Opinion: Defining the word ‘play’

Jan Dubiel
Sunday, July 18, 2021

A professional language for a complex process in a misunderstood profession – why we should reconsider using the word ‘play’ in an educational context.


Jan Dubiel, executive principal and EY lead at Harrow Little Lions

The terminology we use to describe what we do is not simply a neutral function of language, but contains within it a series of assumptions, messages and communications about what it means and ultimately it defines how it becomes perceived and comprehended.

Children's learning and development is highly complex and requires a high level of understanding in order to support it effectively. It is therefore no surprise that teaching in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) is equally highly complex; needing at times to be intuitive, responsive, dynamic and implied, at other times needing to be calculated, reflective, carefully considered and direct. While the revised EYFS is clear that ‘how’ we teach is an individual professional decision, the idea of developing, sustaining and informing a ‘pedagogical repertoire’ should, in my opinion, be a priority in conceptualising the role. This is not just important for our own understanding and how we view ourselves, but crucially how it is viewed by non-ECEC specialists, particularly those who make decisions that might impact us.

And so, within all these considerations, we move to the use of the word ‘play’. I realise that this is controversial and that there are understandably strong attachments to and feelings about the use of the word as it speaks to the importance of childhood, wellbeing, health and wider development. It is justly acknowledged that this is a universal right, and I want to be clear that this is about the use of the word in an educational context. I also want to be clear that the concept of what some people describe as ‘play’ (within the context of play based learning) is not the issue, but I believe that we should review the use of the word itself, because of its perception and its etymology.

As often happens, words become a proxy for beliefs and philosophies, their meaning becomes assumed, and their definitions can be lost. The word remains, unchallenged, it becomes embedded, and then evolves into an orthodoxy without any further consideration.



This is what I believe has happened with the word ‘play’ in an educational context. The Pioneers of early education talked about the value and importance of play, partly to ensure physical exercise and access to fresh air and to distinguish it from traditional forms of passive, recipient-based teaching, and that children, active and autonomous, used these episodes to learn and develop successfully, incorporating important skills and behaviours as they did so. At the time, these distinctions were stark, and this dichotomy was necessary, but now, with our increased understanding and knowledge about the process of learning, and the more sophisticated view of the ECEC educator's role, do we need to review this simplistic use of the word that was coined in a context that no longer exists in the same way? There is no agreed consensus on how to define (educational) ‘play’, yet the word permeates the narrative of ECEC. Should we not be concerned that we use an undefined word so universally, with such a lack of clarity?

I also believe that we need to be clear in distinguishing ‘play based learning’ from ‘playwork’. While there are clearly overlaps between them, the traditions come from very different places. The purpose of Playwork is for the child to have fun – and that learning may occur as a result, but it is not the objective. The purpose of education is that children learn – and while we may use ‘play’ or playful approaches to this, these are means at our disposal (our pedagogical repertoire) for the explicit purpose of teaching and learning.

The definition of the word ‘play’ in a vernacular context is one that describes it as a leisure activity, purely for enjoyment, and without a serious purpose. As ECEC educators we know that children's learning is a very serious business, its often hard, challenging and the absolute opposite of such a definition. If we are to truly recognise the importance and nature learning in ECEC – and have this recognised by others – should we not reconsider how this is described? Rather than devaluing it with a word that has such a casual dismissive meaning, should we not be bolder, and prouder, in describing the complex and dynamic way in which ECEC learning and teaching is facilitated?

Considering and confronting an orthodoxy is always challenging and we shape ourselves through words that are meaningful to us and enable us to make sense of what we do. But if by changing the use of a word; without changing the essence of what it means, we change the way we are perceived and our work is understood and valued, then isn't that a risk worth taking?

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