Should Young Children Learn Through Play?

Deadly Nightshade

Not all of the products of nature are nourishing.

The earliest years of education are those which have been reformed the least. In secondary schools, there is a significant and growing movement in favour of strict discipline and formal instruction. Secondary school teachers are subject teachers, so it’s not so hard to convince them that subject knowledge should be foregrounded and children should have to listen to the expert in the room. But teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists. Primary school and preschool teachers tend to see themselves as teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.

Of course, understood correctly, there’s nothing wrong with considering oneself as a teacher of children. It would be worrying if any teacher did not say this, if we mean by it that we care about those we teach as human beings. It’s stating the obvious.

But when teachers say that they teach the child, not the subject, they often mean more than the obvious. They mean that education should be led by the child. They mean that they believe in what E D Hirsch calls ‘providential individualism’: the idea that if we allow individuals free and unfettered choices, then things will somehow work out for the best in the end. In other words, saying ‘I teach the child’ is frequently a confession of faith in the progressive creed that education must be child-centred, so that it can take its ‘natural’ course.

Because this is an article of mystical faith, and has no basis in the reality of growing up (how many children are potty trained through child-centred learning?), its adherents are fiercely resistant to alternatives, and tend to react with outrage and disbelief when someone says, for example, that basing education mostly around play is not the best way to introduce the very young to the wonderful world of knowledge outside their immediate experience. They tend to see any attacks on their creed as necessarily emanating from child-hating monsters.

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Even playing successfully requires formal instruction and an authority figure to enforce rules, if it is not to descend into the Lord of the Flies type experience I had at nursery school, which is still the most savage of my memories of ‘education’.

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.


32 thoughts on “Should Young Children Learn Through Play?

  1. In addition to all the knowledge that can be learned through the daily habits of listening to stories, poems and songs, a child also learns to concentrate. Training a child to sit still and listen is one of the most important jobs an EYFS reception year teacher can take on. As we all know, being able to sit still and concentrate doesn’t come naturally, and if a child appears to be able to do this ‘naturally’, it’s because they have been taught at home, so it behoves us to give disadvantaged children the same chance.

    First we must learn to listen
    Then we can listen to learn

    Liked by 4 people

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  3. I cannot see the argument here. I visit lots of early years settings and see children listening to stories, learning poems and songs and going much further than making their first attempts at drawing. The key thing in early years is about teaching these things in meaningful contexts. Learning through play is not about children running around doing whatever they want and I do not know any good early years practitioner who would argue that it is. Learning through play involves a lot of direct instruction, in the context of play. As a former Nursery and Reception teacher myself, I find it quite exasperating that this is how early years education is often represented by people who do not work in the field. It’s the equivalent of me saying that traditional teaching in secondary school is about sitting children down in rows and making them chant facts all day. We will never move things on in education if we continually misrepresent practice in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Firstly, seeing the results of early education over my years as a secondary teacher. Secondly, as a parent. I’m very pleased to report that I don’t even have a secondary PGCE, let alone a primary one. You can read about my views on the state of teacher training elsewhere on the blog.


      • Glad that’s settled!

        You talk about subject specialists but what you miss entirely in this post is that quality EY practitioners are subject specialists in early childhood development, a subject that it still appears you have no knowledge og. There is a whole, evidence-based field that informs what goes into quality EY pedagogy, whether you like it or not.

        I recommend some to you in the blog post above.


      • Actually, I make exactly that point. The younger years are dominated by those who consider themselves experts in children rather than academic subjects. This means that the general progressive tendency is more intense and more fiercely defended. And your comments have amply exemplified my point. Thanks for that!


      • Early childhood development is not shorthand for “idolising children” it is an academic subject in it’s own right that covers neuroscience, biology, physical and cognitive development and much more.

        Stepping away from this masochistic back and forth unless you can provide any actual evidence that a more “academic” approach to early years is beneficial in the long run. I provided some in my blog that argues my point that you have yet to engage with at all.


