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Researching play-based pedagogies in Year 1

Written by: Sarah Seleznyov
10 min read
Sarah Seleznyov, Director, London South Teaching School Alliance, UK

England is unusual in its formal approach to learning in Year 1 – in many other countries, formalised approaches to teaching and learning do not begin until age six (White and Sharp, 2007). Many high-performing Scandinavian countries, for example, focus on play-based approaches to learning, distinguishing between free play, such as might happen at breaktime in an English school, and structured play-based learning experiences, as might happen in the classroom and beyond, with the careful support of skilled adults (Grindheim and Ødegaard, 2013).

A group of 23 practitioners from nine primary schools working with the London South Teaching School Alliance wanted to experiment with a play-based approach to learning, since they felt that early formalisation was detrimental to engagement, motivation and general wellbeing for children. At the beginning of the project, teachers felt that a truncated transition period for Year 1 pupils and a quick shift to directed activities left little room for independence:

“Our transition period was too short and it gradually filtered out the play aspect of the learning. Our activities were too rigorously planned and did not allow the children to direct their own learning.”

– Year 1 teacher

Several felt that the formality of Year 1 was particularly detrimental to pupils with special educational needs and those from deprived backgrounds. These pupils struggled to stay focused and engaged throughout a full day of formal learning, so started to lose interest and fall behind, then remained working at a level behind their peers through to the end of Key Stage 2:

“[We felt that] if we fulfilled more of the children’s needs from those disadvantaged backgrounds from a younger age, they would have experienced more of the same childhood that their peers have experienced from a younger age.”

– Year 1 teacher

Play provides children with opportunities to develop key cognitive functions, and has been associated with improved verbal communication, high levels of social and interaction skills and problem-solving capabilities, potentially leading towards increasingly complex forms of knowledge, skills and understanding (Wood, 2008). Some schools had already begun experimenting with a more play-based approach, but none felt that they had got it quite right. This project was an opportunity to experiment, to take risks and to make a real difference to learning, especially for the most vulnerable pupils.

The project involved teachers undertaking collaborative research projects, working both within school teams and across schools, using a Research Learning Communities model (Brown, 2017) and led by an experienced facilitator of teacher research projects. The project started in September 2019 and ran until it was interrupted by COVID-19 in March 2020, then moving to an online format.

Teachers began by exploring the literature on play-based approaches to Year 1 teaching and learning. Much of the literature corroborated the anecdotal evidence from teachers on the project about an overly quick transition to formal learning at the start of Year 1, which led to a general lack of engagement and enjoyment, but also to children with special educational needs or those from deprived backgrounds being labelled as ‘low ability’ from a very early age (Sanders et al., 2005). Of particular interest was the large amount of literature from Wales, where play-based learning until age seven was introduced in 2011. Studies of the Welsh approach found that attainment and wellbeing improved for all pupils (Taylor et al., 2015), but extensive staff training was required to ensure that all children’s learning benefitted equally from the opportunities offered, and to avoid a slip back into formal learning (Rhys et al., 2015).

Several authors also explored the interaction between play activities, children’s views of learning and adult interactions in children’s play. McInnes (2019), for example, found that when adults intervened in play, they were often too formal and directive, and children therefore did not perceive situations in which adults engaged as playful. One study warned against assuming that a play-based curriculum would solve the issue of underachievement, noting that in Wales, boys and those living in poverty benefitted, but not as much as others, partly attributing this to the unconscious lack of warmth and positivity of interactions with adults during their play (Power at al., 2019).

Once the literature had been explored, participating teachers visited each other’s schools and also a number of schools with embedded play-based approaches. All these schools had some really inspiring practice, but perhaps the most inspiring of these was Hanover Primary in Islington, where a play-based approach is used up until the end of Year 2, and Early Years and Key Stage 1 pupils share a huge creative outdoor space, as well as being able to play within their own classrooms. Participating teachers noted the confidence, happiness and engagement of pupils in these settings, even when there was more formal learning, such as whole-class or guided group activities. Teachers noted that all adults interacted with pupils effectively during play, and that pupils were more likely to want to learn and to work independently:

“If the children can achieve in a play-based environment just as much as children in a highly directed environment, then why are we not doing play-based learning? The children seem happier and more independent than children in our school. It’s a no-brainer!”

– Year 1 teacher

Teachers noted that short, high-quality teacher inputs seemed to be more productive than long carpet or table sessions, and that it was sometimes more helpful to assess learning in action when applied to play:

“[Why not] move all shape, space and measure [into play] – ensuring that a confident teacher can support the children in their play with this knowledge and assess that they have all understood it.”

– Year 1 teacher

The visits revealed that learning environments with play required careful thought, less furniture and constant observation, to identify barriers to learning through play and quickly address these. Access to outdoor learning and careful thought around outdoor play were also crucial. The work of Anna Ephgrave (2017), as recommended by Hanover Primary, gave teachers a lot of practical advice on making play-based learning a reality in their own classrooms.

At the same time as they were visiting schools, teachers were gathering evidence about their own classroom practice. Some interviewed their own pupils about their experiences of being in Year 1, and found that pupils’ favourite subjects tended to be the less formal, practical, hands-on subjects such as PE, art and DT. They felt that play was for playtime and not for learning. Some analysed assessment data from their own schools and identified patterns of underachievement for children with special educational needs and those from disadvantaged backgrounds that were similar to those in the research literature. Some carried out observations to measure engagement and wellbeing during learning, using the Leuven Scale (Laevers, 2006), and found that many pupils struggled with the formal sections of learning during the day, and that where there was play-based learning, it was often not set up in a way to challenge and engage them:

“The environment either needed to be more challenging, or an adult needed to be moving their learning on – showing them new ways of doing things and then leaving children to explore and challenge themselves further independently.”

