Challenging assumptions about play

 In the book Play and Pedagogy in Early Childhood: Bending the Rules, authors Sue Docket and Marilyn Fleer challenge four assumptions about play.

The assumptions they challenge are:

  • Play is a characteristic of childhood (Play is a characteristic of childhood. However, thinking of play only in this way may result in a view of play as immature and childish. p.107)
  • Play is carefree and free of constraints (Play is rarely free of constraints. Adults constrain play through the environment they create and the time, space and resources they commit to play as well as though their attitudes towards play. Children place constraints on play when they follow social obligations, set and enforce rules or adhere to patterns displayed by their peers. In addition, adult’s expectations of children, derived from a conceptualisation of childhood as innocent and relatively ignorant, constrain play. p110)
  • Play is pleasant (Many play experiences are pleasant for the players. However, if we are serious in our study of play, we need to recognise the potential negative effects, as well as the positive effects, and to consider what this means for our promotion of play as a universally positive experience for all young children. p.112)
  • Play is characterised by stages of development (Understanding children’s development may provide some useful guidance to understanding children’s play and planning suitable play environments. However, we need to be wary of expecting to see particular patterns of play and then fitting our observations in with our expectations, and wary of ignoring the great diversity among children. p.114)

What evidence supports these assumptions?

What evidence contradicts these assumptions?

Can you identify any other assumptions about play?   What evidence do you find to support your assumptions? What evidence contradicts your assumptions?


Dockett, S., & Fleer, M. (1999) Play and Pedagogy in Early Childhood: Bending the Rules. Harcourt Brace. Australia.

Some thoughts on challenging assumptions about play

Is play only a characteristic of childhood or is it indicative of a fundamental human trait? Something childlike does not mean it is immature because that would depend on the child and where our particular observation corresponded to a general schema to guide our understanding of human development.

I am immediately reminded of a quote from Pablo Picasso, “Every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up”. I take this to mean that an artist would equate play with intellectual activity, imagination, discovering, and enjoyment of the journey even when it requires effort. To describe play this way is to remove it from notions of immaturity. To think of play in this way is to think of ourselves as an artist and the inextricable link between defining an educator as an artist, as a creator, rather than simply a transmitter and technician.

Play is not carefree and free of constraints; it is an aspect of human behaviour that allows is to appreciate that there are limits that impinge on us whether they be naturally or socially imposed limits. Limitations are a fact of life. Most of what makes us human is culturally communicated and transmitted. Play for children is one of the ways they explore their personal and social world but within an environment that is relatively safe. In this world limits can be tested other children and adults. It is the world of play that allows adults to observe and appreciate the imaginative and social development and maturation of children without the direct imposition or immediate constraints of an adult perspective.

Should play be pleasant; should it be a universally positive experience for young children? The question is begged, what is a ‘positive experience’? A negative or unpleasant experience can be a positive for children’s development. We know that an important aspect of educating is to develop personal resilience and the social understanding that the world is not the pleasant place we might like it, or expect it, to be. One of the roles of the educator, at any stage of development, is to assist this appreciation of the world around us. This is important for developing human agency, and equally, it informs our ideas about the causes of injustices and our need for establishing rights. So, play does not have to be pleasant or positive in the sense that we try to avoid conflict. Through meeting resistance and understanding conflicts we are provoked to ask questions and learn from mistakes.

Play provides the context for observing indicators of social and cognitive development. Professionals have used these indicators to characterise stages of development, and observe behaviours that may indicate that a child has a problem that may need to be addressed if it is to be happy and flourish. The environment for productive play is not one that is imposed by the adults but rather one that supports the understanding that education is communicating, and participating in a dialogue with children. What we consequently discover can assist us to realise opportunities for extending children’s understanding.

Response to Challenging Assumptions about Play and Changing Childhoods: A Changing World.

As the economic world changes so does the social world. This may be stating the obvious but it is important to keep that in mind as it can be seen very clearly in the super- politicised world of the compulsory years of education. There are tendencies within society that can support both positive and negative conceptualisations of childhood. It is not unreasonable to say that to work with children in a supportive and constructive way means to challenge the status quo.

