So I decided to make a study of play, particularly domestic and role-play in the home corner, and find out what early years teachers felt about it. I interviewed 20 teachers in 5 schools and discovered that the class teacher's personal attitude towards play was far more important than the space or resources available and that certain issues might usefully be addressed by class teachers.
Why offer play at all? If teachers feel that it is the time for children to relax, learn how to cope socially without adult intervention, or to leave the class teacher free to work with other children, there is little need to improve play.
However, if teachers see play as something more, then they are more likely to offer a rewarding experience to children in their classrooms. It is a means to motivate children to learn and take responsibility for their own learning and helps develop language skills and an understanding of other parts of the curriculum. Extended role-play is particularly valuable in helping young children make sense of their world, and it is a non-threatening way to learn by trial and error where there are no wrong answers.
In many classrooms I visited, the home corner had disappeared by Year 2. Sometimes the 6 to 8-year-olds had the chance to dress up or use a shop, but it was generally thought that domestic role-play was less important at this age. Although fantasy play was a valuable part of early years education, it had been squeezed out by other demands on the timetable.
If we believe in the value of play, surely 7-year-olds also need a play area that is constant and provides some degree of privacy to develop a make-believe world?
Most classrooms offered play "after work is finished" and many also worked on the "choosing" principle: one group working with the teacher, another working on their own and the third choosing from a range of play activities including the home corner. Unfortunately, teachers almost all admitted that they stayed with the first group and so were not able to participate in, or extend, the play. Although in theory they believed in the value of play, in practice the children were left to let off steam while teacher worked with others.
If children are to learn from play, this situation needs to change. For language development, science and maths concepts to come out of play, and play to motivate learning that is integrated into other classroom work, teachers need to know what is happening, and take the opportunity to play with and alongside their class.
One answer appeared to be the organisation of the classroom into areas so that teachers could move from one group to another. The choice of where and what to work on would be far more in the hands of the children, helped by the structuring of the resources and suggestions made by the teacher. One teacher had planned and reviewed activities so that the children could monitor progress, use the resources constructively, develop rather than repeat activities endlessly.
How do teachers show they value play? Once again, practice and theory were in conflict and the way play took place as an "after work" activity, as a Friday afternoon "treat", out of sight of the teacher and never commented on or followed up, indicated clearly to the children that it was not the same as work. The best way to change this seems to be to make play a major constituent of classroom life so that it is indistinguishable from work.
Giving equal status in terms of teacher participation and the time allowed for the home corner, sand tray, model-making as opposed to writing a story, working on number bonds or drawing a map; making sure that children report back on what had taken place and building in discovery and experimentation as part of any mathematics or science activities could help remove the playwork distinctions.
The consensus was that all the teachers could do with play was make sure that the resources were as attractive as possible, and that they would aid learning in some way. Thus cutlery and crockery in the home corner could be in different colours and sizes to encourage matching and sorting; shops would display items with price labels and coins were available to help develop familiarity with money and number work; both areas would have paper and pencils to hand for pretend-writing; or the sand tray contents would change regularly so that mini-worlds and experience of different materials (wet sand, dry sand, wood chippings, bark) could develop. Some teachers also tried to encourage different role-play by tying in the home corner to the class project or a book, and suggesting roles that children could take on. In other words, structuring the resources had a major role in play.
Rarely was participation in play seen as an option, not only because of the organisation of groups but also as several teachers feared they would have a negative influence on spontaneity.
All the research suggests that adult participation can greatly benefit the children if it is sensitively managed. Even if this only happens occasionally, with most of the play "free", at least the teacher can then know how best to extend any learning taking place, for instance by demonstrating or directing the use of particular materials. Certainly for language development, listening and discussing afterwards the language used by a father, shopkeeper or bus driver, may be the only way to actually monitor and make overt the varied use of language, and help identify stereotyping.
One teacher said: "The fact that teachers do not participate in play and may not seem to value it must mean there is less chance of children bringing their ideas back into the classroom." In the same way, popping in and out of the play area or simply listening out for trouble meant teachers could have little idea of what was taking place most of the time, so how could they build on what went on?
So what can teachers do about it? Hopefully, with more participation and the sharing of what has been going on in play, as well as a classroom organised into activity areas that encourage self-directed learning, it is likely that the children would see that their teacher wanted to learn about and encourage their play activities and so more and more would develop from them and spill over into other classroom activities. This would give the children opportunities to develop their own interests, and the teacher the opportunity to build more curricular work around play.