The Role of Play in Early Years Learning: is Structured Play the Best Option?

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Last Updated: 03 Mar 2020
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A literature review concerned with the role of play in early years learning. Two contrasting views, and a third which lies midway between the two, are discussed. A number of articles, books and government documents are considered critically.The arguments for structured play are considered first. Although this is the received orthodoxy for current UK government guidelines, the view has some flaws. The opposed view, that play should be free, holistic or unstructured, is also discussed. Finally, views which attempt to combine the two extreme positions are considered.

1. Introduction

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The following looks at the role of play in early learning. Can play help children become educated in a way which is pleasurable for them The rationale for this piece comes both from my own experience and a study of recent debate. I have observed children learning and playing, and it seems obvious to me that play is something that is natural to them, and that they enjoy thoroughly. It seems to follow that if learning can somehow be based on play, then it will be an activity that children want to engage with. However, while the importance of play is acknowledged by writers (Stroh et al 2008), I am also aware that there is a big debate about the best way to incorporate this complex phenomenon into learning, which seems to me to undermine the current national guidelines which emphasise one particular way to incorporate play into education.

This essay therefore explores the ongoing debate about which type of play is most appropriate for incorporating into early years learning. The debate involves two broadly opposing approaches to play, and these different approaches will be discussed in detail in the following. On the one hand, there is a strong argument that structured play (play which is guided or led by an adult facilitator and through which the child is directed towards certain educational ends) is best for learning. This view has even been incorporated into current orthodoxy for government and national guidelines. However, an opposing view is that structured play is stifling for children, and that free or holistic play offers them the best opportunities for learning. The following takes the form of a literature review, incorporating prominent theories on both sides, examining current national guidelines, and looking at a number of research papers which have collected empirical evidence in the field. The main arguments are brought out, and a critical perspective is adopted, highlighting both problems and benefits of different theoretical positions.

2. Arguments for Structured Play

This section considers key government documents which incorporate structured play, a theoretical underpinning for the notion, and a research paper.

Structured play (also called ‘extended’ play) sees the teacher or other adult taking an active role in the child’s play, structuring it in content and form and directing the child towards goals. The adult can manage the tools of play, or direct the way the child plays, moving him or her towards different goals, often with learning outcomes in mind.

Current government guidelines, first instantiated in the early years of the 21st century, suggest that structured play is the best approach to early learning.Currently, play is seen as a key way of facilitating learning during the foundation stage (children aged 3 to 5 years old) (DfEE 2000). The received opinion is that play can be a means of learning, and that play should be structured and planned. Planned play, with the involvement of the teacher or other adult, can ensure that the environment is challenging for the child. It is also seen as a way of enhancing learning by building upon spontaneous play, and is thought to aid language development (QCA 2000).The link with spontaneous play is emphasised in a later document (2001): teachers should encourage play which is challenging to the child, through using appropriate equipment for role-play and similar.The later (2008) guidelines from the Department for Children, Schools and Families also reiterate this view of the importance of structured play: they state

“through play, in a secure but challenging environment with effective adult support, children can: explore, develop and represent learning experiences that help them make sense of the world; practice and build up ideas, concepts and skills; learn how to understand the need for rules; take risks and make mistakes; think creatively and imaginatively; communicate with others as they investigate or solve problems” (DCSF 2008)

Play, therefore, is structured in two ways: through environmental means (including toys and other devices for interaction) and through adult support. It is clear from the above that structured play is felt to have a huge impact upon learning how to function in the adult world. Adults have a role not only in structuring play but also to watch and reflect upon play activity and feed the results of this observation into future structuring. The guidelines also emphasise that structured play should be rooted in free play, with a balance between child-initiated and adult-led activities.

This emphasis upon structured play seems, on the face of it, worthwhile. However, it raises a number of questions. The documents discussed above ignore the existence of any critique of the notion of structured play.It also ignores the extent to which play is thought to have different functions. Our concept of what play is has changed over time, and different theories include play as relaxation, as a way of using up excess energy, as a means of personal development and as a preparation for adult life (Saracho and Spodek 1998). Play has also been thought of as a way of working through unconscious fears (Santer et al 2007). However, government documents seem not to acknowledge this variety of perspectives on what play is, suggesting rather that it is an activity primarily looking at learning.There are other issues which can be raised about the received opinion from government.For example, it could be asked to what extent structured play is a function of a system which seems increasingly to value tests as a way of assessing child progress It might be seen as a way of drawing children into a system obsessed with targets and attainments at an even earlier age (see, for example, Santer et al 2007). It also assumes that all children play in a similar way, and get the same benefits from structured play. Finally, there is no discussion in these documents about the evidence base for structured play, nor of the key theoretical issues which support them.