The status quo can be broadly defined as that which is defined by pro-corporate capitalist economic models and pro-corporate formal political systems both of which do not encourage reasonable and sensitive attitudes toward children, and provide their particular construction of childhood. This has been clearly stated by the current federal government in the EYLF which states that the intention is to provide for a more productive nation. Given the prevailing dominance of the free market economy this means maximizing corporate profits. Concurrently the corporatisation (popularly misnamed ‘privatisation’) of childcare puts profit making at the centre of their concerns and the mass media culture assists in the commodification of children and childhood which all impinge on families, children, and practitioners and educators.

The changing patterns of work and life remind us that they are increasingly fragmented or atomized. More mothers and fathers, single and coupled, are participating in part-time and full time work, the absence of child care places, and the cost of childcare create particular expectations of what early childhood education is and should provide. The anxieties of adult social life impact on children and our adult expectations. Many parents understandably see education as a race up the rungs of the ladder of opportunity, and feel that their child must receive appropriate preparation for this race. This is particularly evident in North America where the pressure on children to ‘succeed’ and for testing for that success is virulent. This view negatively impacts on the playful practice of early childhood education.

Play is not a ‘free-for-all’ as non-practitioners, and educators who work beyond the early years often suggest. Play in early childhood allows the practitioner to work with the individual child, and as well, their combined or collective interests. Children bring with them their particular construction of the world, which by virtue of being a social being correspond in many ways with the constructions of others.

Play provides opportunities for children to explore and build on their own interests at their own emotional, and cognitive pace. That is, when there is a readiness to move beyond where they may currently be at any moment in those respects. It is this idea that informs the Zone of Proximal Development suggested by Vygotsky. This approach also corresponds with the Reggio Approach developed with Loris Malaguzzi. Equally this play approach is a critical teacher for the educator. Careful observation and critical regard of children’s emerging ideas and activity informs practice and where the direction of content, mindful of their playful environment, should proceed.

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3 Responses to “Challenging assumptions about play”

  1. throwntogetherness Says:

    My kids love playing elaborate long fantasy games based on books and real life. Listening to them play, I think more than half of the play is setting up the boundaries or constraints, and the ‘metaconversations’ about who is who and what they are and are not allowed to do or like to do etc. And 100% of the arguments are at this level too. I like the way they use their play to work through things they are going through in life. My eldest played an elaborate game lining up all her toys and moving them along a queue the year she started school: it was processing and practicing the strange experience of queuing that was part of her school day. Now they are playing mostly social games about making friends and visiting, as this is what they have been learning this year moving into a new neighbourhood.


  2. Zuliana D Pramadani Says:

    Reblogged this on Zuliana d Pramadani and commented:
    Yes, listen my little anxiety, that we must face it forward, first of all, I pointed to the technology. I agree about this article, play is whole thing of children life, it’s changing everything and nowadays, that I looking at children behavior, I can feel the children more easy to contaminated of sexual harrasment, the climate really change, the parents easy to give children gadget to paying ‘a thing’, that some of them have not enough time to spend with their children, fine.. we forget they’re not experiment mice or chimpanze to find their own way, it’s getting easier to operating the gadget, it’s nothing wrong to give them gadget, otherwise, many contents and ed-game that user friendly, but, what if when the children goes misguided, I’m not surprise when they’re get early-puberity, and say ‘Hello, it’s Freudian’, that i always repeating inside, well.. it’s normal. I wish I could bring it back to 1996 when the very first game that i was played is rodent.. lol, we’ve to choosed anything today, as wise as the parents and educator.
    it’s so matter for us, I was inspected my children game app weeks ago with some colleagues.. well, getting ready for things, it’s really critical dilema. I purpose for good thing in future, not just phsically this also their psychology, and bring back a greenish thing into children life, instead. and realizing, game app is not a playground, it’s just ‘means’ for stimulating their neuro, I afraid it’ll grow the corrupt memory or stop growing before they get perfectly shape.
    then, my hipster Dad told me ‘Use it wisely, kid’.
    o’Papa , help.. We need more encourage.


    • criticalconsciousness Says:

      Thanks for responding you raise very important and difficult issues for those of us who work with and teach children


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