Getting play right in early years post-Covid: a guide

In social distanced, infection-control orientated schools, how can we ensure children can still use play for learning? Like this, says Deirdre Grogan and Sue Ellis 
18th June 2020, 3:02pm


Getting play right in early years post-Covid: a guide
Early Years

Young children have been indoors and isolated for weeks. When they get back to school, they need a quality, play-based experience with opportunities to organise their own learning, choose their own resources and collaborate (in small numbers) with peers and adults. 

Young children learn by being active and communicating, so how can we safely implement play in early years classrooms?

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Denmark met the challenge by creating small bubbles of children who work and play together, with each bubble having its own resource boxes for learning through play. Teacher feedback says it works and is easy to do.

So how should we tackle the challenge in the UK? Here is a guide we have put together. 

What are the practical things to think about?

Organising pupils

In the UK, many classes will be split into bubble groups. Children play and socialise with those in their own bubble. Some Scottish schools are planning for half the class to attend school on different days, with home-based digital learning on the others; others are thinking about making more use of outdoor learning. Either way, teachers can use learning through play for joyful and exciting learning experiences.

How to keep resources Covid-free in play?   

Give each child a bumbag with a toolkit for play. It might contain pens, pencils, small paintbrush, large needle, ruler, stapler, glue stick, name card, scissors and tape. Children  use only their own tools, leave their bumbags in school and take responsibility for what is in them.

How to prepare

Each week, the teacher duplicates two boxes of “provocation props” for each bubble group. One box supports outdoor play, the other indoor play. The boxes contain resources linked to curricular areas and carefully-chosen for children’s interests. The children decide how to play with the contents of each box, but teachers introduce them, posing questions and possibilities that encourage imagination and enquiry. 

Exploration and discovery are important for children’s learning and they need time to explore the items and revisit to deepen their own thinking/learning, so let them access each box at least twice in a week to build sustained play experiences. 

The boxes can be cleaned, disinfected and refilled weekly with new resources. Look below for some ideas of outdoor and indoor provocation props.

Deepen the learning

Children may opt to work individually or collaboratively and the adult observes their play and participates, coaching how to use specific tools, materials or techniques, modelling and provoking thinking and language, encouraging children to look closely and allowing them to add items to the box as the enquiry/design emerges.  

After the play session, let children write or draw about what they did and what they made, what they learned, what made them laugh, what surprised them, what they didn’t like, what they said or what they heard others saying.  

These can be prompts for sharing experiences within the bubble or (socially distanced) between bubbles. They can be displayed on walls, maybe with some co-constructed (teacher-child) labels and photographed for records.

Link school and home by sharing a photograph of each provocation prop on the school’s twitter account and suggest parents/carers ask their children about it.

Ideas to explore for art and design 

Vocabulary: layer; press; spread; rub; dot; dab; mix; lighter/darker shade of colour; stroke; slap; squiddle, gently; lightly; softly; rapidly; smooth, rough; texture; shape; outline; vein; stalk; petal.

Possible questions and provocations

  • I wonder what would happen if you placed another colour on top?
  • I am using the feather to spread the paint with a light stroke.
  • I am going to try to make a pattern using the leaves. I need to repeat the colour/s.
  • You can make long or short lines with the paintbrush. (or loops, curves, straight, zip-zag, thin, thick, circles, semi-circles, crescents, triangles, points, dots, scratches…)
  • I wonder if I could paint some shapes…?
  • I can write my name using paint/leaves/petals, grit…

Indoor Activities

  • Different brushes/implements/strokes create different effects.
  • Adding white makes the colour lighter.
  • Colour mixing (red + yellow = orange; red + blue = purple; yellow + blue = green).
  • How to print with leaves & other implements.
  • Patterns and free-flow art.
  • Tactile experiences are important.

Outdoor activities

In the box/wheelbarrow put:

  • Large and small paint brushes.
  • Paper (different shapes/sizes).
  • Paint (primary colours and white).
  • A small amount of cooking oil.
  • Leaves for printing/glueing/ painting.
  • Flower petals (ditto).
  • Paint sticks (sticks with leaves, grass, sponges, feathers attached).
  • A small amount of sand or grit.

Ideas for numeracy 

Vocabulary: full/empty, more/greater/less, holds equal/the same amount, approximate, estimate, guess, accurate, nearly full/nearly empty, spill drip, level, counting, comparing.

Possible questions and provocations

  • How could we find out how much water each cup holds?
  • Can we estimate which item will hold the most?
  • Was that a guess or an estimate?
  • What are you doing to visualise which will hold the most?
  • Why do you think that item will hold the most water?
  • I think this has a bigger capacity but I’m checking….
  • Which item holds the least/about the same?
  • When we have a drink of water, do we fill it right up to the top?
  • I look carefully at the labels when I’m shopping to check exactly how much juice is in the box…

Ideas to explore

  • Explain that capacity is how much something holds.
  • Key vocabulary includes: half-full; brim-full; same/greater/less capacity.
  • Measure and compare capacity using the same measure on each container, filled to the brim each time, counting how many.
  • Move to litres, half a litre, millilitre; measuring jug.
  • Make an estimate - an educated guess by comparing two spaces in your mind.
  • We can measure the capacity.
  • There is a difference between filling a cup for drinking and filling it to the brim.
  • Fill and count carefully and accurately.
  • Food sold by capacity (milk, soup, juice…).
  • Why capacity matters in life (medicines; cooking; gardening…).


