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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

The Play Problem in Early Childhood Education!

Play has such a mixed reputation in Early Childhood Education. Many parents and policy makers are dubious of what play offers and see it as something different from work. In fact, even many ECE (Early Childhood Education) teachers don't value 'play' over good old fashioned 'teacher led/directed instruction'. Often when adults say they believe in play based education what they really mean is they want a teacher who makes direct instruction fun. Research out of the University of Virginia shows that contemporary kindergarten teachers spend much more time teaching academic skills—skills that are often tested—than they did 15 years ago. They also spend significantly less time on dramatic play and art (Neason, 2016).

"The widespread assumption is that the earlier students are taught literacy and math skills, the more successful they will be. But these arguments are not supported by well-designed research" (Joan Almon 2016)

For those who have studied ECE, looked at the research, learnt about various developmental theories and have explored the different approaches, the importance of play is undeniable, "the vital importance of play in young children’s development has been documented in study after study." (Joan Almon 2016). It was my own discovery of play, as the means for learning, that changed my teaching, my approach and my ideas about schooling in general. When I started out my aim was to be the teacher where all my students were on task and focused. As I learnt more I began to notice what I was doing wasn't so much about learning but compliance in pursuit of meeting standards.

"Educators in Reggio Emilia preschools actively resist prescribed outcomes and regimes of standardized testing. Children’s rights for who they are here and now, and not who they may become, is a key driver of decision making." (Gibson, 2014).

Having worked in a Reggio inspired school for a number of years I know that convincing both parents and teachers about the long term benefits of play based learning is no easy task. Parents struggle to see the benefits of play compared to a workbook and teachers find it hard to articulate the learning happening during play as well as shake off the idea that whole group activities work best.

The Problem

I have encountered many ECE educators who plan out every moment of the day towards learning goals. They move from subject to subject, activity to activity and objective to objective. Free time or recess is the break between classes to give the teacher a few minutes down time or let them set up for the next activity. Classrooms are designed for whole group activities and teachers keep children in risk free environments. From my time in China I have notice teachers who work in kindergarten often haven't studied ECE. They love kids, want what is best for them but haven't really really looked at the wide variety of information and research on child development and learning. This also describes myself when I started out and it was only through my passion for ECE that led me to actively learn more, understand more, question more and grow professionally. Teachers that don't seek to understand about this field of education tend to focus on what can be easily seen and measured, the academic content or hard skills. Not hard necessarily in difficulty but rather hitting the table hard. It is easily seen or heard. The soft skills are subtle and not easily seen but are far more powerful.

On the other side are teachers who do champion play but just let children go everyday, sit back with their coffee and say to themselves "look at all this learning happening". This is also not what play is in the context of a good early years program.

"Creating environments where children can learn through play is not a simple thing to do consistently and well...The role of the adult is critical...The adult designs an environment with hands-on, concrete materials that encourage exploration, discovery, manipulation and active engagement of children." (J. Hewes)

Our role is important in guiding children through their ideas, thoughts and interests. Sometimes as an observer, sometimes as guide and sometimes as playmate. It's being able to take what children says and do, reflect on it, offer it back to them and support in its growth.

What is Play?

There are forms of play which don't always result in the same or equal amounts of learning. For example, students engaged in a game led and controlled by the teacher certainly holds some important learning but it cannot compare to the learning that can happen when the students create a game themselves. 'It starts with the child and not with the subject matter.' (Elkind, 2016). Through willingly following the teachers game they will learn things, but the process of creating their own rules, agreeing to them and acting out the process of the game offers something deeper and more challenging. If we don't help children evolve their play and ideas then they can get stuck in a cycle of doing the same thing. For example, in a previous class I taught, a group of boys played with Lego and made the same structure (fighter plane) and engaged in the role play of flying it round the classroom. This happened for weeks. Only when I stepped in and asked questions and tried to understand this repetitive play process did we begin to evolve the play beyond the previous cycle.

"For children, it is a way to learn about self and the world through self-created experiences. That is one reason child-initiated play is so important and why it should not be replaced either by adult-organized sports or by academic activities disguised as games." (David Elkind, 2016)

What Play is Not?

Sometimes when adults talk about the importance of play in ECE they put the focus on teachers giving fun classes. They confuse children being entertained or engaged in a directed activity with play. We know from decades of research that this is not the same thing and usually this state of engagement comes from the methods of behaviorism, the "carrot or stick" approach. You do as I say and get rewarded, you don't you get punished.

"it rarely dawns on us that while people may seem to respond to the goodies we offer, the very need to keep offering these treats to elicit the same behavior may offer a clue about their long-term effects (or lack of them)." (Alfie Kohn, Punished By Rewards)

Sources (2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Apr. 2019]. (2019). article_print. [online] Available at: [Accessed 09 Sep. 2019].
Gibson, M. (2014). Reggio Emilia: how a city in Italy started an education trend. The Conversation. Retrieved 31 May 2016, from
Neason, A. (2016). High-Stakes Testing Has Trickled All the Way Down to Kindergarten. Slate Magazine. Retrieved 31 May 2016, from
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