Play is great, except when it isn’t.

So, Tom Bennett and Tim Taylor have recently written about the use of ‘play’ as a medium for learning in the classroom and I thought I’d wade in. Tom’s position was that play is great for rehearsing what is already known by that child at the time, or for experimenting with everyday knowledge (like: sand falls through your hands), but not for learning how to read, for example; these things need to be taught and require that children concentrate, practise and generally work hard (which children don’t want to do). Tim’s position was that if the teacher is involved in playing, then they can ‘nudge’ the play towards discovery learning, that play is hard work anyway and that we should be prioritising making children’s learning experiences interesting and engaging (rather than boring ‘straight’ lessons) which means elevating play as a medium for learning in the classroom.

I’d like to bat the ball back with a few points from my point of view.

Before I begin, I should probably put this statement in: I think play is very important for children and I actually argue for more opportunities for children to be given the freedom to get bored, run around, climb on things and play games with friends. Children play even into their teens and we should give them space in their lives to do that. This means we, the adults, need to limit those computer games and instead choose to boot the children outside. In order for children to be able to go outside, we, the adults, need to ensure that there are enough safe open spaces and parks for children to play in and we need to ensure that our roads are safe enough for children to cross so that they can walk to said parks. We also need to shout very loudly about the fact that, while certain sections of the relatively wealthy population are given rights to hold on to a huge family home at the taxpayer’s expense, our youngest generations face housing insecurity and terrible housing conditions. How anyone can think it right that a young family should have to live in a one bedroomed, bed-bug infested flat with no safe outside space to play (or even room inside to play with siblings), paying extortionate rent such that they can’t even feed themselves properly is beyond me.

Remember these?

Now let’s get back to the classroom where futures can be made or destroyed.

I’m against the use of play as a priority medium of learning in schools because it is grossly unfair to disadvantaged children. Here are the reasons:

Firstly, play is incredibly noisy. Those who arrive at reception year not speaking at all or with poor vocabulary and enunciation should not be condemned to have their lack of speaking and listening skills entrenched simply because Jemima and Jonte love to role play being veterinary surgeons. The children who can’t speak need to hear the best sentences, phrases and words and with the best enunciation; this means the teacher needs to be teaching (and this could be simply reading a lovely story and explaining things along the way) and no, working with a group while the rest of the class hoof it up in the role play areas is not good enough. There needs to be a super quiet and calm backdrop, just like those advantaged children get to experience at home when Mummy and Daddy read them a lovely story and explain what everything means.

The above point also reminds me that we really need to ensure that the teachers in reception year, or even in nurseries, need to be very well-read and confident mathematicians so that the disadvantaged children get to experience the erudition that matches what advantaged children experience at home from their well-educated parents. I think many young educators in particular are unaware that the parents of advantaged children will quite happily talk about CERN at the dinner table, or even talk about the mating characteristics and genetics of snail populations when pottering about in the garden (hell I know I have!), yet teachers insist on bringing the level of conversation down with limited vocabulary and ‘relevant’ topics in the classroom.

Secondly, play as a medium for learning is incredibly inefficient. Those disadvantaged children need to catch up, not fall behind, but if ‘learning through play’ were instigated for them, then we risk that they might not learn anything at all (particularly if they lack the vocabulary and general knowledge to access what Jemima and Jonte have rustled up) or even worse the wrong thing.

Thirdly, a teacher can only ‘play’ with a small group of children at a time. So, while the teacher is getting excited that Jemima and Jonte have asked for clipboards and hardhats so that they can pretend to be health and safety supervisors at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the disadvantaged children have resorted to arguing with each other, or experimenting with life-physics by stress-testing the lego area with a toy hammer. OK, so these are extreme examples of free play, but even if you use the examples of guided play whereby the teacher has set up different stations where children play ‘maths’ or ‘writing’ using the number bonds or phonemes taught first thing in the morning, the teacher cannot be at every station at the same time ensuring that 100% of the children are on the right track. Maybe the teacher could take the time to explain the purpose of each station? That would take ages and just imagine if all that time explaining ‘how to play at the maths station’ could be used to actually teach?

Finally, if play-learning is such hard work, then why not expend all that energy efficiently? Research shows that the most efficient way of teaching and learning is through the use of explicit instruction. But wait, this means the children would need to sit and listen which is surely too much for their little bodies? I see no problem with this and it’s what Jemima and Jonte are expected to do at the dinner table anyway: not being allowed to talk over the adults and to listen carefully. Why not give disadvantaged children this opportunity to develop self-control, concentration and listening/questioning skills?

So, instead of play as a go-to medium of learning, let’s have play as a medium of play (or a reward for working hard) and teaching as the main, equitable medium of learning.

Who’s with me?


6 thoughts on “Play is great, except when it isn’t.

  1. The idea of ‘learning through play’ recalls the quote from Thomas Sowell that I have printed and framed just over my desk:

    “Vitually no idea is too ridiculous to be accepted, even by very intelligent and educated people, if it provides a way for them to feel special and important.”

    The ‘natural’ learning valued by progressive educators ever since Rousseau is qualitiatively different from the learning that distinguishes civilisation from savagery. The former is instinctive to all humans; the latter is the distilled wisdom of the best minds humanity has produced. It cannot be transmitted without conscious and quite deliberate effort. Here’s one of the most useful links I’ve found for quite a while:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Work while you work;
    Play while you play.
    This is the way
    To be happy each day.

    All that you do,
    Do with all your might.
    Things done by half
    Are never done right.

    Theodor Adorno called this the ‘rule of repressive self-discipline’. But then he was part of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxists who resolved to make Western culture so corrupt that it would ‘stink’ and be ripe for revolution.


  3. The problem is that you have not understood how vital it is that young children develop their expressive language skills as well as their receptive language skills. This is best done through play. EYFS teachers use all kinds of learning experiences (play, small group work 1:1 reading / maths, small group work). A balance is needed to ensure well rounded, well educated young children.


    • ‘develop’ implies something is already there to work with . The post clearly states that teaching is best for learning new concepts and it is new concepts that disadvantaged children desperately need.


      • I’d be very curious to see any serious research that demonstrates that very young children develop expressive (or indeed receptive) language skills more effectively when they are playing than when they are answering teacher’s questions about new skills and concepts.

        Let’s face it–they are only in class for at most 25 hours each week, and assuming they get ten hours sleep every night, that still leaves them with 73 waking hours which are mostly available for play. As Quirky says, kids who are starting out behind in life can’t afford to squander any of their classroom time on activities which have not been proven to produce cognitive growth.

        It’s not like learning to read and calculate are all that difficult to learn if they are competently taught, nor is there any reason why learning great literature or the history of mankind and how great minds have shaped the world should be anything less than enthralling.


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