We need to talk about play

The role of play in development isn't confined to early childhood, yet older pupils are usually denied this opportunity. Sue Cowley discusses how it builds confidence and social skills in primary children, while Martin Robinson makes the case for being `playful' at secondary school
17th April 2015, 1:00am


We need to talk about play


Play is vital in primary school and beyond

By Sue Cowley

During our first few years of life, we learn at a pace that we will never match again. We find out how to roll, sit, stand, walk, run, skip, hop, talk, feed ourselves; we learn how to interact socially, make marks, stack blocks, count, identify colours, respond to our names, use the toilet, look at a book, dig in the sand and much more.

We learn these skills mostly through direct exploration of the world, by watching what other people do and through playful social interactions motivated by enjoyment. It's easy, then, to see why the strategy of learning through play - which encompasses learning through experience and exploration - is so deeply embedded in early-years practice. Maria Montessori's idea that "play is the work of the child" is accepted as an axiom.

Yet, as children get older, play is seen more and more as an inefficient use of time. It slowly disappears from the primary classroom, which deprives students of an incredibly valuable learning experience.

Arguments against the use of play in schools focus on the need for direct instruction to communicate key concepts. Play is dismissed as a tool for learning because of its "opportunity cost" - if children are playing, they are not learning in the most "efficient" way.

Clearly it is not possible for children to learn everything through play: key skills such as reading and writing require deliberate and methodical practice (although they can certainly be practised in playful ways). The more abstract a concept, the trickier it is for a child to discover it for himself or herself. Learning is not always fun: it demands a great deal of hard work and perseverance. But there is room for play, too. A balance is needed.

A world without play

To make the case for more play in schools, it is useful to look at what happens when children are not given chances to play. The current focus on the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children is an interesting case in point. We know that the difference in vocabulary acquisition between children from dissimilar backgrounds is stark and we are clear about the impact that impoverished language has on a child when he or she starts school. And yet we overlook the way in which this early language develops.

The reality is that, for children from advantaged homes, language develops through a multitude of high-quality, playful interactions with carers and peers. Very young children do not sit down to receive direct instruction in language; they learn it by being given lots of chances to listen, play and explore. In the early years, the social interaction that is so inextricably linked to play is fundamental for brain development.

Play deprivation is a difficult area to study because of the obvious ethical issues. However, studies have explored play deprivation in monkeys (bit.lyIsolatedMonkeys) and examined the impact of play deprivation on children in Romanian orphanages (bit.lyChildrenWithoutPlay). There are tragic parallels between the Romanian children and the peer-deprived monkeys: both sets of researchers saw bizarre and upsetting behaviours caused by a lack of play in the early years. Happily, the work with Romanian orphans also shows that play can help children to "make the sort of progress that many experts assumed would be impossible".

Another study (bit.lyPlayPrinciple) explores play deprivation from a different angle: by looking at a group of 26 young male murderers. It finds that 90 per cent of them had been deprived of play as children, and notes that "normal play behaviour was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, antisocial men". The research describes how play helps us to develop a "repertoire of coping capacities".

Clearly there is a link between play and socialisation, with a deficit of play leading to abnormal and antisocial behaviour. If our role as educators is to help children live within society, rather than simply to fill them up with knowledge, these findings are very difficult to ignore.

Social animals

The impact of maternal depression on children's development is well-documented: if a parent withdraws from a child and is unable to take part in playful interactions, this has a negative effect on the child's development. When we play, we learn how to interpret social cues and clues.

It's a similar story with teacher involvement in play. When we allow children to learn through play, we have to be willing to hand over a measure of control. However, it is incorrect to think that teachers do not have a role in playful learning. The adult's hand is always present, gently guiding the child to explore his or her environment, watching over the child to manage risk and offer advice and ideas.

