Play – a lost word?

Over the past 30 years the successive governments have made many changes within Early Years Education. However, the most controversial of all of these changes has to be the ones we are currently seeing in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in England.

In 2010, the government reacted with changes for the early years educational outcomes based on ‘School Readiness’ which was about preparing children to transition from early years settings into reception.

I remember having this as one of the children’s centre outcomes imposed on us, measuring children’s outcomes of whether they were becoming ready for school. However, it was proposed as a measurement rather than necessity. I questioned whether it was about the child becoming ready for school or the expectations of child behaviour being imposed through a middle-class lens.

Fast forward to current times. Has the early years focus on play been eroded?

A neoliberal approach to early childhood has introduced a wide spectrum of measurement, performativity and marketization (Lindahl, 2013)

Play is not easy, for those who do not understand, to enable the measurement of children’s progress and practitioner’s performance.

The education regulator known as Ofsted caused a major furore when it published Bold Beginnings (2018), stating their vision of outstanding practice with recommendations on how reading, writing and maths should be taught to children starting school. It was claimed that there was a clear lack of guidance on what 4 and 5 years olds should be taught making light of the depth of research and the current curriculum provision.

Bold claims underpinned by little research, were made that children learning systematic synthetic phonics and reading should be the core purpose of a child’s first year at school.

Aspects of phonics and reading alongside communication are advocated throughout the Early Years Curriculum but as part of a holistic approach. What about the other areas of the EYFS?

Where is the start?

What measurement are we using as the ‘start’?

Why is the wealth of knowledge and research in the field of early childhood being ignored?

We currently have the Reception Baseline starting in September 2020, in line with the ‘schoolification’ agenda of the Bold Beginnings. The outcomes within it is happening – well, being imposed on our children by the DfE. Testing has arrived for our children in the Early Years and ‘play’ seems to be have been put on the back burner. Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts Holmes from UCL (2017) undertook research with teachers after the original trials. It made interesting reading raising issues of inclusion, such as whether they were summer born, spoke English as a first language or had settled into school.

My fear of all of the above is that again there could be less opportunities for play.

It comes back to the outcomes of reading and phonics, but not supported with a play-based pedagogical principle of listening to the child. Hence why I feel that play is becoming a lost word. Play shouldn’t be seen as second class learning within the education landscape. On the contrary, links to the famous Pioneer Maria Montessori reminds us that “play is the work of the child”. Play supports the educational outcomes of the child in Reception and is essential to health, well-being, learning and development for all children. Play underpins the EYFS which Reception is still a part of rather than the National Curriculum.

Providing high quality planned and spontaneous experiences for children’s play is an important way for professionals to support children’s learning that is both enjoyable and challenging.

When children play, THEY ARE LEARNING, at a deep level .

Play is able to extend a child’s learning, developing language skills by promoting communication between each other, introducing new vocabulary that they use and act out in their play.

Such playful approaches allow for those learning interests to be built upon and responds to the child’s ideas for play, building on schematic play and a child’s funds of knowledge Children in the early years are going back to school, after one of the most stressful times this country has faced. To bring in the Reception baseline in September 2020 is not the right approach, neither is the ‘schoolification’ of an early years curriculum which has stood the test of time, celebrating the uniqueness of each and every child.

The underlying message for me to share is that when children play, they also learn. We must not forget this fundamental child-initiated approach, by utilising observation and a hybrid pedagogy of both adult and child led learning opportunities. Ask yourself these questions:

How are you able to gain a better understanding of the child’s learning and development?

How are you connecting play with English and maths in your classroom?

Are you enabling an effective transition from Nursery to Reception, as this is an important outcome to remember, alongside the one from Reception to Year 1?


My plea then is this – the value of play must not be lost. Make every effort to incorporate it and put at the forefront of the child’s experiences.

Aaron Bradbury


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