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How are schools adopting pedagogies of play in Key Stage 1? Findings from research into practices of play at the transition and beyond

9 min read
Polly Crowther, Co-Founder, Early Insights; Evidence Lead in Education, East London Research School; Teacher, UK
Victoria Blake, Development Lead, Teach First, UK
Rebecca Webster, Senior Lecturer and Primary School Teacher, UK

We know that ‘Play is one of the most important ways in which young children gain essential knowledge and skills’ (UNICEF, 2018, p. 7), but there is little research to evidence when play ceases to be the most effective pedagogy (Wall et al., 2015). The issue is typically decided down ideological lines. Our research provides useful considerations and comparisons for schools making this decision.

As schools returned from lockdown in the absence of guidance or central direction, we faced questions about how best to support children’s transitions. As educators, researchers and teacher trainers, we observed Key Stage 1 classrooms deciding to incorporate more play as part of managing the transition. We were keen to understand the motivations for, barriers to and benefits of these decisions, since they shed light on discussions of which we have been part every year: do you carry on pedagogies of play beyond the Early Years (EYFS)? If so, for how long?

Our initial observations suggested that teachers and leaders believed that more playful learning experiences were ‘right’ for the pupils in their care. As researchers, we were keen to understand the reality and motivations of what was happening. Indeed, 81 per cent of our respondents increased their use of play in September 2020, and in almost half of the schools in our research, play in Key Stage 1 was new in September 2020.

Within schools, communities and the press, awareness of the social, emotional and mental health of students was heightened (NHS Confederation, 2021). It felt like an exciting venture: play, often confined to EYFS classrooms, was being seen as important – vital – for older children (Play England, 2020). It seemed possible that without guidance and the heavy burden of performative accountability, schools suddenly felt able to prioritise children’s learning experiences, rather than being driven by outcomes and data.

The evidence for the use of play at different ages

Although there is some evidence that play can be beneficial for cognitive flexibility into adulthood, the balance in its importance compared to knowledge-rich instructional pedagogies shifts (Liu et al., 2017). We do not know the ideal time to move away from play, which leaves educators with important decisions to make without strong evidence. Our research aims to provide educators with a view on how this practice is developing and what contextual information could inform these decisions.

The global context is helpful, since different systems employ play over varying ages. In a thorough meta-analysis, Zosh et al. (2017) clearly link the importance of play to the specific development prioritised in early childhood, including language, self-regulation and physical development. The statutory framework for EYFS in the UK does not prescribe curriculum or pedagogy but does make clear that play is critical to early child development (DfE, 2021). Yet the definition of ‘early childhood’ is hotly debated. Some argue that the UK is in the global minority for ending the ‘early years’ at five and moving into direct instruction (Seleznyov, 2020). In reality, the global picture is far more complex. Half the world’s children do not access early education at all, many countries have no standards for early education and others employ formal, direct instruction at the youngest ages (UNICEF, 2021). Certainly, some very high-quality early education systems extend their early years curricula beyond the age of five, but they also recognise the value of direct instruction in literacy and maths (Taguma et al., 2013). It seems likely that a combination of play and direct instruction is valuable in early primary too (Frost, 2012).

Deciding whether to include pedagogies of play beyond EYFS requires consideration of factors beyond developmental appropriateness. Efforts to implement play in Key Stage 1 in other contexts (Australia and Scotland) have made clear that teacher knowledge and confidence, leadership buy-in and curriculum pressures all impact the effectiveness of play in primary schools (Jay and Knaus, 2018; Martlew et al., 2011). Decisions about when play ends and how the balance between play and direct instruction changes are made at school level in the UK, informed by school leaders’ own views, individual school communities and developmental priorities.

Our research

Our research intends to contribute to the gap in the evidence available for making these decisions. It shares qualitative views rather than measurable outcomes, and as such provides educators with a picture of what is happening elsewhere and what educators believe makes play effective, or not, in other schools.

It was clear from our work across schools that the circumstances of the pandemic encouraged leaders and teachers to question what was appropriate for children in this unique situation. We surveyed 27 teachers and leaders in Key Stage 1, followed by structured interviews with respondents. This article provides our initial reflections and highlights.

In order to capture all play-based learning, we asked respondents to explain what they meant by play. All respondents included outdoor learning, three-quarters referred to continuous provision and others included golden time, role play, playful activities and forest school.

These conversations illuminated motivation, benefits, challenges and uncertainties around the role of play in Key Stage 1. There is no doubt that further research is needed to unpick this knotty area.

Why play in Key Stage 1? ‘Play has no limits’

Thirteen schools (almost 50 per cent of respondents) were introducing play into Key Stage 1 for the first time. A further nine schools had already used play in Key Stage 1 and were increasing the time dedicated to it, its role in the curriculum or the resources allocated to it. Three schools were offering less play because COVID restrictions impacted space, staff or equipment.

Typical responses ascribed the decision as being to ‘support wellbeing’. The majority of respondents also saw benefits in this area, reporting improvements through play in wellbeing (25 respondents), developing friendships (27), PSHE (17) and resilience (17). Others cited ‘their developmental stage’ or ‘still working within the EYFS curriculum’ as motives, seeing improved outcomes in academic progress generally (15), maths (17) and literacy (18). Another common factor was for children to ‘build independence in their learning’. Improvements were seen in making decisions (23), independence (22), problem-solving (23) and creativity (25).