Although current policy documents do not investigate the theoretical basis for structured play, there is in fact a strong base for the idea. Vygotsky’s notion of ‘laddering’, ideas by Piaget and Bruner’s discussions all suggest that play can be usefully supported by adults as a way of learning (Tassoni 2006). Vygotsky’s ideas are particularly interesting, as he seems to suggest that learning takes place through adult interacting with a child, and supporting him or her (as with a ladder) to further development.Vygotsky’s idea of the role of social interaction in child development suggests that the adult plays an important part in structuring child learning.He emphasizes the social and cultural contexts in which children develop, and states that a great deal of learning for children takes place through social interaction with an adult (Vygotsky 1978). The interventions made by the adult can include modeling behaviour or giving verbal instructions, what Vygotsky calls ‘collaborative dialogue’, through which the child tries to understand then internalizes the adults instructions and actions. Vygotsky calls the adult the ‘more knowledgeable other’, as he or she possesses extra information or ability compared with the child.For Vygotsky, there exists a ‘zone of proximal development’, which covers the difference between what the child can do alone and what he or she can do through help from a more skilled adult. This zone can be explored through play as a means to learning (Lloyd 2007). Vygotsky believed play can help learning in several ways. Primarily, play comes into the picture in the role of proximal development, as a way of children being supported to take on new abilities with adults support. He also thought it enables children to develop concepts of abstract thought, and become aware that meanings can be used independently of objects.Finally, Vygotsky thought play could act as a way of trying out new knowledge learnt during scaffolding with an adult (Vygotsky 1978). Vygotsky’s ideas have been very influential, and seem to have influenced current government guidelines about the value of structured play. However, there are some criticisms which can be raised about these ideas. For example, by focusing so strongly upon individual learning, does Vygotsky play down the role of wider cultural issuesHe seems to assume that all learning takes place in an identical manner, across cultures. Additionally, he seems to prioritise formal learning within schools through play, and downplay the importance of non-formal learning situations (Moore 2000). To what extent does he assume that play without adult intervention is of no importance in developing learningFinally, some suggest that there is a lack of empirical evidence for many of Vygotsky’s ideas (Langford 2005). However, this has been contested for example by Oakley (2004) who suggests that the body empirical research for concepts such as the scaffolding process is growing.

In summary, UK government guidelines embrace a notion of play that is primarily a structured play. Although their policy documents do not acknowledge the source of this idea, nor consider alternative approaches, there is a respected history of discussion in this area, and Vygotsky has produced a convincing description of how adults can structure learning through play. However, there are criticisms of his idea, for example that it ignores cultural factors.

3. Arguments for Free Play

It is also necessary to consider that structured play might even be damaging for children. This idea, and others, shape the alternative viewpoint, that of holistic or free play. Bruce, for example, is critical of adult involvement in children’s games, holding that it does not take account of the child’s point of view (Bruce 1999). Steiner was an important advocate for free, or self-directed play, holding it to be central to a child’s education. He went on to found schools based on these principles which are still in existence today (Masters 2008). Another proponent of free play is Susan Isaacs.Isaacs was influenced by psycho-analysis and philosophy, by Froebel’s active learning and Dewey’s social interactionism (Graham 2009). She felt that early years learning was a particularly important stage in education, and that adults had an important role to play in allowing children free exploration of their environment. They were there to facilitate the means whereby children explore their feelings about things and people through enriching the environment and setting boundaries through showing, not punishment (Smith 1985). For Isaacs, play was an important part of the process of self-exploration and expression, and allows a child to explore fears and wishes (Isaacs 1930; 1971) (here, Isaacs psychoanalytical influences are clear). However, she thought play should be something children explored alone. Adults should give them time to explore whatever direction they wanted to go in, with free play, especially that where the child played alone, particularly valuable (Isaacs 1971).There are a number of later writers who support this view, for example Rawson and Rose (2002), who suggest that free play is vital to the health of body and mind.

