Stirring and sweeping: the importance of play



It’s always lovely to be able to do a trip out and get to know the area of the country we are living in. We always find it gives us ideas for both our writing and our discussions with our students and our colleagues. Last week we were lucky enough to visit a famous castle in the local area.  Although we were blown away by the sense of history and the beautiful surroundings, what really interested us as ‘contemplators of childhood’ was seeing how children on their Easter holiday were engaging with their surroundings.

This particular castle has a vast kitchen area set up as it would have been in mediaeval times with replica artefacts that visitors were allowed handle. As we entered this kitchen we were struck by the hive of activity created by ten children aged between three and eight. All of them were busy stirring huge cauldrons of imaginary soup, fetching and carrying buckets of imaginary water and sweeping imaginary crumbs off the tiled floor.  No adult was telling them what to do, no-one was trying to extend their language or get them to share. Their parents were just standing on the edges of the room and the children were just playing.  But how busy those children were!

Children don’t differentiate between work and play until we teach them that there is a difference. This is as sad for the concept of work as it is for the concept of play. Work can be engaging, fulfilling, enjoyable; play can be overchallenging, boring and repetitive. Tina Bruce describes the 12 features of free flow play that many of us are familiar with and try to use as our guidelines as we support children in play.  She describes how it is characterised by ‘deep concentration’.  Certainly, the children we observed were concentrating deeply and were engaged, fulfilled and enjoying themselves.

 Of course, the very first curriculum that young children engage with in England is play-based yet play is a tricky concept to define (Moyles and Adams, 2000).  How we choose to define play will impact on how we see our role is to accompany play (Goouch, 2008). We might think the practitioner should provide an educational environment and then stand back and let play happen. On the other hand, we might consider we have a pedagogical duty to lead and support children in play. Bennett et al. (1997) describe these two contrasting approaches as ‘watching and waiting’ or ‘shaping and moulding’ (p. 3) when he wrote about play and pedagogy in a pre-EYFS context.  However even 19 years later Fisher (2016) describes how practitioners can find it difficult to find a balance between ‘enhancing’ and ‘hijacking’ children’s play experiences (p. 3).

The recent BERA-TACTYC review of early childhood research recognises this contentious nature of play and how there is ambiguity about role of the adult. They suggest that the focus is becoming much more on ‘teaching through play’ mirroring Broadhead’s argument (2011) that practitioners were becoming increasingly obliged to view play as a ‘tool for delivering the curriculum… [and] as a means to achieving outcomes pre-determined by policy and ‘distant’ adults – that is distant from the current preoccupations of the playing child’ (p. 55).

How children play may be constantly evolving although perhaps we could suggest that in other ways some of the features of play remain constant. However, whether children still have the same opportunities for open ended play is open to question.  What do you think?  Do you think that today’s children have plenty of opportunity for quality play? Do you have some lovely examples of play you could share with us? How do you ‘accompany’ play? Please leave your comments below; we would love
to hear your thoughts.


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