– Year 1 teacher

Once all teachers had reviewed their own data and visited at least three schools, they gathered to discuss their ideas and to come up with shared research questions. They used a sticky note technique to engineer a suitable research question:

  1. Consider your target group of pupils and what you want to achieve
  2. Take three sticky notes and, using the following question starters, quickly write three possible research questions, each one using a different starter
  3. Compare similarities and differences in questions from all teachers, and decide what you all agree that the final research question should be.

There were several different themes that teachers wanted to explore, for example:

  • To what extent does having an adult engaging in play during the afternoons enhance children’s progress?
  • How can adaptations to the environment promote independence through play-based learning?
  • How does a full-time play-based approach to learning impact on progress and standards in writing?
  • How can the classroom be organised so that children are more motivated to engage in their own learning?

Teachers then decided on the changes that they would be making to their own Year 1 practice. Several challenges needed to be tackled before these changes were implemented. Firstly, teachers agreed that they would like to make sure that senior leaders understood the full implications of moving to a play-based approach. When visiting schools with strong play-based approaches, teachers had noted that there was much less written evidence in books, and that senior leaders were on board with this and seemed to be looking for different kinds of evidence of learning, such as how engaged children were in the setting and how children’s work progressed over time. Several teachers were concerned about the evaluation systems and work production expectations of senior leaders in their schools, and felt that they needed to educate senior leaders on how a play-based approach might change what senior leaders might monitor and evaluate. Teachers on the project decided to draw up a set of guidelines for senior leaders, making it clear what changes would need to be put in place if a play-based approach was introduced.

Secondly, many of the teachers on the project had small classrooms and difficulties in accessing outdoor spaces. They had to brainstorm creative ideas for tackling this, for example fencing off areas of the playground for short periods, having an adult take small groups out one at a time, or working out systems for sharing outdoor space with Reception classes.

Thirdly, many teachers were anxious about provision extending all children’s learning, how to challenge the highest achievers and how to decide on the optimal amount of guided groupwork whilst maintaining high-quality structured play. Key to this would be professional development for all adults in the Year 1 classroom: adults needed to see effective interactions from the most skilful teachers and to have opportunities to experiment with these new practices themselves. Seeing strong practice modelled with the pupils would overcome adults’ anxiety about how to make this work, as well as develop their skillset to make sure that the new provision was as effective as it could be:

“Through lots of planning, observations, modelling and informal feedback, adults were able to see the value of play and continuous provision. Adults observed continuous provision,… were able to ask questions and make comments and take this back to their class to try different aspects, then feed back.”

– Year 1 teacher

However, this was much more challenging in classrooms with limited adult support.

Teachers on the project have already reported anecdotal evidence of positive impact:

“We have noticed an increase in children’s confidence, vocabulary, language development, positive social interaction; particularly with SEND children.”

– Year 1 teacher

“In the past, children have displayed exhaustion at the end of the day, often with behaviour spikes in the afternoon. We have noticed that children are less tired in the afternoon because they are up and moving around.”

– Year 1 teacher

“[Pupils] are self-selecting activities and consequently remaining engaged throughout [their] learning.”

– Year 1 teacher

Teachers were planning to gather data from pupils, parents and staff to measure the impact of their projects, but this was interrupted by school closures due to the virus. However, plans are in place across all nine schools to reconsider learning this autumn term, making the best use of structured play to enhance learning, engage pupils and ensure progress.

With thanks to Bessemer, Keyworth, St Francis Catholic, St John’s and St Clement’s CE, and The Belham Primaries in Southwark.


 Brown C (2017) Research learning communities: How the RLC approach enables teachers to use research to improve their practice and the benefits for students that occur as a result. Research for All 1(2): 387–405.

Ephgrave A (2017) Year One in Action: A Month-by-Month Guide to Taking Early Years Pedagogy Into KS1. Milton K, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Grindheim L and Ødegaard E (2013) What is the state of play? International Journal of Play 2(1): 4–6.

Laevers F (2006) The Leuven Involvement Scale for Young Children LIS-YC. Leuven, Belgium: Centre for Experiential Education in collaboration with the Katholiek Pedagogisch Centrum (the Netherlands).

McInnes K (2019) Playful learning in the early years – through the eyes of children. Education 3–13 47(7): 796–805. DOI: 10.1080/03004279.2019.1622495.

Power S, Rhys M, Taylor C et al. (2019) How child‐centred education favours some learners more than others. Review of Education 7(3): 570–592.

Rhys M, Waldron S and Taylor C (2015) Evaluating the foundation phase: Key findings on literacy and numeracy. Welsh Government. Available at: (accessed 17 July 2020).

Sanders D, White G, Burge B et al. (2005) A study of the transition from the Foundation Stage to Key Stage 1. National Foundation for Educational Research. Available at: (accessed 17 July 2020).

Taylor C, Rhys M, Waldron S et al. (2015) Evaluating the foundation phase: Final report. Welsh Government. Available at: (accessed 17 July 2020).

White G and Sharp C (2007) ‘It is different… because you are getting older and growing up.’ How children make sense of the transition to Year 1. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 15(1): 87–102.

Wood E (2008) Contestation, transformation and re-conceptualisation in early childhood education. In: The Routledge Reader in Early Childhood Education. London: Routledge, pp. 1–18.

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