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Play versus pressure to perform: A false dichotomy?

Written by: Jenna Watson
10 min read

“Some years ago I took on a combined Reception and Year 1 class and very soon began fleshing out what form the teaching and learning might take. Upon my suggestion to use a primarily playful approach to learning, working with small groups across the day and differentiating inputs and activities, my headteacher at the time contended that I would never be able to cover the Year 1 curriculum nor extend the children’s learning sufficiently if I used this approach.”

Using play as a tool for learning beyond (and, to an extent, within) the Foundation Stage tends to evoke one of two responses. There are those who, like my former headteacher, cite its undermining of academic performance, curriculum coverage and other aspects of the educational process. The other response is an insistence that play is necessary for our young learners. This leads one to question: why do such divisions in perspective exist between educators? Where does the idea that play and academic progress stand in opposition to one another come from? In an attempt to provide some clarity and balance to this conversation, this piece aims to find the space in between these two positions – to find ‘logic across difference’ (Wegerif, 2011, p. 3). It ultimately contends that a playful approach is not at odds with effective learning – or, rather, academic progress. More saliently, it aims to stimulate discussion and reflection from practitioners across the education sector and researchers who are considering the nature and place of play within the context of schooling, contributing to ways of understanding educational research pertaining to the relationship between play, progress and attainment.

Research on play is extensive, and findings from anthropological, psychological, neuroscientific and educational studies conclude that it is an integral way through which children learn, as it positively influences children’s skills as problem-solvers and self-regulators, as well as their brain development, attitudes towards learning and overall achievement (Gray, 2009; Smith, 2006; Pellis and Pellis, 2009; Sylva et al., 1976; Pellegrini and Gustafson, 2005; Whitebread and Jameson, 2010). Yet polarised debates around the use of play rage on, with the counter-argument in favour of teacher-centred, adult-directed approaches to teaching and learning and contradicting such evidence, instead arguing that research is lacking. For instance, Sara Baker surmises that one cannot ‘make any big pronouncement about play’; building on this, she states that: ‘The research into play is budding and growing, but there is no solid research that has been replicated in different contexts and so on, it is a bit patchy.’ (Baker, 2017) This is further supported by the recent work of Heller-Sahlgren (2018), who contends that many of the claims made by pupil-led practices have relied on their connection with pupil happiness, and that ‘pupil-led learning, enjoyment, and performance [are seen] as a virtuous circle’ (p. v). He remarks, however, that the available evidence is insufficient to support this perspective.

The response surrounding the release of Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report was a prime example of this, with individuals weighing in to defend or critique the use and value of play in the Reception year. A letter containing over 3,000 signatories requested that the report be withdrawn on the basis that it could potentially lead to government-enforced developmentally inappropriate practice, stemming from the report’s recommendations (KEYU, 2017). This in turn provoked divisive conversations, primarily on the social media platform Twitter, critiquing either the report and its execution or, on the other hand, the response of those who opposed the report, asserting that ‘Early Years people’ had ‘wilfully misread’ the report.

Playful learning: A misunderstood pedagogical tool or an uncritically applied approach?

Clearly there remain disjoints between what the research tells us about play, and this is further complicated by how it is understood both in a policy context and at the chalk face. Mardell et al. (2016) state that, for some, play is seen as ‘as silly and off-task, encouraging playful learning can run counter to educational policies that emphasize efficient coverage of the curriculum’ (p. 2). It is possible that this perspective stems from a misconception of what high-quality playful learning encompasses, particularly since, as Whitebread et al. (2012) state, due to its ‘multi-faceted nature’ and the unpredictability of play, it is difficult to define and therefore to fully realise its potential as a tool for learning (p. 14).

