Before critically examining play pedagogy and the curriculum, it is important to understand what ‘play’ is. Play is how children produce new learning through motivation, engagement and participation (Wood, 2013). Play is something that has been taken very seriously in recent years (Holzman, 2009 and Hughes, 2010), particularly by academics, teachers and staff who work with children in the Early Years. Vygotsky (1933/1978) agreed that play is a serious business and considered play to be a social learning activity. Broadhead (1997) discussed the deep learning potential of play after observing children create and solve problems together while working cooperatively.

Play or lack of play has also been discussed in relation to a person’s development not just during childhood but throughout life. Jones (2004) argued that play is necessary into adulthood, supported by Broadhead (2004) who claimed that play and playfulness are ‘lifelong activities’.

The definitions of play are vast and although it is essential for anyone who works with children to understand the importance of play, it can be argued that valuing a child’s play is significantly more important than understanding exactly what it is they are doing (Howard, 2010). Fleer (2009) described the benefits of being sensitive to the ideas, thinking and experiences that children have had and valuing their perspective.

Piaget (1951) discussed the importance of different types of play within developmental milestones; he suggested that different types of play are essential to support the progression through stages of development. Chazan (2002:198) complements Piaget’s development theory with his statement that ‘playing and growing are synonymous with life itself…[it] reflects the very existence of the self’. This would suggest that the ability to play is something that every child is born with and should be able to experience as an ecological activity. However, Wood (2013) argued that play is not a spontaneous, natural activity but a culturally influenced social practise: most children learn how to play with the support of skilled peers and adults. This reflects Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory (1978) where adults or more knowledgeable peers, extend and enable children to reach their Zone of Proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD characterises a child’s cognitive level of development prospectively, in comparison to the actual level of development which is characterised retrospectively (Vygotsky, 1978). Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2013) agreed with Vygotsky with their belief that play guided by adults should be at the forefront of preschool education.

The opposite to this notion of extending play is ‘free play’ which is described as the private world of children where they should have choice, ownership and control (Wood, 2013:99). This is where children retain the ability to choose their activities and focus without active guidance from a teacher, which is positively associated with socio-emotional development (Pagani, et al., 2010). Wood (2013) explained that interventions can be intrusive, particularly in situations where adults change the direction of play to lead towards a goal or ‘learning intention’. However, Bennett, Wood and Rogers (1997) gave evidence of episodes of play that would have been enhanced by adult involvement because of their ability to support problem solving, negotiation and cooperation which are characteristics of effective learning that are intended in the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE, 2014) to support the development of an independent child.


These variations of how children play differ in their plans, goals and involvement with adults. It can be argued that differing amounts of adult involvement can change the learning that happens through play. Fisher and Wood (2012) opposed the Vygotskian idea as they demonstrated that there are pedagogical challenges based on over involvement of adults, suggesting that there should be a balance between free play and adult led play. This can be viewed on a curriculum spectrum. The spectrum ranges from broad developmental goals with a more relaxed ‘social pedagogy’ approach to focussed cognitive goals in an ‘infant school approach’ (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010). Arguably, the EYFS falls in the middle of this spectrum, with broad developmental goals called ‘Early Learning Goals’ (ELGs). For example, Children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners’ needs…. The ELGs follow on from age related milestones in a ‘Development Matters’ (DfE, 2014) document which gives more focussed steps for children to progress through to achieve the goal.

Unfortunately, the ‘global race’ (Moss, 2012) for ‘quality’ education, which puts increasing pressure on practitioners to ‘perform’, arguably sends this ‘play based curriculum’ more towards the ‘infant school approach’. This can also result in ‘datafication’ (Roberts-Holmes, 2014) whereby early years’ teachers are driven to produce ‘appropriate’ assessment data, resulting in unwanted changes to pedagogical ideas, in order to meet high demands. These restraints on the teachers will be discussed further after critiquing play pedagogy in the curriculum.

Helen Gray – Institute of Education –  Masters Module  (2015)