Teaching and Play in the Early Years: What’s All the Fuss?

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Teaching and Play in the Early Years

In July 2015, Ofsted published their good practice survey, ‘Teaching and play in the early years – a balancing act?’ (150085). The build up to this publication made me expect some kind of mind-blowing revelation. In fact, I finished reading the booklet and felt first relief (that there wasn’t something I didn’t know about) and second a little confused that this needed to be said. I still find it a little frustrating that early years teachers and practitioners still feel in a swamp of conflicting information and the first piece of advice I try to offer early years teachers is to do what is right for the children they are responsible for.


Play in the Early Years

We all know from the Early Years Foundation Stage that play is essential for children’s development and learning; those teachers who experienced units of study on areas of child development and the science of play in their training will not be concerned about how this will look and why this is essential.

Unfortunately there are professionals who do not fully understand how this should look and what play does for children. A really great piece to read is, ‘Pedagogy in early childhood education and care (ECEC): an international comparative study of approaches and policies’ (DFE- RB400). This document talks about the strengths of the Early Years Foundation Stage as the English approach to early learning and also points out that research indicates that unguided free play is often less effective in stimulating early learning as compared to guided free play.


Researching & Planning Play in the Early Years

There are a number of things to consider when researching and planning for play:

  • First, we need play opportunities to support children’s understanding of their place in the world and how relationships might work. This was illustrated beautifully in the recent series, ‘The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds,’ on Channel 4.
  • Second, we need to fill in some of the experience gaps that some of our children have when they arrive at school. Please bear in mind that expecting children to demonstrate their own interests depends on the experiences they have had and that it is okay to guide their interests by introducing them to new ideas and experiences.
  • Finally, we need to ensure the play environment allows children to practise and apply the skills that we teach them in a purposeful way.

It is this final point that appears to cause difficulty and you will notice I use the word ‘teach’ here. I do not shy away from using this word in relation to the youngest children, as children who arrive at school with few experiences deserve the benefits of high quality and appropriate teaching.


The Early Years Environment

In some of the schools I have supported, the concept of ‘teach it, practise it and apply it’ has clarified this way of working. Staff have begun to be very focused on individual children and know which children need which skill.

Whether schools use objective led planning and take the learning to the children or other structures, children still need to be taught certain skills. Children must also be given the opportunity to apply their skills in a meaningful and contextualised way.

Teachers must think carefully about the environment and what they are providing for children.

Is it meaningful?

Will it allow exploration?

Does it give children chance to practise skills?

Is it learning in context so children can become absorbed in learning?

One of the best play based environments I have worked in contained a large proportion of role play based activity, enabling children to practise their learning in context. Other strategies for putting learning in context include, ‘Planning Through Quality Texts,’ by Ros Ferrara and, of course, the Early Years FS Learning Challenge Curriculum written by myself.


Teaching in Early Years

Sticking with this idea of ‘teaching’ in early years, I also appreciated Ofsted’s addition into their most recent version of the ‘School Inspection Handbook’ (150066) where they clarify the use of the word ‘teaching’ in relation to early years in footnote 61 (‘clarify’ and not ‘define’, as Ofsted do not offer a definition of teaching, as this would be implying there is a preferred way to teach).

It is interesting to unpick some of the terms used in this footnote. Ofsted say that teaching is a ‘broad term that covers the many different ways in which adults help children to learn.’ Ofsted go on to outline some of these ways like, ‘communicating and modelling language, showing, explaining, demonstrating, exploring ideas, encouraging, questioning, recalling, providing a narrative for what they are doing, facilitating and setting challenges.’

This should provide comfort for early years teachers that there are many different ways that the youngest children can be taught and there is certainly no preferred style of teaching. It is heartening to see that the Learning Challenge approach in the Early Years Foundation Stage also fully supports this model of learning in early years.

Those of you that use it will know that, as a starting point for learning, the LCC offers a very play based and developmental structure for teachers whilst supporting and encouraging the use of children’s interests and fascinations.


Child Focus

However, in the very best classrooms, children are known inside out by the staff who teach them. Staff know what they like and what will hook them into learning. Staff also know where knowledge is lacking and will provide experiences to support the acquisition of language, skills and knowledge to take the first steps to fill the gaps. The best teachers also talk to children about their learning as well as modelling, showing, and engaging in periods of sustained shared thinking. The research document published by the Department for Education earlier this year, ‘What makes great pedagogy and great professional development: final report’ (DFE- RR443C) [PDF], focuses very much on the child and advocates the use of ‘pupil voice’ activities to find out how best to teach children.

Great early years teachers continually assess children’s progress and plan clear opportunities for children to make further progress and embed knowledge using what children like, their interests and dispositions to learn and cleverly manipulating the environment to allow for deep learning. Staff also ensure they prepare children for the next phase in their education by establishing clear expectations, routines and boundaries.

So, teaching in early years is about knowing your children, knowing what makes them tick and how to hook them into learning, ensuring children are taught new skills, gain new knowledge and have the opportunity to practise and apply this knowledge in a contextualised and meaningful manner (play), providing a well-planned environment to ensure they can do this as well as explore and find out for themselves, and constantly assessing and planning for next steps.

Hang on, isn’t this just really great teaching no matter what year group you are in?


Continue the Conversation

You can browse more about Early Years through Focus Education’s website or stay tuned for more early years’ blogging. As ever, Focus Education is available for questions, comments and suggestions: email us using our contact form on the website or give us a call on 01457 821 818.

Related Publications

Early Years Toolkit

Early Years Leadership Toolkit

Planning for Rapid Progress in the Early Years Book

Planning for Rapid Progress in the Early Years

Progression Towards and Beyond ELG

Progression Towards and Beyond ELG

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