Pellegrini (2008) also tries to provide evidence for the value of free play in learning. His study looks at the role of recess (or ‘break’) for learning. He suggests that recess is “under attack” in schools, fuelled by an idea that it reduces time available for learning, and that it facilitates bullying and violence in the playground.He argues that both these ideas are flawed, and hence that free time in defined breaks is valuable for children. His arguments rely upon recent research into cognitive development, for example work by Bjorklund and Green (1992) which seems to suggest that younger children process information in a different way to older ones, and that they need time away from the formal learning environment. This science-led approach is different to the approach of Vygotsky, with a greater emphasis upon empirical evidence.

While this paper seems to provide evidence for the value of free play, there are a couple of issues to consider. First, Pellegrini’s study is concerned with older children in the classroom, rather than the foundation stage. It is possible that older children derive different benefits from free play, perhaps because their structured learning is more restrictive, or because they play in a different way. Further studies would need to examine the role of recess in terms of younger children. Second, Pellegrini looks at a formal ‘recess’, rather than at the ways in which free play itself can be a learning experience. He considers recess as a contrast to school work, which allows children to assimilate learning better, rather than the learning processes which actually go on in the sort of free play which might occur during recess.Finally, the empirical evidence he sites for the value of recess includes work carried out by himself, which might raise questions of lack of impartiality.

However, while the paper does not completely fit the concerns of this essay, some of his ideas are transferable. Some of the attacks on recess time which he considers (that children could just as easily ‘let off steam’ in structured physical education) also apply to holistic or free play for younger children. As he points out, physical education fails to confer the benefits of totally unstructured leisure time for children. Additionally, if free play is to be replaced by a structure which is designed for child assessment, tests have been shown to be unreliable for children, and hence should not be the only approach to assessing the child (Pellegrini 2008).

4. A ‘Middle Way’ between Structured and Free Play?

On the evidence, there seems to be an argument for free play, rather than tightly structuring all aspects of young children’s learning experiences.But it is also possible to explore a midway between the two extremes: embracing adult intervention in play, but doing this in a way which is more sensitive to the child.Tarman and Tarman (2011) try to do this. They point out that over-structured intervention in play by teachers can lead to loss of control and disruption for the children’s experience. They suggests that Smilansky (1971) provides a model for play based upon techniques incorporating theatre and fantasy or ‘social dramatic play training’. Teachers take on an imaginative, dramatic role in their interactions with children. Tarman and Tarman also take some insights from Vygotsky, but emphasise that play needs to have a large element of freedom. They discuss a case study which seems to show that play training by teachers helps children develop symbolic play, that teachers should be led by what the child wants in play, and that environment is very important to facilitate dramatic play.

One disadvantage of their piece is that is consists of a literature review and case study only. It would be useful to have more extensive research gathering information from a wider number of children in order to test the hypothesis that a particular kind of sensitively structured teacher intervention is more useful than either fully structured or unstructured play. Including sample sizes of 30 or more would mean that results are more likely to be statistically significant. As it is, while the case study is interesting it could always be argued that other case studies would yield different results.Additionally, following the child’s lead as Tarman and Tarman suggest (by arranging field trips around play themes, for example) might simply be impossible practically, given the large numbers of children in any one class, and given limited funds. Also, their emphasis on observation before intervention might be less effective with children who have behavioural problems, for example bullying or attacking other children.Finally, they do not really discuss the extent to which their play training is different in kind to Isaacs’ free play, for example.

Others take a different approach to this issue. Strandell (1997) suggests that views of play have been polarised unnecessarily. Her article offers a new way to understand play, drawing upon constructivism and ethnographical approaches.On the one hand play is often seen as a “highly differentiated and separate activity” (Strandell 1977, p.446 ) which banishes children from the world inhabited by adults. On the other, adults see play as a way for children to learn activities they will need in adulthood, “play is treated as a supervised and curricularized activity” (p. 446). Strandell uses an ethnographic and relativist approach to overturn these polarities, arguing that reality is shaped through language which is in turn an expression of a shared social reality.Narrative plays a key part in her ideas. She also examines three case studies from day-care centres in Finland, suggesting that play as actually observed overturns the idea that it occurs in a world separate from the one experienced by adults, and which needs to be shaped by careful intervention. She believes this idea has been based upon observation rather than trying to understand how children play and what they want from it. Play is more often about social interaction than learning about the world, she suggests. Children use play as a tool to deal with social interactions and group identity. By rejecting the idea that the child’s world is radically different to the adults, it is possible to see a third approach to play in learning, one which looks at play activities with sensitivity to what is actually going on, rather than leading the play in order to develop adult skills in the children. Her article can be seen as a theoretical justification for the approach taken by Tarman and Tarman above.However, there are some issues with her papers. They are based upon case studies in Finland, so there is little evidence that her observations hold elsewhere in the world. The fragmentation upon which she bases here conclusions might be a contingency of the nurseries she visited, rather than typical of play in general Parker Rees and Willan suggest that many of her conclusions are to do with the specificities of education in Finland (Parker-Rees and Willan 2006). Additionally, she seems to overlook the extent to which play is, at times, an activity which is radically different from the world of adults, and the extent to which previous theorists have based their conclusions on observation of what actually happens in play. Despite these issues, Strandell seems to offer an important way to overcome the restrictions of thinking play should be wholely free or wholely structured, through offering insights int

