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Research School Network: Play on? The use of play in Key Stage 1. Polly Crowther considers the debate about play beyond the Early Years Foundation Stage

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Play on? The use of play in Key Stage 1.

Polly Crowther considers the debate about play beyond the Early Years Foundation Stage

by East London Research School
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Play is the best way to learn in early childhood. But when does early childhood end? Is there a moment when the balance between child-led play and adult-led direct instruction should shift? The debate continues about how, when and (for some) if it should change.

National policy influences our approach. The debate often brings in global models of early childhood education. Around the world, children experience varied pedagogy, from desks in rows at age three or four to play-based learning until seven. For good reason, France and Scandinavia, are held up as examples of systems with good outcomes and play-based learning until six or seven. These systems differ from the UK in other ways, including their national assessments and access to low-cost early education. Direct comparison is difficult to draw.

It is important that we consider play in our own context. What are its benefits? What are the challenges of using pedagogies of play beyond EYFS? What is the evidence?

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The benefits of play

Our knowledge about the benefits of play for learning is growing all the time. As education, cognitive science and psychology work together, we are building a picture of the role of play in those vital, powerful years of early development.

One such picture is of the role of play in developing metacognition and self-regulation. These skills show promise in improving children’s learning. In early years, self-regulation also means specific aspects of self-control and managing impulses. These skills are also associated with the executive functions’ of the new Development Matters. They include memory, focus, self-regulation and planning ahead.

Let’s say we play a game of catch. I throw the ball to you and you catch it. For that to happen, you had to watch what was happening and think about your response. You planned it based on your prior experience and knowledge. You waited to move at the right time and in the right direction. You regulated impulses, perhaps to duck out of the way of an object flying at you. If I asked you about it afterwards, you might even be able to explain how and why you reacted as you did. It’s pretty likely that you learned a lot of these skills in early childhood. These are all ways of using the brain and body that are developed in play and are beneficial to later learning.

In addition to the development of these learning skills, play can benefit specific curriculum areas. We might not always think of them as play and we see them in classrooms more often than we expect. In maths, board games, songs, cooking, racing toy cars and construction develop critical skills and knowledge in playful ways. In literacy, role play, storytelling, puppets and small world develop oracy and storytelling. Early science involves testing ideas and observing experiments: we learn about forces when we build dens or properties of substances when we blow bubbles. Of course, physical education is often delivered through games with rules.

In serious debates about play we must recognise that part of the importance of play is that it is fun. It is motivating because it is fun and it is good for children, too.

Barriers to learning through play beyond Early Years


Some schools use play throughout Key Stage 1. Others use it at the start of the year to support transition. Employing play meaningfully can be a real challenge. Curriculum and assessment pressures make allocating time for play-based learning very difficult. In systems that extend play into later year groups, educators report conflicting priorities. Navigating them requires strong vision from school leadership about the ideal balance.

School ethos and culture are critical to implement play effectively in Key Stage 1. Pedagogies of play are diverse and the techniques for implementing them complicated. Pedagogies of play are specialist. They need a toolkit that includes excellent behaviour management, live assessment and feedback. Teachers without training or experience using them will need support and time to learn. This can be hard to come by if play is only to last a term of transition. School leaders will need to be comfortable with the time it can take to put a complex new approach in place. Leaders need to communicate the approach to stakeholders, including parents.

On a practical level, the resources for play-based learning are different. The classroom environment is an important part of the learning. You need time and money for designing spaces and choosing resources.

Should we use play beyond Early Years?


There is no one answer to the question of how long pedagogies of play should continue. The context of your school and its community are critical. Of course, children entering Year 1 in September 2021 are likely to have missed elements of the EYFS curriculum at Nursery and Reception. Schools with children who are not ready for the Key Stage 1 curriculum might consider extending EYFS into Year 1.

Some key questions can help teachers and leaders to decided if and how play can be used after Reception:

  • What are the development needs of your children?
  • Do these align with the benefits of play-based approaches?
  • What type of play-based learning would meet your needs?
  • Does your school culture and ethos support pedagogies of play?
  • Do you have the resources, skills and expertise that you need to implement it?

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