Saturday, May 28, 2016

Why I Advocate for Play in Early Childhood Services

I'm an advocate for play in early childhood settings.   

We know that ‘... play shapes the architecture of the brain in unique ways; it links social, creative and cognitive skills’ (Bartlett, 2010)

Play isn't a child's only way of learning.  Of course it isn't.

Play isn't the only practice that our Early Years Learning Framework encourages educators to draw on to promote children's learning.   Educators need to have a rich repertoire of practices up their sleeves, and learning through play is only one of them.

Play is, however,  a powerful way of learning and a child's right, and it's the one I see declining in early childhood settings.  

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms ‘... play as a fundamental right of all children’

I'm not an expert.  I'm not a researcher.  I'm a common garden-variety educator.  

I can, however, report from the trenches that the time and space for play in early childhood settings has declined. Since I started out as a neophyte educator over 20 years ago, I have observed that:  
  • The time children have for self motivated, self directed play has decreased
  • The time and space children have for outdoor play, particularly in natural settings, has decreased 
  • Educators experience pressure from families to include more structured academic activities in their programs
  • The word "play" is being used more to describe what are actually adult led activities
  • Educators are unsure of what their role is in a child's play
  • Educators lack confidence in seeing, describing and facilitating a child's learning in play

The Early Years Learning Framework (p. 46) defines play-based learning as: A context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations.

I am not alone.  

Maggie Dent, in "Stop Stealing Childhood", includes the voices of parents and educators and professionals in related fields expressing similar concerns with the current state of play in Australia.  

Research has also shown that children are spending less time playing outdoors than at any other time in history.  In 2011, a study commissioned by Planet Ark found that there has been a dramatic shift in childhood activity from outdoor play to indoor activity in the space of one generation. 

Many educators today are continually asked to defend the role of play to families who are asking for more academic based school readiness programs.  This is a dominant discourse in our profession and those that argue that it doesn't take place are removed from the day to day realities of an early learning setting.  

It only takes a glance at advertisements for child care centres to see that in today's competitive child care market, many are feeling the pressure to entice families by promoting the academic aspects of their school readiness programs and extra curricula activities.  Play barely rates a mention.  

While it is heartening to see that the movement for natural outdoor environments in early learning services is having an impact in Australia, and there is a rise in "Bush Preschools" where children go out the gate into natural settings, we still have a long way to go toward providing our children with the opportunity to experience the space to play in environments rich in potential for creativity, imagination, discovery, exploration, awe and wonder.

Children need the room to play.

Common reasons put forward for the decline of play in early childhood include:
  • safety concerns, 
  • eroding social capital, 
  • increasing time spent in educational institutions,
  •  a rising belief that "earlier is better", 
  • an emphasis on structured activities

As Tim Gill observes:

More than ever, those of us around the world who are calling for a rethink in the way children live and learn are up against the same pressures: safety fears (and even more insidious, fear of being blamed if a child gets hurt or upset), busy and at times anxious parents, threats to green spaces within and beyond schools and other settings, the growing attractions of the media and the virtual world, and competing political priorities. 

 – Tim Gill, No Fear, 2007. 

Why does the decline in play matter?  The benefits of play are well documented and too numerous to list in any detail.  To give you a taste:

  • The intellectual, social and cognitive benefits of play are well documented.  Neuroscientific studies have shown that play leads to growth in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher mental functions. 

  • Studies in the field of experimental and developmental psychology consistently demonstrate the benefits of play based learning over instructional, approaches to learning in children.

  • UNICEF states that through free play in peer groups children "learn and practise the control of aggression, the management of conflict, the earning of respect and friendship, discussion of feelings, appreciation of diversity, and awareness of the needs and feelings of others." 

Despite these obvious benefits, play in early childhood services continues to decline.

‘... play shapes the architecture of the brain in unique ways; it links social, creative and cognitive skills’ (Bartlett, 2010)

Why does a decline in play matter?

The decrease in play in early childhood can be linked to negative impacts on a child's learning and well-being.  Peter Gray highlights the long term harm early academic training over play based programs can have on our children, especially in the areas of social and emotional development:

"By depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. We may think we are protecting them, but in fact we are diminishing their joy, diminishing their sense of self-control, preventing them from discovering and exploring the endeavors they would most love, and increasing the odds that they will suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders."  - Peter Gray

Richard Louv introduced us to the term "nature deficit disorder" in his book "Last Child in the Woods" to describe the negative impact of children spending less time playing outdoors, particularly in natural settings.

A growing body of evidence indicates that nature deficit disorder contributes to higher rates of attention difficulties, obesity, behavioral and emotional problems and a decrease in social, cognitive and creative development.  

