Early Years Learning

Co-leaders: Dan Lea, Gearies Infants School
Critical Friend:
Maureen Hart, LA



www.mudandtoes.blogspot.co.uk  is a space we have created over the years to share our ideas, concerns, successes, research and progressive learning journeys. Not only among our network, but also with a wider audience. This space compliments others we have created which include:This networks research projects have focused on the role of adult engagement in children’s play. This network will look to support leaders in each of the schools in the act of sharing the knowledge they created last year with a much wider audience, sharing messages and implications connected with best practice.

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This year the network will be looking to:

  1. Publish the findings of the research projects conducted in 2011/2012
  2. Share the findings of the research projects conducted in each school across the network and to wider audiences
  3. Re conduct each research project in a new setting, widening the diversity and sample size of the children and practitioners engaged in each study and therefore increasing each study’s validity.
  4. Create a Professional Learning Community that communicates a clear understanding of theoretical learning and personal belief in our research’s worth.
A Rationale for this networks bid

In the UK, current policy interventions in childhood are, conceived by Moss and Petrie (2002) as ‘Technical and disciplinary undertakings, concerned with regulation, surveillance and normalisation, instrumental in rationality and purpose. The potentially diverse ethical and political imagination of the nursery becomes a purely technical question: ‘what works?’ (Moss and Petrie, 2002. pg. 2).

Fielding (2001) identifies how a managerial discourse of ‘best practice’,’ investment’ and ‘excellence’ has come to permeate preschool education, ‘deadening’ (Fielding, 2001) the nursery in the process. Fielding (2001) has remarked, in the nursery:

‘There seems to be no place for either the language or experience of joy, of spontaneity, of life lived in ways that are vibrant and fulfilling rather than watchfully earnest, focused and productive of economic activity’ (Fielding, 2001. pg. 9).

Moss (2002) is dismayed not simply by the joylessness of current educational policy, but with its imposed limits. “All the talk is of ‘meeting potential’, (Moss, 2002) such that ‘potential’ can be predetermined, measured in advance; there is nothing of exceeding potential, of creativity and experimentation with the unknown” (Moss, 2002 in Ward, 2005. Pg. 11). Moss (2002) laments: ‘It seems to me that we don’t allow any possibility of new things happening … All we will do is have a kind of template and check whether children fit into it” (Moss,2002 in Ward, 2005 pg. 11).

This network holds strong to the view that…the antidote is to take a few risks…

“First hand experience is perhaps the most important foundation stone in discovering who you really are, and what you might become. Without huge dollops of it, encouraged and nurtured, but rarely directed, we can never become more than the sum of other peoples lives, experienced at second hand…the antidote is to take a few risks, and let the mud squidge through your toes from time to time.” (Tim Smit)

Barriers to play practice

The research of Howard (2010) identifies how parental attitude, inadequate training and understanding, pressures to evidence learning outcomes and the availability of physical resources are four key barriers to the implementation of play into practice. This study extensively references the research of Johnson (1994); McMullen and Alat (2002); Cohen (2006); Cheng and Stimpson, (2004) and Mcinnes, et al (2009) who all also observe that the psychological barriers to play practice include practitioner knowledge and understanding of play, parental attitudes and related feelings of confidence in play practice. Howard (2010) argues that while ‘play’ featured in previous curriculum documentation and was advocated most notability not only in The Plowden Report (Department of Education and Science, 1967) but also in The Education of Children under Five recommendations (Department of Education and Science, 1989) and the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (Department for Education and Employment, 2000) for a variety of reasons, legislative emphasis on play as a valuable context for learning has not necessarily guaranteed its implementation. The literature of Wood and Attfield (2005) support this view by also suggesting that there is a discrepancy between theoretical, legislative and pedagogical perspectives. Whilst legislation places play at the centre of the curriculum for the early years, Wood and Attfield (2005) argue that most notably the increased guidance and administration relating to the evidencing of learning objectives, has in fact moved schools towards delivering more narrowly defined curriculums, ones that meet the issues presented to schools by the need to present accountability and measured attainment. Blatchford (2004) further observes how many schools are now extending more formal curriculum objectives into reception and nursery classes in order to increase the possibility of achieving good results.

With regards to the barrier of, “Parental Influence” the practitioner responses in the research of Howard (2010) and the literature of Wood and Attfield (2005) and Blatchford (2004) support the concerns raised by Stevenson (2011), the main priority for the parents is success communicated to them through high attainment scores in the Foundation Stage Profile.

Contrary to previous research projects (BERA, 2003), Howard’s (2010) research discovered that practitioners in this study held an active role in children’s play, but, this role was generally described as that of the facilitator, with very few practitioners in this study described as actually playing with the children. McInnes (2009) writing in connection to this finding observes how a pedagogy of play relies on an adults valuing of children’s own initiated play and that play in its purest forms raises the possibility of children engaging in types of play for which practitioners are not always theoretically prepared. Howard’s (2010) research discovered that while one third of the practitioners engaged in this study received no training in play at all, the levels of barriers to play practice reported reduced with increasing levels of practitioner’s theoretical knowledge. This consideration of low theoretical knowledge as a barrier to practitioner participation in play is identified in the literature of McInnes (2009); Wood and Attfield (2005); Blatchford (2004); Holland (2003); Rich (2009); Jarvis (2007) and Jones (2002). This literature presents a shared argument that if practitioners and teachers were more engaged in theoretical discussion around the value of supporting children’s autonomously created play then their perceived barriers to engaging in challenging choices of play maybe reduced.

