How (NOT) to Learn through Play

“Play: to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose”

According to Ofsted, this is what learning through play looks like. In the first video, the teacher presents the children with ready made police hats, then she takes them outside to search for animal pictures on cards. When they find the animals, they must sound out the word: sh – ee – p. The teacher plans the direction the learning will take; the children do not have any input. The teacher takes all the decisions; the children do not make any choices of their own. The teacher has a predetermined outcome for the activity; the children cannot move laterally from this objective. The teacher speaks a great deal; the children hardly talk at all. The children, we are told, do this to please the teacher (rather than to please themselves.)

This, then, is not ‘play’ in any shape or form. This is what I would call ‘adult directed learning’. There is nothing inherently wrong with adult directed learning, as part of a balanced diet of early years provision. However, you can often get to the same end result in a much more playful and play based way, usually by following the children’s lead (see my blog here). There are a number of potential disadvantages of a heavy focus on adult directed learning:

* The children’s interests are sidelined in favour of the adult’s objectives. (It’s important to note that this is not a statutory phase of education – the children are not here to be made ‘school ready’, they are here to be cared for, to have fun and to learn.)

* The opportunities for building decision making skills and independence are limited. The children do what the adult tells them to, with less chance to make choices of their own.

* There is no element of personal creativity or imagination involved in the activity. (What a missed art opportunity those police hats represent!)

* There is often little talk involved when the adult directs a large group, and therefore less chance for the process of sustained shared thinking to take place.

I’m sorry, Ofsted, but you cannot just stick a police hat on a child, set all the rules of the game, tell the children exactly what to do, and then call it ‘play’. Play is messy, joyful, creative, child led, imaginative, risky. It is about defining yourself, your relationship to your peers, and to the world in which you live. It is a fundamental part of the way in which young children develop. And children tend to laugh a lot when they are doing it. Therefore, I conclude that these videos are not an example of ‘learning through play’. They are a demonstration of ‘direct instruction for tiny children’.

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6 Responses to How (NOT) to Learn through Play

  1. whatonomy says:

    You make a very important point here. Often activity types are defined against a stereotype of teacher-led instruction. According then to Ofsted, anything that is in some way “playful” could be misconstrued as play. As a result children miss out on self-directed learning opportunities.

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  2. katieaplin says:

    I also found it hard to believe that children made progress within that session – for Ofsted to grade a lesson any more than RI – children must learn something and make visible and measurable progress – weren’t these children just rehearsing what they knew and proving to the teacher and inspector they had been taught it – where was the new learning? Obviously there is a place for rehearsing just surely not in an ‘ofsted’ exemplar lesson…

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  3. Philosophy graduate says:

    This really is a complex one. what is play? what is progress? exactly.

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