However, despite these challenges, the perseverance of play researchers across many fields has meant that we have an increasingly clear conception of what high-quality play looks like. For example, Whitebread et al. share how, within the field of psychology, human play has been found to encompass five different types of play: ‘physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence or socio-dramatic play and games with rules’ (2012, p. 5). The seminal EPPSE study provided even greater clarity on the aspects of practice that make the playful approach in Early Years so effective, particularly highlighting the importance of sustained shared thinking and dialogue (Sylva et al., 2014). In my own setting, we draw upon these different types of play to explore possibilities within the space of lessons and within our ‘learning streets’, where we create environments for the children to engage in comparatively more autonomous or guided play. This approach remains the same in structure right through to our eldest students. Baker adds more food for thought to this particular conversation when she states: ‘if anything, children need more structure when they are younger… [we] should be releasing the constraints as the child gets older.’ In light of the aforementioned debates around the Bold Beginnings Report, this idea warrants further exploration.

Direct instruction versus child-centred approaches – the happiness trade-off?

In many settings in the UK, unlike many other countries, the transition from Reception at the age of five to Year 1 at the age of six demarcates a shift in the use of play to more ‘formalised’ approaches to teaching and learning. This transition in itself is subject to controversy, as the idea of ‘starting them early’, in fact, has the reverse effect on children’s progress and attainment in the long term (Sharp, 2002). There are many reasons for this, such as the pressures of curriculum coverage and the perception that particular pedagogical styles are more appropriate for achieving such aims. Further to this, there remains an assumption that as children progress through their schooling, the need for play reduces and the need for direct instruction in order to effectively engage children in the process of learning increases; however, as Baker points out, the reverse approach may in fact be more appropriate. Indeed, Whitebread (2013) notes that whilst in many systems there is support for play-based learning, this is ‘systematically limited to children under the age of six or seven’ (p. 13).

In line with the argument that teacher-directed practices are more effective, the recent work of Heller-Sahlgren (2018) argues that pedagogical approaches that emphasise pupil happiness and enjoyment (linked with child-centred, pupil-led approaches in the report), in contrast with traditional methods characterised by repetition and drill, are not as effective, nor evidence-informed, as they claim to be. However, his work speaks of a ‘happiness trade-off’, whereby ‘research suggests that traditional, teacher-centred methods are more effective from a learning perspective than progressive teaching methods on average […] at the same time, research also suggests that traditional teaching methods worsen, and progressive methods improve, pupil well-being and attitudes toward learning’ (p. 15).

Whilst Heller-Sahlgren’s work does not touch directly on the use of play as a pedagogical tool specifically, the links between playful learning and the other ‘progressive’ pedagogical approaches are clear. Futhermore, the idea of a ‘trade-off’ is supported by the work of Gray (2011), who writes from a primarily anthropological standpoint, drawing the link between lack of play and the rise of ‘anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism’ (p. 443). However, this idea of trade-off, though a useful idea, further contributes to the perception that play and academic progress are at odds with one another, and arguably utilises a narrow definition of student achievement. In the context of my own setting, at the heart of our curriculum sits the notion of compassionate citizens, and therefore our curriculum aims to nurture many aspects of a child’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development (see ‘University of Cambridge Primary School – Curriculum Design Statement 2017’). Therefore, teacher-directed approaches may not be appropriate for targeting particular curricular outcomes, where child-centred, playful approaches are. It may be more useful to think of play, direct instruction and other approaches as tools on which teachers can draw to target different intended curricular outcomes, rather than rigid pedagogical camps that one must remain loyal to.

Bringing it all together and moving forward

There is much work to be done in exploring the range of issues that emerge from the tension between playful learning and the quest for academic progression, but this requires research that is conducted with an open-minded question, and which is as balanced as is truly necessary and not focused on proving a point. Further to this, practitioners’ involvement in this research is absolutely essential, conducted with the same goodwill. There are clear cases for both views and it’s highly likely that the best outcomes lie somewhere in striking a delicate balance between them. Moving forward, a model that we have begun to explore within my own setting is that of Mardell et al. (2016, p. 7), which explores a range of different indicators that are linked to playful learning, including ‘choice’, ‘wonder’ and ‘delight’. We find that this model is particularly useful in helping us to consider how opportunities for playfulness can be incorporated into the learning experiences that we provide.