This correlates with good evidence that young children’s self-regulation and metacognitive skills are improved with play-based learning (Baker et al., forthcoming). For some, this was part of an ongoing journey that began before COVID. For others, a particular anxiety over children’s access to the outdoors had inspired a greater focus on physical activity and outdoor learning.

Almost all the Key Stage 1 classrooms (26) engaged in outdoor playful learning opportunities: ‘Lots of our children have spent lockdown inside without many opportunities for physical activities.’ It is interesting to imagine that children who may have ordinarily been sat at desks now had their learning environments extended to the outdoors. It would be helpful to better understand what the impact of this was.

Practitioners also connected the increased use of play with prime areas of the EYFS curriculum, especially ‘communication and language’ and ‘personal, social and emotional development’. Respondents described the ‘rich discussions we would not have got from sitting in a classroom’ and discussed increased independence in learning. The role of effective pedagogies of play, especially high-quality adult interactions, in improving outcomes in these areas is well established (Zosh et al., 2017). This is an area that research into the immediate impact of COVID on young children has highlighted as an urgent focus, encouraging the UK government to expand the NELI programme as core to its catch-up offer (EEF, 2020).

Why not? ‘Play is never seen as learning’

Many respondents (both at practitioner and leadership levels) highlighted a range of challenges impacting the implementation of play in Key Stage 1. In the surveys and interviews, conflicting curriculum decisions (‘pressure of the Year 1 curriculum’) and scarce resources (‘range of resources and lack of adults facilitating and extending play opportunities’) came out powerfully as major barriers to effectively implementing play (18). This correlates with other findings that, for educators in Scottish schools, development in pedagogical content knowledge lagged behind expectations (Martlew et al., 2011), and in Western Australia, the requirements of federal curricula conflicted with the local prioritisation of play (Jay and Kna).

Perhaps the most complicated barrier to play was a belief in the dichotomy of play and learning. This tension is often the elephant in the room in discussion with early educators, who either fear that their pedagogies are not taken seriously because they are play-based or feel uncomfortable with the vagaries of play-based pedagogies. Does extending play into Key Stage 1 mean that children are not learning? Does it mean that they cannot follow the National Curriculum? Our respondents alluded to these questions and often gave arguments in favour of play: ‘There is pressure to deliver the National Curriculum during timetabled lessons. However, learning through play can be incorporated into English, humanities and science lessons.’ In interviews, some were certain that progress was ‘as good as or better’ using pedagogies of play.

The views of school leadership were critical here, since educators felt that it was hard to ‘justify’ the use of play to leaders who did not value it’. Six respondents said that it was their SLT’s beliefs or expectations that prevented play from being effective. There is a fascinating tension in educational research that plays out at the transition from EYFS to Key Stage 1. In EYFS, play is a complicated, evidence-informed business, but it is one that educators outside the sector often seem to struggle to take seriously.

When children struggle to play

The concept of the child who does not know how to play can be tricky to explain to those outside of early education. Yet 20 of our respondents reported children who found play difficult, and many felt that the phenomenon was exacerbated by COVID-related restrictions. Some focused on the social and emotional needs of specific children who found play challenging. Others talked about the agency involved in play and the challenges that children face in solving their own problems, or highlighted relationship and behavioural issues that the interactions of play might make more obvious than other forms of learning. One noted that a lack of ability to plan and choose what they wanted to do was a barrier for developing important metacognitive skills.

Once again, our respondents echoed findings in existing research (we do not know the research backgrounds or views of the practitioners). The revised EYFS guidance places new emphasis on self-regulation, emphasising the plan-do-review approach to play because of its potential benefit for self-regulatory skill development. We have known since the seminal rat studies of Pellis et al. (2014) that the relationship between play and executive functions is deep and complex, so it is unsurprising that the impacts of possible reductions in play during lockdowns could have a circular and worrying effect: less practice playing might reduce children’s ability to play as well as stymying the cognitive development associated with it.


We are a world away from the days of 2020, in a context where regulation and uniformity has returned with gusto. As is often the case with ‘black swan events’, emerging trends (bad and good) picked up pace, from digital education to the attainment gap. In early primary education, improved evidence on what works for transition and a growing evidence base for pedagogies of play had already encouraged greater experimentation with play in Key Stage 1. COVID opened a door for some to take this further.

Our research illuminated important considerations for schools as they plan for next year’s Key Stage 1 transition and beyond.

  • There is no consensus on when play should no longer be the pedagogy of choice, and research seems to leave open the possibility of its efficacy in Key Stage 1
  • Context will be critical for making these decisions
  • Play might have particular value for cohorts with certain social, emotional and communicative needs
  • Schools need to consider the barriers to making play meaningful in Key Stage 1: staff, resources and curriculum pressures will all matter, but fundamental conversations need to be had about the value (or not) of play in your educational setting.

Perhaps most importantly, schools should consider whether their children have mastered the skills of play at the end of the EYFS. If not, what does that mean for our roles as educators? Is it acceptable for us to leave children unable to play and move on to Key Stage 1 and what would the implications of that be? Our exploration of the data will only provide some of the answers; much remains to be understood.

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