Many studies highlight a key aspect of play: the provision of appropriate materials. The adult's role is to create an enabling environment where children and adults can play and learn alongside each other. This is not about providing expensive resources or the latest toys: small children are just as likely to play with the box that the toy came in as the toy itself. Instead, the adult considers the most appropriate resources to use and the next steps that are required.

Play offers us something that direct instruction does not. When we play, we have agency: we make decisions based on our own interests and needs, rather than what others tell us we should do. And that is a powerful tool for learning because, for all the talk about compliance and tightly controlled routines to maximise learning, we also need to keep children engaged. If you turn a child off learning then all the classroom time in the world is of no use.

And learning is not just about academic knowledge. Play gives children access to a range of skills, attitudes, attributes and concepts. Through play, children develop their gross and fine motor skills. They learn how to balance and coordinate their bodies. They learn to take and manage risks and to control their own behaviour within different social situations.

Role play is a particularly magical form of play, one that helps children to develop complex conceptual understanding. They develop their awareness of symbolic representation, gain confidence and use increasingly complex vocabulary; they learn how to resolve conflicts, cooperate and explore difficult ideas. By taking on roles, children can also be inspired to build knowledge about different people, jobs and creatures.

It's interesting that when we reach adulthood another important benefit of play is recognised. Play is highly prized in the workplace because it performs a key role in creative thinking. Companies such as Google provide areas where staff can play; a sense of enjoyment and relaxation is seen as vital for an effective workforce.

Childhood is a brief time in our lives. It's a time when we can (or should) play, not just focus on the practicalities that will concern us as adults. Yes, an academic education is important, but so is a broad and balanced approach to learning. For those children who have any measure of play deprivation at home, it is especially important to give them the chance to learn playfully at school, so let's ensure that play is integrated at all levels of primary education, not just the early years.

As the researchers said: "Pity the monkeys who are not permitted to play, and pray that all children will always be allowed to play."

Sue Cowley is a teacher, trainer and author of books including Getting the Buggers to Behave

Secondary school is about being playful rather than playing

By Martin Robinson

Some teachers see secondary school as the time when pupils should put away childish things. The unwritten rule is that this is when learning starts to get serious. It's a viewpoint rooted in the perception that there is a huge divide between primary and secondary education, a perception that can be summed up thus: primary schools, it is thought, are play-based, while secondary schools are work-based.

Whether there actually is such a divide is hotly contested, but secondary schools are certainly happy to make Jack and Jill dull through more work and less play if it leads to higher exam results. I don't believe that play should be confined to the earliest stages of education. Instead, we must think about the role it could have in secondary schools.

Some believe that the secondary version of play is creativity. Led by Sir Ken Robinson and others, the creativity agenda has resulted in some good ideas, but it can often become a checklist that is used to satisfy the supposed needs of commerce and 21st-century workplaces. And, for all these efforts, secondary education has in fact become far more businesslike in recent years: spreadsheets, targets, league tables, inspections, exam scores, counting in your poor and counting out your Neets.

Inspectors want to see creativity, so we give it to them in spades (with a lot of group work thrown in). But this ersatz play is not creative and is often anti-intellectual: crayons and kazoos instead of oil paints and orchestras. The state of mind behind it is bureaucratic and not at all artistic. But would an ethos of play be any better?

Pat Kane, director of the Play Ethic movement, certainly thinks so. "It's utterly wrong to put away childish things," he says. "Play pertains to all of adult life." Instead of the work ethic casting a shadow over secondary schools, he wants to see the play ethic shining a light. For Kane, play is developmental; it "has a relationship with a basic social support for human flourishing".

Kenny Frederick, a former headteacher, agrees. She believes secondary schools have a negative effect on freedom and play, for pupils and their teachers. "Sadly, our current curriculum and focus on exam results mean there is little opportunity to develop essential skills," she says. "Thus, many of our young people have lost the ability to think for themselves and to use their imaginations. Discipline problems usually occur in unstructured time in secondary schools, because young people are so used to being directed and have so little space for play and recreation."

