Thinking again about play

To start with a quotation:

“Psychologists and educators have found it difficult to come to a definition of what play is – partly, perhaps, because the phenomenon is more easily recognised than it is pinned down to a rigid classification. However, understanding some of the complexities of play needs some unpicking. We can identify play when we see it, but going beyond a mere description is a more complex business.”

So much from the Reflective Reader we wrote back in 2007.

Has the new framework for Early Years changed any of this?  It has to be admitted that there are a number of other documents  and web sites which augment the framework, not least Early Education’s key Development Matters material, which must not be overlooked. But a quick look through the framework makes for depressing reading in many ways.

If we look at para 1.9:

Each area of learning and development must be implemented through planned, purposeful play and through a mix of adult-led and child-initiated activity. Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems, and relate to others.

Children learn by leading their own play, and by taking part in play which is guided by adults. There is an ongoing judgement to be made by practitioners about the balance between activities led by children, and activities led or guided by adults. Practitioners must respond to each child’s emerging needs and interests, guiding their development through warm, positive interaction. As children grow older, and as their development allows, it is expected that the balance will gradually shift towards more activities led by adults, to help children prepare for more formal learning, ready for Year 1.

We are clearly here in the realm of an instrumental view of play, one in which practitioners view play not as having intrinsic value but as a means to an end.

The gloom that hangs over this for me is the increasing interference of adults in children’s activities “to help children prepare for more formal learning, ready for Year 1.” Not only school readiness, but ready for a top-down curriculum done to children… So the official/enacted curriculum is already strong on what we need children to be like and we are no further on than the Desirable Outcomes in the 90s.

Or am I being too gloomy?

At the heart of my disquiet, I think, is the lack of clarity I started this post with.  Part of me sees this difficulty in coming to a shared understanding  about what play is as liberating – an ambiguity that allows for creativity, for risk-taking, for making time to read a book or whittle a stick; part of me would like a definition, and if I’m honest I’d like it so that we could have a bulwark against the intrusion of issues such as “school readiness” and top-down pressure. But there is a third element here, and I’ll end with a question:

As tides turn and fashions change, to what extent can EY practitioners steel themselves to live with this ambiguity, since the lack of definition actually makes us easy prey to the notion that Early Years practice is in effect just preparation for real learning?

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