Grant holder
Dr Kate Smith, Canterbury Christ Church University
Project status

Expanding understandings of young children’s mark-making, drawing and writing within self-initiated play

Research looking at how Froebelian ideas of play could support children’s engagement with mark-making, drawing and writing.

Project summary

This was a longitudinal study over the period of one year which set out to explore how Froebelian ideas of play, as ‘creative self-activity and spontaneous self-instruction’ (Lilley, 1967 p.92), could support children’s engagement with mark-making, drawing and writing.

There were two main research questions posed:

  • How do playful pedagogical practices based upon Froebelian principles support children’s mark-making, drawing and writing?
  • How are teachers able to listen with care to children’s ‘playful writing’ activities in reception classrooms?

The intention was to provide empirical evidence that showed how the application of Froebelian principles within playful pedagogical practices may help develop opportunities for children’s mark-making, drawing and writing in school.

The research participants were a group of six reception teachers, who met monthly to develop a ‘community of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) over the period of a year. The group’s activities provided a space for participants to engage in reflective dialogue with each other about their pedagogical practice, and critically explore ways in which they were able to listen to children in co-constructing a deeper understanding of children’s multiple meaning-making, creativity, imagination and connection to the world within playful writing activity.

This proposed a way of researching with teachers where knowledge was formed from within, a fundamental Froebelian principle (Hargreaves et al 2014), and also recognised the importance of teachers’ empowerment through collaboration within professional learning communities (PLCs) which have the potential to influence school cultures and policies (Caena, 2011).

Planned outcomes of the project

  • To examine teachers’ personal beliefs, expectations and values around mark-making, drawing and writing, and to consider how their own writing experience and writing identity frame these ideas
  • To create an expansive discussion with practitioners about play, mark-making, drawing and writing beyond curriculum requirements
  • To develop a shared understanding of ‘playful writing’ activity, co-constructed between children and adults
  • To articulate a professional voice with teachers that advocates the importance of young children’s play and mark-making, drawing and writing within school environments
  • To develop a sustainable network of teaching professionals who are able to advocate mark-making, drawing and writing practices within playful pedagogical practices into the future

Key findings

Teachers’ personal beliefs around mark-making, drawing and writing
The teachers talked of the importance of identifying shared professional values from which to begin to define playful writing. They hadn’t considered how play and writing came together in any great depth before being involved in the project, but the opportunity for reflection within the group allowed them a chance to recognise their shared values.

By exploring the question of ‘What is Writing?’ as they considered their own and each other’s practices, the teachers identified writing as the recording of signs and symbols which were used by children as a tool for communication. There was a general consensus within the group that writing had an important social function. It was an essential means to participate as a social player in the world, and that the meanings assigned to writing are derived from its function as a socially literate practice (Street, 2013). This suggests that the teachers valued writing, not as a technical skill, but as a device through which children are able to announce their presence and be part of wider society.

There was an appreciation that writing was essentially a desirous activity for young children. A perspective which privileged the children’s individual motivation, and resembles the Froebelian principle that recognises ‘the uniqueness of every child’s capacity and potential’. In valuing children’s self-directed writing, and the child’s unique voice as a catalyst for this, the question was then raised about what the teacher’s role was in supporting writing in play-based environments. There was a concern about tampering with the child’s written expression and how they may have a negative affect on the child’s autonomy and self-sufficiency. In earlier discussions they agreed that their role as early years’ teachers was to observe and encourage, rather than to intervene, and there was discomfort in having to do both.

Discussion with practitioners about playful writing beyond curriculum requirements
During the meetings Froebel’s principles were explored, theories of writing and play were introduced, and recent research in the field was shared. A Facebook group was set up to continue the conversation, share practices and resources, and to provide further links and information. This virtual group was not used by the teachers, despite encouragement to engage. The reasons cited were due to not having enough time outside of the classroom, and although they recognised that extra information was useful, they felt that they already had an abundance of advisory and recommended reading to support their role. There was a lack of interactivity, and immediacy in using the Facebook group as a communication tool, compared to the co-constructive dialogically based meetings which were well attended and positively evaluated.