A different type of play

But what do we actually mean by play? The term is all-encompassing; two people talking about play could see it in two very different ways.

For me, play is essential. But at secondary level, it is about being playful rather than playing. Playfulness is very different to the creativity or play-based learning agenda. It's an attitude that enlivens a subject; one that shows love for the ideas that make subjects unique and accompanies the highest academic standards. As Nick Rose, a psychology teacher at Turnford School in Hertfordshire, says, it is the "play of ideas".

"Whether it's learning to play a musical instrument or the basics of mathematics, the play of ideas requires the tools of thought and a basic grounding in so many different areas that are the heart of creative play in adult life," he adds.

In practical terms, this means teachers adopting a playful attitude towards the knowledge, ideas, concepts and skills that they are teaching in the classroom. Lessons should resound with stories, characters and conflicts; ideas should be made to dance around each other, forming dialogues, disagreements and arguments. This makes knowledge come alive for pupils as they grapple with the contradictions inherent in the best that has been thought, said and done.

To enable this playfulness, the teacher must be an orchestrator of conversations, an expert in devil's advocacy and a Socratic inquisitor shaping and challenging the thoughts forming in young minds. But this can be easier said than done. Many teachers say that being faced with 30 teenagers can be terrifying, so loosening the reins to allow themselves or their students to be playful is not an enticing prospect. Sure, they are happy to let go a little with the groups they have built relationships with, but being playful for every class? No chance.

Teachers can be so worried about losing control that their classes become more like boot camps. The approach is: "Let's get through this with as little pain as possible. None of us really want to be here, but at least we can organise ourselves in a calm and ordered way, where the teacher's job is to be firm but fair and to never smile until Christmas."

Intellectual adventures

Toby Young, co-founder of the West London Free School, sees other dangers in adopting a playful approach to teaching. "Teachers can impart knowledge, which is stimulating," he says. "But if you put the emphasis on play, you neglect the imparting of knowledge. The mistake that many make is to think children can do all the fun stuff before doing the hard stuff, whereas I think it should be the other way around.

"I don't think secondary schools should be there to prepare children for the world of work, but the alternative isn't a more playful approach - it's to teach children knowledge so that the whole of their lives can be enriched and made more meaningful."

Young admits that excellent teachers may be able to be playful, but says this isn't an option for all of them. So does this mean secondary schools should focus on more work and less play? If a school is obsessed with inspection results and league tables, it is unlikely to be a place where the play of ideas can take root in the minds of pupils through what philosopher Michael Oakeshott called "an unrehearsed intellectual adventure". This adventure should be undertaken by teachers and pupils and it requires the highest intellectual, emotional and physical engagement one can muster.

If the state sector were free of inspection and league tables and the rest, would playfulness reign? Jill Berry, who has been a school leader in the state and independent sectors, thinks so. "Play has unfortunate connotations," she says. "It seems to trivialise, but I don't see work and play as opposites. I do think teachers in the independent sector have more chances to explore what they are passionate about, to go off on tangents and explore what the pupils are interested in, because they don't have the same accountability measures hanging over their heads as state-school teachers."

Whether we ever get this freedom in the state sector depends ultimately on government. But we need, as teachers and education professionals, to get the message out there about play in secondary schools. If we allow learning to be playful, our pupils will get an education of the highest order, where wisdom arises not from boot-camp lessons but from a process in which teachers and pupils alike are playfully engaged with great ideas that will enrich their lives.

Martin Robinson is a teacher, a consultant and an adviser on education for the Royal Society of Arts. He is the author of Trivium 21c: preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past


Brown, S (1998) "Play as an Organizing Principle", pp.243-259 in Animal Play (Cambridge University Press)

Siraj-Blatchford, I, (2009) "Conceptualising progression in the pedagogy of play and sustained shared thinking in early childhood education: a Vygotskian perspective",

Educational and Child Psychology, 262: 77-89

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