Play in schools: what we know, growing concerns, and a possible route forward

HomeThought LeadershipInsightPlay in schools: what we know, growing concerns, and a possible route...

Play in schools: what we know, growing concerns, and a possible route forward

By Nina Hood

Play and play-based learning currently are getting a lot of attention in education, particularly among primary teachers in New Zealand. Play-based learning also is engendering some strong reactions, from an almost evangelical belief that play is the only way to approach learning in primary schools to a complete dismissal of the whole notion.

What we know about play

Much of the research on play comes from the medical field and the early childhood education literature. There is strong agreement that play is critically important for children (and adults), providing opportunities for cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. There also is a considerable body of research showing the importance and age-appropriateness of play-based learning environments in early childhood education. The research further demonstrates the need for children to engage daily in free, unstructured play, and active outdoor play that involves elements of risk taking or risky play. However, much less is known about what this means for the place of play and pedagogies of play in schools, particularly New Zealand primary schools, the vast majority of which offer regular time during the school day at interval and lunch for children to engage in free play outdoors.

Concerns about the current push for play-based learning

Play-based learning remains concerningly under-theorised in the New Zealand context. This under theorisation is often combined with limited conceptualisations of play and how it is positioned within teaching and learning. Of particular concern is the approach to knowledge among schools embracing the growing trend towards completely (or very nearly) play-based environments. In such a scenario, while there typically is some time each day for selective and explicit teaching of smaller groups as well as strategically timed larger and/or whole-class activities, the majority of the day is spent in student-directed play, in which teachers adopt what is known as an intentional teaching approach. In such an approach,  teachers take the ideas being explored in a child’s play to promote and extend their learning.

There is nothing wrong with teachers taking an intentional role in children’s play. However, where it becomes more problematic is if this is the primary means through which content is taught in schools. The focus of children’s play is going to revolve around the knowledge they already hold. Therefore, it is possible in such an approach that children will have few opportunities to encounter and build understanding of knowledge beyond what they already hold and bring to school. Furthermore, because the knowledge base that individual children have is not equal (and children have very different access to what sometimes is referred to biologically secondary knowledge outside of school), it is quite possible that in such an approach some children will miss out on gaining essential knowledge. As knowledge is cumulative, and the amount of knowledge we hold impacts significantly both on our ability to engage in ongoing learning and our ability to engage in higher order thinking skills, a seemingly haphazard approach to the teaching of knowledge in schools is problematic.

A possible route forward

A collaboration between Harvard’s Project Zero, the International School of Billund (ISB) in Denmark and the LEGO Foundation is focused on developing a pedagogy of play in schools. Their work provides some useful ideas and approaches for thinking about the conceptualisation and place of play in New Zealand Schools.

They recognise the complexity and complicated nature of the constructs of play, playful, and learning, pointing out that “not all play is playful (e.g., professional football). Nor does all that might be considered playful (e.g., a conversation) resemble what would ordinarily be called play. And although play often supports learning, some kinds of play (described by King (1987) as “illicit play”) can also undermine and subvert targeted learning (Sutton-Smith, 1988).’” (Project Zero, 2016)

In their work, they gravitate towards the concept of playful learning, which they consider to be tasks and activities that provide elements of choice and provoke delight and wonder. However, critically, they suggest that “having choice does not necessarily mean that there are no external boundaries or constraints influencing an activity. The activity itself, the goals of the activity, and the time allotment were determined by the teacher” (Project Zero, 2016). This is a fundamental point. The teacher is still determining the learning outcomes and therefore also selecting the content/knowledge that is engaged with. There is a distinction between the approach advocated here of play as a pedagogy (playful learning) and the approach becoming increasingly popular in New Zealand where play is positioned as both pedagogy and curriculum (play-based learning).

To avoid all doubt, I am not against play. Nor do I refute that play is an essential part of childhood, and learning and development. However, I believe that conversations about play in New Zealand schools require greater theorisation, greater nuance, and the incorporation of key principles from the science of learning in order to make conceptualisations of play within schools more robust.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

Did you find this article useful?

If you enjoyed this content, please consider making a charitable donation.

Become a supporter for as little as $1 a week – it only takes a minute and enables us to continue to provide research-informed content for teachers that is free, high-quality and independent.

Become a supporter

Close popup Close
Register an Account