .

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published