Alison Hawkins, a headteacher at an inner city kindergarten in Edinburgh, Scotland makes the case for more play in primary schools.

Every year as summer fades, families prepare for their children to start, or return to, primary school. It has long been a tradition that new school uniforms and shoes are bought, that relatives join in the hype of ‘soon you’ll be at school – you will learn lots of things – you will get a reading book’, and children anticipate the great day with a mixture of excitement and fear-like wondering. Journalists jump on the commercial bandwagon and first day photos flood social media and local newspapers. Blogs abound with advice of ‘how to prepare your child for school’ or tips on ‘how to support your child’s reading development at home with phonic games’.

Perhaps though, in the 21st century, it is time to look again at this rite of passage for those moving from nursery settings to ‘big school’ and look at the contrast between what children leave behind in their traditional early childhood settings and arrive at in their primary classes.

The power of play

This is one of a series of articles from leading practitioners around the world exploring ideas about children's play.

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“Play is the highest level of human development...”


Learning through play

All animal young have a built-in ability to learn – it is called play.

Human beings all play; we play games, we play sports; we play at the sea, in rivers, at the park– with each other. The definitions and interpretations of ‘play’ are wide and diverse.

Children play as a natural way of being, and much research exists to support play as being the primary mode of learning. It involves physical activity - romping, running, climbing and risk-taking.

It involves becoming deeply engaged in an ‘activity’, be this imaginative play or construction with blocks or found materials; it can be solitary or happen in groups where negotiating skills and conversation are honed.

It allows children to replay experiences and try out roles, developing empathy and understanding along the way.

Why then is this evidenced gift so ignored by society?

The person to whom the term ‘kindergarten’ is attributed - Friedrich Froebel - summed this up as, “Play is the highest level of human development. It is the spontaneous expression of thought and feeling” (Froebel in Lilley, 1967, p.83).

As Froebel’s life and career developed – and it is worth recognising that he has been dead for 170 years – he formulated a set of principles upon which the best of Early Years practice is still based.

As well as viewing children as unique and competent, as curious and keen to explore and experiment, he regarded play as being of central importance to each child’s development. Today that remains true and bodies such as the Froebel Trust, Upstart and Give them Time freely share their pamphlets and articles further explaining this.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31, states that all children have a right to play and many nurseries nurture their children in exactly this way.

What is misunderstood by too many outside this environment, however, is how learning occurs through play.

There is no such thing as ‘just playing’

All playing is beneficial, but unrestricted play, allowed to develop over a length of time, is full of learning. Where educators and theorists may be failing is in getting that message across to parents and carers, to a wider society - and dare I say it - to some educationalists.

A Froebelian approach encourages children to be autonomous learners, questioning and learning with adult support – known in Froebelian circles as ‘freedom with guidance’.

This means, generally speaking, that children around the age of four and a half to five and a half transitioning from an early years setting to primary school are capable of self-motivation and indeed self-regulation. Why are they still, all too often, then expected to join a classroom where they may only move and speak when given permission? Where their day has become largely indoors and dictated? Where they are regarded as one of a class and not as a unique individual?

Why in the aftermath of COVID-19, where childhoods were hideously curtailed and children’s development stunted, are we not looking long and hard at what school offers and what school denies? Froebel urges us to consider that, “…education must be permissive and following, guarding and protecting only; it should neither direct nor determine nor interfere.” (Froebel in Lilley, 1967, p.51).

Tee's story

Should we need evidence that learning occurs through play let us look at this rising five-year-old, Tee, about to leave nursery, as they strive to build a moat around a precarious looking structure variously described as ‘the biggest castle in Europe…no, in the world’ and as ‘my granny’s house’! The structure has been developing over a few days and its architect has used gross and fine motors skills, developing a capacity for handwriting, which they have already tried out by scribing some labels including one that says, ‘keep out’.

The child has had many discussions with peers and a teacher consequently extending vocabulary and early reading skills, and has practised counting in twos as the parapets were constructed. There is an animation and enjoyment in the play and learning. The clothing worn is somewhat wet from the buckets of water used to try to fill the moat. But the teacher is told, "It won’t matter. My mum’s got a washing machine”, illustrating the confidence felt when sharing personal information with the adult who has co-constructed the relationship.

Six weeks on (despite positive progress in adopting ‘play based learning’ in some schools in the UK), Tee is constrained in a school uniform not designed for active play and is sat with a group of children who, when given the correct command, have to sort some buttons into twos. Our aforementioned architect and builder is rolling around, tired from sitting uncomfortably, and shouting out asking to be allowed to play. I just hope that this first-hand experience does not forever dampen the previously developing love for learning.

Scotland is taking a first bite at the cherry of examining what we could be doing for children. It has various policies, which aim to ‘get it right for all children’ and it has a flag-ship guidance document entitled, Realising the Ambition. This has been well received and used in nurseries but it also has much relevance to primary one, two and three classes, if time and finances only allowed. Moreover, several political parties are claiming that they will look at the question of raising the school starting age which would, in effect, allow a kindergarten stage for longer, but which will no doubt have some clamouring about losing ‘learning time’.

So, I return to where I started in this article – surely it is time for the knowledge we have to be shared and spread more widely. If those of us who understand learning through play don’t speak out, we stand rightly accused of not doing our best!

Further Reading

Education Scotland, (2020) Realising the Ambition: Being Me. (PDF)

Lilley, I. M. (1967). Friedrich Froebel: A selection from his writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child. Geneva: United Nations.

About the author

Alison Hawkins created this short article about her experiences of working with children and families and the power of play, during the Froebel Trust's Writing Workshop held in Summer 2022.

Alison is Headteacher at Wester Coates Nursery School - a kindergarten in Edinburgh, Scotland. She writes, "I am privileged to spend each day in the company of young children, as I have done for over fifty years. I am able to put into practice my beliefs of what makes a rich and happy upbringing. These beliefs are founded on Froebel’s principles – and I have found that a gentle, unhurried approach where children are valued, listened to, nurtured and encouraged, serves them well."

Alison also contributed a chapter to Putting Storytelling at the Heart of Early Childhood Practice which went on to win the Nursery World Award for best professional book of 2021.