‘All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and wellbeing of individuals and communities.’ (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group 2005)
A decline in play also has negative impacts on vulnerable or disadvantaged children, and children with additional needs.  Speech pathologist Amanda Styles writes in Maggie Dent's "Stop Stealing Childhood in the Name of Education"

Now, with the push for early formalised learning, these children are even more at risk for developing behavioural, learning, social and emotional difficulties. They will lag ever further behind their peers and as we are already seeing, there will be significant increases in concurrent problems (e.g. behavioural issues within the classrooms). Instead of having the much needed time to further develop their oral language development, self- regulatory skills and social ­emotional maturity through the much needed play experiences their attention is pushed towards formal literacy and numeracy training. "

"Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities for children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems." - David Whitebread 
Who is advantaged when we make room for structured, academic learning at the expense of play?  In 2010 The Gesell Institute for Human Development conducted a study that asked the following questions:  
  • Have kids gotten smarter? 
  • Can they learn things sooner? 
  • What effect has modern culture had on child development?  

The answers were no, no and no.

Studies comparing groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at age 5 and 7 indicated that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may even be damaging. 

This is not an overwhelming case for reducing the time and space for play.

Advocating for play does not mean advocating against intentional teaching.  

Advocating for play does not mean leaving children to their own devices and placing teachers in the role of supervisors.  A quality play based curriculum relies on responsive educators who are able to sensitively observe and interact with children using their professional knowledge to support children's learning and well-being and make informed and intentional curriculum decisions.

Advocating for play does not mean letting children make all the decisions, or to be guided completely by their interests.  The vital importance of qualified and experienced educators cannot, and should not be underestimated.

Advocating for play does not mean creating a divide between structured vs unstructured, or adult led vs child led experiences.  We understand that adults have a role in learning through play, but also, as Lennie Barblett states:

"Being affirms a child's right to play without undue focus on adult desired goals for activities. So have a good look around your centre and there should be a fine balance between child initiated play activities and teacher directed or educator directed. Have a good look at what you're doing and what you're calling play. Because I've been in some centres and what they call play-based learning is not. Be very careful. Have a good look. "

Advocating for play does not mean simply trotting out the good old "Play is a child's work" or "Play is how children learn".  Advocating for play is helping people to see the value in play, in observing play, in interpreting play, in planning for play, in creating environments for play, in documenting learning through play, in articulating play and in making the learning visible to children, families and our community.  

"Early childhood educators need to be articulate, to be able to justify clearly, provide evidence for and proclaim the benefits of play-based learning. The EYLF (2009) is based on sound, proven early childhood pedagogy and practice principles. However, for the EYLF to be implemented properly, all early childhood educators need to know what play is, why it is important, how to implement and assess a play-based program and their role in it."

I advocate for play, not because I have a narrow view of how children learn and develop, but because I can see that the time and space for play in early childhood settings is decreasing.  I advocate for play because it is a fundamental human right for all children, regardless of age, gender, culture, class or ability.

We must exercise caution and not make it too much an object of adult gaze. Children’s play belongs to children; adults should tread lightly when considering their responsibilities in this regard, being careful not to colonise or destroy children’s own places for play through insensitive planning or the pursuit of other adult agendas, or through creating places and programmes that segregate children and their play. Adults should be aware of the importance of play and take action to promote and protect the conditions that support it. The guiding principle is that any intervention to promote play acknowledges its characteristics and allows sufficient flexibility, unpredictability and security for children to play freely.’ 

 - Lester and Russell 2010

I will continue to advocate for play.  Will you join me?


  1. At Tipton Adaptive Daycare:

    * The time children have for self motivated, self directed play is EXPANDED.
    *The time and space children have for outdoor play, particularly in natural settings, is ABUNDANT.
    *The word "play" is NOT being used to describe what are actually adult led activities.
    *OUR Educators experience SUPPORT from families to include LESS structured academic activities in their programs and MORE PLAY-BASED LEARNING.
    *OUR Educators HAVE confidence in seeing, describing and facilitating a child's learning in play.
    *OUR Educators are SURE of what their role is in a child's play, and that role is to LET THEM PLAY!

  2. Ive been in this industry almost 6 years. But reading your article, make me think that Malaysia have a long long way to go for play to be accept by parents or even educators.

    Our educators being raised in a teacher based system. In our proggrame, we try to promote play in everyday learning. Some are good but mostly dont understand how to advocate play in daily activities.

    From your opinion,what can we do to educate our educators to advocate play in ecec? How can we make them understand, and using intentional learning to these young learners while they play?



  3. Love it! and yes I am joining you. I started in ECE in 1994, went into Parks and Recreation for the next 15 years (your partners in play advocacy) and then came back to education in 2009. We must bring play back. I am currently working on helping our K/1 teachers with the concept. We're going to overcome fear and embrace play as essential in the early years. They will learn everything they need to know as a K or 1st grader, but just with more time to learn it their way!

    1. Hi Stacey! I'd love to hear how things turn out for you bringing play up to the early primary years! A goal of mine is to see the Early Years Learning Framework extended to the first years of primary school.