5. Conclusion

The above has examined the different ways in which play, in relationship to learning, has been theorised. The view that adults can structure play and through this help a child learn has not only been embraced by the government in the UK over the last 10 years, it also has a solid theoretical backing in terms of work by Vygotsky and others. This view can be contrasted with the idea that play should be free, without adult intervention.This view also has a backing in theory, but has fallen from favour in terms of current policy. However, structured play is in danger of over-determining children’s activities in an attempt to prepare them for a future over-concerned with testing and assessment. A third approach, underpinned by ethnographic and constructivist approaches such as that put forward by Strandell (1997), offers a way for adults to engage with children’s play in a more sensitive and creative way which embraces fantasy and dramatisation (Tarman and Tarman 2011)

1. References

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American Psychologist, 47,46–54.

Bruce, T (1999) Time to play in early childhood education, Hodder and Stoughton, London

Department for Children Schools and Families (2008) The Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the Standards for Learning, Development and Care for children from birth to five’, HMSO, London

Freund, L (1990) ‘Maternal regulation of children’s problem-solving behavior and its impact on children’s performance’, Child Development, 61, 113-126.

Graham, J (2009) Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children, Karnac Books.

Isaacs, S (1930) Intellectual Growth in Young Children, Routledge, London

Isaacs, S (1933) Social Development in Young Children, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London

Isaacs, S. (1951) Social Development in Young Children, Routledge, London

Isaacs, S (1952) The Educational Value of the Nursery School, Headly Brothers Ltd, London

Isaacs, S. (1971) The Nursery Years: The mind of the child from birth to sixth years, Routledge, London

Langford, P E (2005) Vygotsky’s Developmental And Educational Psychology, Psychology Press, UK

Masters, B (2008) Steiner Education And Social Issues: How Waldorf Schooling Addresses the Problems of Society, Rudolf Steiner Press, USA

McLeod, S A (2007) ‘Vygotsky’, [online] (cited 20th April 2012) available from

Moore, A (2000) Teaching and Learning: Pedagogy, Curriculum and Culture, Routledge, London

Pellegrini, A (2008) ‘The recess debate: A disjunction between educational policy and scientific research’, American Journal of Play, 1, 2, 181–91.

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2000/Department for Education and Employment (2000). ‘Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage’, HMSO, London

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2000/Department for Education and Skills (2001). ‘Planning for learning in the foundation stage’, HMSO, London

Rawson, M and Rose, M (2002) Ready to Learn: From Birth to School Readiness, Hawthorn Press, Stroud

Santer, J and Griffiths, C (2007) ‘Free Play in Early Childhood: a literature review’, Play England, UK

Smilansky, S (1971) ‘Can adults facilitate play in childrenTheoretical and Practical Consideration’, Proceeding of a conference, Play: The Child Strives toward self-realization, p. 39-50. Washington, DC.

Smith, L A H (1985) To Understand and to Help: the Life and Work of Susan Isaacs(1885-1948), Associated University press, USA

Strandell, H (1997) ‘Doing reality with play: Play as a Children’s resource in organizing everyday life in daycare centres’, Childhood, 4, 445-464.

Stroh, K, Robinson, T and Proctor, A (2008) Every Child Can Learn: Using Learning Tools and Play to Help Children With Developmental Delay, SAGE Publications Ltd, Thousand Oaks, CA

Tarman, B and Tarman, I (2011) ‘Teachers’ Involvement in Children’s Play and Social Interaction’, Elementary Education Online, 10:1, 325-337

Tassoni, P (2006) Btec National Early Years Student Book (2nd edn.), Heinemann, London.

Vygotsky, L S (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA

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The Role of Play in Early Years Learning: is Structured Play the Best Option?. (2019, Mar 06). Retrieved from

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