In the box put:

  • China cups.
  • A vase.
  • Measuring jugs.
  • Egg cups.
  • Teapots.
  • Thimble.
  • Variety of different-sized spoons.
  • Bowls.
  • Water tray (disinfect between groups).

Ideas for science and forces

Vocabulary: ramp; sliding; rolling; angle; friction; force; gravity; pull; push; length; longer/shorter/wider/narrower/metres/centimetres; speed; accelerate; weight; heavy/ light; time/seconds/minutes; slippery; smooth; level; horizontal; steep; flat; gentle slope; uneven; rough, textured/jaggy.

Possible questions and provocations

  • How could we make it go further? How much further is that?
  • Why does it go further?
  • What slows it down/stops it /speeds it up?
  • Which is faster/slower/further?
  • What do you think will happen if…
  • How can we record this to remember it?
  • Should we check? Will it be different next time?
  • What happens if we make the slope steeper/gentler/horizontal?
  • Can you stop it moving/ curve it/ make it jump?
  • Have you ever noticed the tyres on bikes/cars…
  • I sometimes use a marble to check if a shelf is level…
  • Have you got some shoes that are good for sliding? What is the sole like? What about non-slip shoes?  Are some floors in your house/flat good for sliding than others?

Ideas to explore

  • Friction stops things moving as the surfaces rub together.
  • Gravity pulls objects towards the ground.
  • Some surfaces stop movement more than others; educe the friction and objects move faster/further.
  • Slippery surfaces do not resist and things move easily.
  • We see non-slippery, high friction surfaces on steps, pavements, etc. to stop people falling; on bicycle/car tyres to push them along; breaks to stop movement.
  • We see slippery surfaces when we want things to move - oil a seized lock; make a slide.
  • Why non-standard measures of length/height (feet/hands/strides) are less accurate than standard measures (metre/cm); careful counting.
  • Steeper slopes increase the distance and speed of object.

Outdoor resources

In the box/wheelbarrow put:

  • Selection of guttering and ramps (different lengths/ widths/ surfaces).
  • Bricks.
  • Selection of things to roll or slide (balls, marbles, cars, leaves, stones, sticks, etc).
  • Stopwatch.
  • Chalk.
  • Measuring rule/tape.
  • Oil.

Ideas for literacy and writing

Vocabulary: top/bottom; letter; number, idea, remember, list, name, sound, word, space.

Possible questions and provocations

  • Encourage children to talk as they draw. Use their words to prompt them to write.
  • Model how to write letters, words or sentences.
  • Ask: “What do you want to say?”
  • I’m writing a list of all the people in my life… /making a lift the flap book with questions and answers…/etc
  • Let’s read what you have written…so what’s the next word going to be?
  • What sound does that word start/end with? Say the word slowly and listen (“stretch it out”). What letter makes that sound? Does that look right now you have written it?
  • What do you think will happen if…
  • Who do you want to read this? 

 Ideas to explore 

  • Concepts about print (leave spaces between words; write left-to-right/top-to-bottom; vocabulary of writing - letters/numbers/words/page/beginning/middle/end).
  • Using phonics to work words out.
  • Have a go even if you are not sure (develop agency and growth-mindset) and then check (Does it look right? Does it sound right?).
  • Writers use writing to make a reader think about something, to laugh, to remember, to surprise people.
  • Say what you want to write out loud, count the words, write them, re-read frequently to remind yourself of the next word.
  • Have a go at writing your name.
  • You can write lists, stories about things you have done/would like to do, cards stories you like…
  • Writing is relaxing.
  • Drawing helps us think about things, then say things, when we say it, we know what to write.
  • Detail in drawing is important.
  • Writers can change their mind, make mistakes, cross things out, correct things.
  • Aim for fast, fluent letter-formation, - get the broad actions automatic before striving for neatness.

Outdoor play

In the box put:

  • Different shaped/coloured paper for book pages.
  • Pens/pencils.
  • Card.
  • Gummed shapes.
  • Stamps and ink for printing.
  • A display space for books children have written.
  • Blank examples of kinds of books to make (zig-zag; stapled; lift-the-flap; pop-up; treasury tag; sewn).

Organising the day

What might the day look like if the learning takes place through play in social bubbles?  This is how some teachers in Scotland are thinking of the overall shape of the day

  • 9.00-9.20: Handwashing, self-registration/lunch choice 
  • 9.20-10.10: Provocation prop play (two option-boxes for outdoor groups/two option-boxes for indoor groups)
  • 10.10-10.30: Handwashing; relaxed socially distanced story for all (lying down?)
  • 10.30-10.45: INTERVAL
  • 10.45-11.00: Handwashing; socially distanced phonics instruction; modelling reading behaviours/ class poem
  • 11.00-11.45: Provocation prop play (swap groups outdoor/indoor)
  • 11.45-12.00: Handwashing; socially distanced Number instruction and Rhymes
  • 12.00-13.00: LUNCH
  • 13.00-13.30: Handwashing; socially distanced reading: each bubble group has a small selection of books in their own box (books cleaned/quarantined each week/fortnight)
  • 13.30-14.20: Language and literacy/maths and numeracy bubble groups
  • 14.20-14.45: Socially distanced science/expressive art/technology/RME/PE instruction - all outdoors
  • 14.45-15.00  socially distanced singing outdoors; handwashing and home 

Sue Ellis is professor of education at the University of Strathclyde and Deirdre Grogan is principal knowledge and exchange fellow at the University of Strathclyde

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