Through all of the meetings the importance of the role of the adult was a recurring theme. One teacher described what they did with children in their classroom as ‘seed planting’, correlating with Froebelian notions of the adult as nurturer and the child as having pathways of natural development. Another spoke of the sensitivity she needed to ‘know when to skip in or out’ of children’s play. Surprisingly, the Froebel principle of, ‘the right of children to protection from harm or abuse and to the promotion of their overall well-being’ was selected by one teacher as an important starting point in how she supported children’s playful writing, arguing that adults should protect children’s rights to be free from judgements about their writing that may affect their happiness, and therefore motivation to write.

Shared understanding of ‘playful writing activity’ between children and adults
The teachers were able to agree that young children’s playful writing activity could be identified as having distinct features. These features were able to be shaped into three characteristics: social function, spontaneity and movement; and being with materials. These characteristics provide an insight into the qualities of playful writing as a feature of early childhood education. The teachers were also able to pinpoint two aspects of their role in supporting these characteristics. First by developing sensitivities to children’s play, and second by creating environments that encouraged and facilitated, or nurtured, playful writing opportunities.

Articulating a professional voice with teachers which advocates the importance of playful writing in school environments
The language of play in classrooms was a particularly interesting element of debate within the group. There was a recognition that the discourses of play – who articulates these, and how these change over time – framed the language used to describe play in the classroom. They accepted that the distinction between play and learning was entrenched in the primary school system, for example the division between time for play or ‘playtime’, usually outside, and work and learning, usually inside. Remarkably, even though the teachers placed a high value on play in the work they did with children, they all agreed that they avoided using the actual word play in their day-to-day interactions in school. Instead they used the terms ‘learning’, ‘discovery learning’ or ‘exploring’, as this was an acknowledgement of a more structured and purposeful description of play as an educational activity in line with work and learning,

‘If I am honest if I say ‘go and play’, the boys will probably run around or go on the bikes or fight, but if I say go and explore they think, ‘right I am going to find something out’, or do something exciting. So discovery and exploration gives a bit more structure to children then going hell for leather’.

Sustainable network of teachers to advocate playful writing in the future
On completion of the project the teachers were still communicating and getting together regularly to share practices. It is not clear, however, if this was as a result of their work on the project, or as an extension of their working practices within the rural alliance of schools that they are part of. The evaluations that they gave of the project have provided some evidence of the usefulness to them of it. For example, one teacher said,

‘I’ve enjoyed sitting down, taking myself out of the daily… it really helps to reflect…to have informed conversations’

And by the end of the project the group advocated the need to work with Key Stage One teachers to develop a shared definition of playful writing and advance the importance of ‘tuning into’ children through careful observation.

‘I am much more aware of looking more closely at what children are doing, now I want to share this with Key Stage One’

Conclusions and recommendations

In an education climate where externally created models of literacy teaching are becoming increasingly normalised, the professional autonomy of teachers appears to be decreasing. At the same time, play pedagogy within reception classes has become a contested area. Ofsted’s latest report Bold Beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools (2017) has caused a justified amount of concern within the early years sector. Its seeming failure to recognise the value of play and playfulness as a means to support confidence and dispositions to learn, and a focus on the transcription skills of writing, rather than children’s foundational language and composition, suggest a wilful ignorance towards developmental understandings of childhood and appropriate pedagogical approaches (TACTYC, 2017).

However, the findings from this research demonstrate that a group of teachers who have been given time to reflect and question practices have created a very different account of teaching and learning in a reception class. Unlike Bold Beginnings, their version of writing pedagogy demonstrates a sophisticated and values-based approach to the teaching of young children. They were able to conceptualise playful writing and identify its characteristics that could then be communicated with others to support children’s interests. It should be recognised that these findings are based on a small sample of teachers, who appeared confident in their play practices with children and demonstrated a firm grasp of play pedagogy from the get go. If the sample had included less experienced, less confident teachers then the findings may have been different. Nevertheless, there is reason to think that any teacher who dedicates themselves daily to building relationships, observing, conversing with, and playing alongside young children will have a rich knowledge of the pedagogical practices that support the potential of each child in their care. This expertise needs to be recognised by policy makers and regulatory bodies.

Research documents

Final Research Report The Playful Writing Project Kate Smith Jan 2018