The need for playful practitioners

Regardless of curriculum guidance for the Foundation Stage (QCA/DFEE, 2003) and Birth to Three Matters (DFES, 2002) in England which emphasizes the value of play for young children, as discussed, children experience fewer opportunities to play in part because of an emphasize on formal learning and target setting. (Moyes, et al. 2003). The research of Sylva et al. (2003), which is acknowledged as one of the most significant longitudinal studies to be conducted in England, leaves practitioners with little doubt about the value of high quality play based experiences in settings staffed with qualified adults. The study found that warm interactions with adults are vital to children’s intellectual development, as is “sustained shared thinking” (Blatchford, 2004) between adults and children.

There is a need for this network to promote the concept of playful practitioner. Csikzentmihalya (1996) has likened the absorptions and sense of total involvement that characterises children’s involvement in sustained bouts of play to a “flow” state, observing, as does Blatchford (2004), that adults can recapture this, “flow” state, by engaging with children in play contexts that allow the learner the autonomy and freedom to experiment without fear of expensive or potentially embarrassing error. As Bruner (1972) wrote: “Play provides an excellent opportunity to try combinations of behaviours that wouldn’t be tried under functional pressure.” (Bruner, 1972. Pg. 82). While Vygotsky’s (1978) literature challenges Csikzentmihalya’s (1996) argument that adults should engage within this “Flow” State, identifying that children need to set their own agenda’s and levels of challenge so what they are doing is always developmentally appropriate, autonomy in the purest sense of the word, Guha (1988) argues that the element of adult participant within autonomously created play is particularly significant. Guha’s (1988) view is further supported by the literature of Smith (1990); Manning and Sharp (1977) and Moyles (2006). Their extensive reviews on evidence relating to the discussions of structured and unstructured play conclude that sensitive adult intervention can usefully enhance the intellectual challenge of play mainly by opening up new opportunities and possibilities for further child autonomy over the plays developing narrative.

Practitioner engagement within children’s play choices provides them with the potential to, “liberate the child’s voice” (Moyles, 2006, pg. 72) providing the adult with the tools they need to help the child transform themselves and understand their world, a view notably shared by Vygotsky (1976). Bolton (1979) further argues that it is the function of the teacher to enable the children to reflect on the significance of their play in order to learn from it. Singer and Singer (1990, pg 152) suggest “Imaginative play is fun, but it the midst of the joys of making believe, children may also be preparing for the reality of more effective lives” This range of literature raises concerns that by not developing “Playful Practices” adults in fact remove the opportunity for children to explore without feeling functional pressure, restrict the children’s experiences of intellectual challenge and reduce the opportunities we have to support children in preparing for the realities and complexities of modern life.

The creation of A Professional Learning Community in each of the networks schools.

This year, this network will look to identify ways of supporting practitioners and teachers overcome the barriers to play practice by increasing both the theoretical knowledge and practical play skills of those adults engaging in its activities.

This network will look to create Professional Learning Communities in each school, which will advocate the importance of a shared school culture towards play and a shared understanding of the need for playful practitioners.

This Professional Learning Community can communicate a clear understanding of theoretical learning and personal belief in its worth. A Professional Learning Community will have the ability to facilitate change within each of the network schools. Day et al (2000) observes how a Professional Learning Community provides a structure for learning change through which, “Revolutionary Change” (Day et al, 2000), change that challenges existing school cultures, can be developed. This view is supported by Taylor (2011) who observes how the development of an effective learning community empowers the school community to share and assist each member of the group in dealing with resistance to change.

A Professional Learning Community could create a common language regarding the importance of challenging a zero tolerance to certain children’s play choices and the need for playful practitioner’s schools. The research literature of Greene (1995) and Newman and Wehlage (1995) in Amato (2008) identifies how such a community for learning could challenge adults to look beyond the familiar, and move towards an understanding of what we can do to enhance practice by becoming more engaged in the children’s autonomously created play narratives. The creation of a Professional Learning Community will nurture a close cooperation and sharing of responsibility for the children’s learning between staff and an increased understanding of the children’s needs will lead to practice being amended by the learning communities collaboration and deeper understanding of how the children use play to support their learning and development. The creation of a Professional Learning Community to achieve this has the potential, as observed by Day et al, (2000), to establish within each school the right kind of climate to enable the change to be accepted, this view is shared by Bolam et al. (2005) in Hargreaves, Lieberman, Fullan and Hopkins (2010). It has the potential to create, “A community of reflective practitioners who together, are extending the knowledge and understanding of children’s learning processes.” (Broadhead, 2006, pg. 202)




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