Drawing upon this model, a ‘grey area’ emerges from both a child-led and an adult-directed approach. Recently, in our lesson study series focusing on one of our key curriculum tenants – ‘Playful Enquiry’ – that serve to bind our unique curriculum design together (see ‘University of Cambridge Primary School – Curriculum Design Statement 2017’), we explored the use of short bursts of play within a structured mathematics lesson exploring the Fibonacci sequence and pattern; this was hugely informative, and elements of the model were able to be identified and analysed in the discussions that followed.

Ultimately, I would like to argue that learning and academic progress are not at odds with play, as has been contended. However, the relationship between the two is by no means clear-cut. Facilitating playful learning is messy and unpredictable and requires deep thought and reflection on the part of the practitioner; there is a careful balance to be struck to ensure that this learning reaps the desired benefits for our young people. But, as Wegerif (2011) states, ‘the aim of education is not simply knowledge but ways of being’, and thus in order to facilitate this, we as educators should draw upon a broad repertoire of approaches to support the learning and development of our students.


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Gray P (2009) Play as a foundation for hunter-gatherer social existence. American Journal of Play 1(4): 476–522.

Gray P (2011) The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play 3(4): 443–463.

Heller-Sahlgren G (2018) The achievement-well-being trade-off in education. Centre for Education Economics. Available at: (accessed 10 January 2019).

Keeping Early Years Unique (KEYU) (2017) A collective open letter in response to #BoldBeginnings Report coordinated by Keeping Early Years Unique. Available at: (accessed 18 December 2018).

Mardell B, Wilson D, Ryan J et al. (2016) Towards a pedagogy of play: A Project Zero Working Paper. Available at: (accessed 16 November 2018).

Pellegrini AD and Gustafson K (2005) Boys’ and girls’ uses of objects for exploration, play and tools in early childhood. In: Pellegrini AD and Smith PK (eds) The Nature of Play: Great Apes & Humans. New York: Guilford Press, pp. 113–135.

Pellis S and Pellis V (2009) The Playful Brain: Venturing to the Limits of Neuroscience. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Sharp C (2002) School starting age: European policy and recent research. In: LGA Seminar ‘When should our children start school?’, LGA Conference Centre, 1 November 2002. London: Local Government Association.

Smith PK (2006) Evolutionary foundations and functions of play: An overview. In: Göncü A and Gaskins S (eds) Play & Development: Evolutionary, Sociocultural and Functional Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 21–49.

Sylva K, Bruner JS and Genova P (1976) The role of play in the problem-solving of children 3-5 years old. In: Bruner JS, Jolly A and Sylva K (eds) Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 55–67.

Sylva K, Melhuish E, Sammons P et al. (2014) Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE 3–16). DfE Research Report RR354. Available at: (accessed 10 January 2019).

Wegerif R (2011) Towards a dialogic theory of how children think. Thinking Skills and Creativity 6 (3): 179–190.

Whitebread D (2013) School starting age: the evidence. University of Cambridge, 24 September, 13. Available at: (accessed 26 June 2018).

Whitebread D, Basilio M, Kuvalja M et al. (2012) The importance of play: A report on the value of children’s play with a series of policy recommendations. Toy Industries of Europe. Available at: (accessed 10 January 2019).

Whitebread D and Jameson H (2010) Play beyond the foundation stage: Story-telling, creative writing and self regulation in able 6–7 year olds. In: Moyles J (ed) The Excellence of Play (3rd edition). Maidenhead: Open University Press, pp. 95–107.


Further reading

University of Cambridge Primary School (2017) Curriculum Design Statement 2017. Available at: (accessed 18 December 2018).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas