Don't play by the rules

Liz Wood & Neville Bennett

Liz Wood and Neville Bennett report on the difference between what teachers think their pupils are up to and what actually happens.

Government plans for expanding provision for four-year-olds mean there is an urgent need to improve the quality of learning through play.

In early years education, play is seen as essential to learning and development and is held to be a cornerstone of practice. However, the reality in reception classes is often different.

A 1989 study of four-year-olds in school by Neville Bennett and Joy Kell revealed that play is used as little more than a time filler. Teachers had low expectations of play and their role in it. In 1993 the Office for Standards in Education outlined a dismal picture, noting that "in more than a third of the schools, play was only recreational; it lacked an educational purpose and was usually undertaken only after work had been completed."

Clearly there are common assumptions about the value of play, but no systematic criteria for defining its quality and effectiveness.

In September 1994 we began a study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, looking at the relationship between reception teachers' theories of play and their classroom practice. It is meant to be the first step in improving the quality of play in classrooms.

We are working with nine good practitioners ranging from novices to experts. All have reception age children in either single- or mixed-age classes. We are using a collaborative approach, giving teachers a voice in how they are portrayed. Recent research which has sought better understandings of classroom practice has found that a powerful starting point for revealing teachers' thinking is to elicit their own descriptions and interpretations, thus achieving "inside-out" perspectives. We selected a range of methods which were intended to reveal layers and patterns of understanding. First, teachers wrote narrative accounts of how they use play in the classroom, focusing on planning, organisation, and assessment. From the key ideas in these accounts we designed a semi-structured interview schedule which explored the type and range of play provision, teachers' intentions and expectations, the adult's role, and how children's learning through play is assessed.

Finally we confronted teachers with their own practice. Each teacher selected episodes of play in their classrooms to be videotaped by the researcher and completed brief pre-video questionnaires which enabled them to state their intentions. Afterwards the videos were reviewed, with teachers commenting on the links between their intentions and what actually happened.

The teachers have reported that the methods used, particularly the videotapes, have proved instructive. This has highlighted differences and discontinuities between what they thought they were achieving and what actually happened. In some cases the children changed or ignored the teachers' intentions. For example, one teacher said she had set up a shop to extend children's understanding of money, buying and selling. However, observations revealed that "They do burglaries or they have guard dogs and they spend most of their time away from the shop chasing robbers." In this case, she decided to provide some structure through stories, group discussion and working on cooperation and negotiation skills.

Another teacher assumed that the children at the water tray were carrying out a colour matching activity, but was surprised to see how much more interested they were in filling and squeezing out their wrist bands. This led her to conclude that too much teacher direction is not helpful as children think in divergent ways and can become engrossed in following through their own ideas.

Analysis is still in progress but some key findings have been identified. Teachers' theories of play are incorporated into their wider beliefs, principles and values and their knowledge of children's learning. There are some commonly held assumptions that play allows individual choice, promotes autonomy, independence, ownership and control. It enables children to meet their own needs and interests but at the same time promotes learning skills such as problem solving, making decisions, thinking things through, asserting their own ideas.

There is less clarity about the content of children's learning in terms of subject matter, with more emphasis on play being valuable for developing language, socialisation and self-esteem. Play is linked consistently to enjoyment, fun, motivation, confidence, concentration and engagement which are regarded as important factors in enhancing learning.

There are different interpretations about the role of adults in children's play, and about the balance between free and structured play. The teachers believe in the value of free play and tend to regard intervention as intrusive or inhibiting.

However, they are unable to evaluate this type of play critically if they have no involvement. A recurrent tension is that the quality of play is not always adequately monitored and therefore does not feed back into planning. Several teachers were concerned about the demands of the national curriculum for obtaining evidence of learning and planning for progression. They felt this could be difficult as play is often unpredictable. Two teachers were overcoming this problem by using a "plan-do-review" approach adapted from the American HighScope curriculum. One was striving to understand what play revealed about "deep intellectual processes" but felt she needed more theoretical guidance.

Although these teachers incorporated play in their curriculum they reported a number of constraints which intervened between their theories and their practice. These included space, resources, parents' expectations, school routines and the demands of the national curriculum.

It was evident that they had clear theories about play which did not always relate to their thinking and practice in other areas of the curriculum. Some teachers say their involvement in the project has prompted them to look for ways to integrate play more closely into the curriculum.

The methods used in this study have unintentionally acted as a catalyst for changing the teachers' theories and their practice. One teacher has changed the term "choosing" to "planning" when discussing play with children and is striving to give play equal status to the more formal aspects of her teaching.

One teacher commented: " I am pleased that someone has taken the time to listen to my thoughts, sifted through the waffle and laid them down in a way that I can identify with and work from in the future."

* Liz Wood,lecturer in education and and Neville Bennett, professor of education at Exeter University, are co-directors of the research project. The research assistant is Sue Rogers, a reception class teacher.

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