  4. “Even playing successfully requires formal instruction and an authority figure to enforce rules,…hen there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing”

    I wonder what you think EYFS teachers do all day. There’s more to child-centred education than sitting back and letting them get on with it. Good Early Years education is steeped in research. You might like to refer to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development; Bruner’s scaffolding of learning or EPPE Project work on sustained shared thinking
    Finally, I would argue that teachers in all phases should be teachers of children; that’s not to say that learning happens without direct instruction but that we are aware of each child’s prior learning and next steps and have a variety of strategies to meet their needs and guide their learning.


  5. I have a B.Sc (Hons) in cognitive and social psychology and would condider Vygotsky, Bruner and the research below “well replicated findings” and not at all flaky.
    What is EPPE?
    The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project is the first major European longitudinal
    study of a national sample of young children’s development (intellectual and social/behavioural) between
    the ages of 3 and 7 years. To investigate the effects of pre-school1
    education for 3 and 4 year olds, the
    EPPE team collected a wide range of information on over 3,000 children, their parents, their home
    environments and the pre-school settings they attended. Settings (141) were drawn from a range of
    providers (local authority day nursery, integrated2
    centres, playgroups, private day nurseries, maintained
    nursery schools and maintained nursery classes). A sample of ‘home’ children (who had no or minimal
    pre-school experience) was recruited to the study at entry to school for comparison with the pre-school
    group. In addition to investigating the effects of pre-school provision on young children’s development,
    EPPE explores the characteristics of effective practice (and the pedagogy which underpin them) through
    twelve intensive case studies of settings with positive child outcomes.


    • Instead of saying ‘because Vygotsky’, could you actually explain why you believe play based learning is a better way for young children to acquire the knowledge and skills they need, compared to formal instruction?


      • I think the rezearch I have highlighted explains it perfectly well. I will use the worfs of Benjamin Franklin to close this discussion (I’m going on holiday)
        “Tell me and I forget.
        Show me and I may remember.
        Involve me and I learn.”


  6. I have read your blog though not the comments.

    I agree with your linking of ‘teaching the child’ etc being wrong…but for the everyday person I think we can simplify it further. Start with the content NOT the child. Every nursery child should learn x, y or z, regardless of whether they initially appear interested or whether it can be incorporated into play. Secondly, seperate learning and play. Teach the nursery kids and then send them outside to play. Take all the books out of the sandpit, the pencils out of the farm tray and the numbers from the grass. Put the pencils on tables, balancing beams on the grass and and leave the farm animals in the tray. Just cut out the play middle man – do some teaching and then sit down in the sunshine as the children go out to play.

    If you speak to many (though not all) nursery teachers in their 50s they’ll tell you that they did writing, numbers, colouring in, crafts, stories, poems etc in a reasonably traditional manner (at least in comparison to this ‘it doesn’t count unless it is child-led stuff today) before the advent of the EYFS framework. These teachers were hounded out of classrooms as children were given the power to initiate their own learning. Ah well.


    • I think the problem stems from a focus on the dictionary definition of play i.e rest, relaxation, free time etc and the EYFS understanding of play in an educational setting. I prefer ‘learning through experience’. However, I would never rely on one model. Effective teaching requires a range of strategies . BTW I am a teacher in my 50’s, a deputy head who has just gained NPQH and former nursery nurse who has learned the most through doing, just like the children I teach!


  7. Oh and if you can point me in the direction of research in to the role of the table/desk in effective teaching/learning I’d be interested in reading it.


  8. 🙂 I’ve just read the comments – and they are very funny! 🙂

    Reading in the sandpit – I’d rather they were playing in the sandpit! Why can’t the children just play? Why? Let them play!

    This is an excellent article on the ‘specialism’ that is the Early Years Foundation Stage:

    I particularly like the start of paragraph 4, ‘For a start, objective one is meaningless. From an individual’s point of view, any section of a life is unique. And to write that early years are considered ‘merely a preparation for school’ only shows the authors’ low opinion of schools.’


  9. Some comments here are really really funny. I guess they weren’t supposed to be but research on the value of sitting up at a desk vs doing phonics/handwriting on the carpet…

    I’m going to come back to this thread when I need a laugh.


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