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National Practice Guidance on Early Learning and Childcare

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Section 4: What do we mean by play and learning?

4.1 How are play and learning connected?

In June 2013 the Scottish Government published the first National Strategy for Play[31]. This is defined as follows: "play encompasses children's behaviour which is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. It is performed for no external goal or reward and is a fundamental and integral part of healthy development which seeks to improve play experiences for all children."

Early years practitioners value how young children play and, if asked, almost always link play and learning together. Some theorists emphasise that when playing, children try out ideas and come to a better understanding of thoughts and concepts as they play; others see play as a means of children coping with reality through using their imagination; and, others see play as a means to practise new skills. All of which are valid.

The challenge for us when we think about play is that it can be misinterpreted as being "just play" and the intrinsic value of what a child is actually doing, can be missed or ignored and therefore seen as less valued. It is both a tricky word and complicated concept to define.

Additionally, when children are engaged in what practitioners would say as free-flow play this too can be perceived as less meaningful than a planned activity. The challenge that practitioners face is that at times they feel uncomfortable about letting natural play evolve and tend to want to over-direct play. Tina Bruce describes 12 features of free-flow play to help staff understand the level of deep engagement in learning which children show while they play. For example, in their play children use the first hand experiences they have had in life. Children rehearse their future in their play[32]. But there is a balance where we need to raise the profile of play and also to deepen an understanding for practitioners in supporting play experiences with children.

In a recent paper Pedagogy: The Silent Partner in Early Years Learning[33] Christine Stephen, University of Stirling, discusses a number of challenges surrounding play and importantly strengthens the arguments that play is an essential aspect of early years learning. She highlights the role of the practitioner as being of critical importance if young children are going to extend their thinking, widen their skills and consolidate their learning in play.

So what should a practitioner do?

  • Be aware of the immediate environment; be flexible in offering choices and carefully select resources which capture interest to create moments which spark children's play.
  • Have in mind what individual children's current interest may be and provide props and spaces both inside and outside where children can play.
  • Step in to conversations and play situations to ask a probing question, such as: What would happen if... and then know the moment to stand back to allow children to find out for themselves.
  • Give children unspoken acknowledgement by smiling, nodding in approval to provide children with quiet unassuming support.
  • Be aware of what children are doing to encourage deeper levels of engagement and help create other options through asking questions such as I wonder if… which in turn help children to work out their own theories.

4.1.2 Case Study: Jamie's Nest

Jamie excitedly arrives in nursery carefully holding a shoebox which he is reluctant to put down. His enthusiasm spills over to a group of others and soon there is a cluster of children eager to see what is inside. His practitioner realises that Jamie needs time and space to share his "find" with others so suggests a quieter area of the playroom for Jamie and his friends to sit down and talk about what is in the box. The children are eager to do this. Jamie controls the group by saying they need to sit back and be careful as he opens the box and takes out a blackbird's nest. There are exclamations from all the children and a rich and deep conversation begins about the nest. Where did he find it? How did it fall from a tree? How did he know it was a blackbird's nest? Where is the blackbird now? Jamie is able to tell his friends what a blackbird looks like because he looked at pictures in a book. The keyworker keeps a note of what children are asking but does not control the situation. The children discuss where birds build nests and want to investigate outside for themselves.

Putting the guidance into practice

  • In the case study what learning is taking place for the children? What might you do to move this learning forward? What does this scenario tell you about how children learn in this setting?
  • In the case study what skills does this practitioner show?
  • What possibilities does this situation offer for further development? What would you do? Have a look at what you are providing in terms of areas and resources? Do they encourage children to play freely?
  • How would you go about recording children's learning, what use do you make of this information and who would you share this with?
  • How can you best make record keeping manageable at the same time as making sure it is focused on supporting children's progress?

4.1.3 Case Study: Ella's Story

Ella is 4 years old and has a lifelong condition which means she will always be in a wheelchair. She is a bright lively little girl interested in the world around her and enjoys the company of other children. Ella's condition will probably mean that communication, language and literacy may be a problem as she gets older.

Ella has recently started nursery which she really enjoys - most of the time. The nursery has recently created a new outdoor area and have engaged parents and carers in the whole process from design to completion. Everyone is really proud of this achievement. Children are using the space every day and it is clear there are many benefits for their learning. The pathways in the garden are made of small stones which unfortunately mean Ella's wheelchair cannot move - she gets upset as she cannot move freely around. This is becoming a daily issue for Ella and she is beginning not to want to come to nursery.

  • What are the key issues here for this little girl and her family?
  • What possibilities does this situation offer for further development?
  • What would you immediately do to help Ella? What could you plan to do next week? How would you involve the family?
  • What other support or advice would you access?