In 2013, the then childcare minister, Liz Truss, talked about nurseries. She said: “Free-flow play is not compulsory, but there is a belief across lots of nurseries that it is. I have seen too many chaotic settings where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose.
“This isn’t about two-year-olds doing academic work – it’s structured play which teaches children to be polite and considerate through activities which the teacher is clearly leading.
“We want children to learn to listen to a teacher, learn to respect an instruction, so that they are ready for school.”
In these statements we see a politician setting up two opposites: “free-flowing play” (bad); and “structured play” (good). The first is made up of things like “running around”, has no “purpose” and often takes place in “chaotic settings”. The second is full of children being “polite” and “considerate”, and leads to children learning to “listen” and “respect instruction”.
My first observation is that it’s a false opposition. Whether we’re parents, carers, teachers or anyone working with young children, we know that children move easily and often between free play and structured play. One is not better or worse than another, they each offer different experiences, different ways of thinking, and different kinds of learning.
Free play has at its heart the spirit of “trial and error without fear of failure”. I once watched a very young child in a park approach a low dome that was in the middle of the path. From a distance, someone like a government minister could easily characterise what was going on as purposeless, chaotic and without any learning outcome. It was after all just a child “running around” – literally.
I have a different view. The girl had noticed the dome and decided to do a dance, skipping round and round it and over and over again. As she did so, she made up a song with the words “round” and “roundy-roundy” in it, working variations as she danced. The movement and the singing were created without fear of failure and involved a variety of trial-and-error activities: testing the size and height of the dome, testing the little gradients for their “danceability”, matching her song with the movements and vice versa, expressing the whole thing in words.
I call this “learning”. There’s a lot of cognition going on there, but I would also want to add in what the activity did for her sense of self and wellbeing. She had created something that worked: a fun song-and-dance routine, using the environment (the dome) that she had encountered. She held her arms out, taking up more space than we do when we hold ourselves folded up. It was a physical expression of confidence.
I also noticed that her parents gave her the time and space to create this dance. They didn’t tut or complain or look at their watches. The child had the time to work the whole activity through. I assume but don’t know for certain that they thought this was a good thing for their child to be doing. And, besides, they were enjoying watching her doing it. It’s part of the fun of being a parent, watching and listening to our children free-playing – and joining in, if they let us. In fact, if we are attentive, we can learn a lot about how to tackle all sorts of things in our lives: how to tackle technology; how to fill tiresome waiting-time; how to cook; exercise; shop; and, if you’re lucky, aspects of work.