Why play matters in Early Years education

Karen Wickett, Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Plymouth, celebrates the active inclusion of creativity in early years teaching

After nearly a decade of omission, ‘creativity’ has returned to the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) (Department for Education, 2021). The cultural dimension of creativity is explicitly referenced in the educational programme, ‘Expressive Arts and Design’ (DfE, 2021). It states that ‘the development of children’s artistic and cultural awareness supports their imagination and creativity (page 10).’ Although creativity was not explicitly referenced in the previous two versions of the EYFS, the characteristic of effective learning ‘creating and thinking critically’ gave a nod to creativity. Practitioners were required to notice how children ‘develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things’ (page 16). However, the lack of specific focus on creativity had left researchers concerned that pedagogies that cultivate creativity were being undervalued and children’s creativity and creative development being overlooked (Chappell et al., 2016).

Starting with the child

It is worth holding in mind that, whilst government requirements shift and change, a consistency in early years practice are the creative attributes children have when entering early years settings! From birth, children have fostered their skills of collaboration, imagination, perseverance, experimentation and critical thinking, as they learn about their world and the people they share it with. Children arrive to EYFS with a range of creative competencies and experiences.

Three-year-old Marcus, described in the following observation, reminds us that children persevere, experiment and think critically to overcome problems they encounter in their play and learning:

“Marcus was at the water tray filling and emptying a range of containers with water. A practitioner was sitting next to him showing interest and commenting on what he was doing. He attempted to fill a jug but each time he added a cup of water the jug toppled over. The adult noticed he was struggling. She looked around the room to find an object to stand the jug on. Before she found an object, Marcus identified a novel solution to the problem. He hooked the jug handle over the side of the water tray and successfully filled the jug.”

The observation of Marcus may not seem remarkable, but the reflective discussion afterwards did challenge the practitioner and myself. Marcus was labelled as ‘behind in his development requiring interventions to fill the gaps in his development’. However, reflecting on our observation we noticed Marcus’ creative and critical thinking. We discussed how government expectations can limit us in noticing children’s creativity and competences that are mingling and emerging as they play.

Reclaiming the breadth of creativity

The belief that play is key to children’s learning as well as fostering their creativity (Bruce, 2004), is a consistent in the early years heritage. The example of Marcus highlights how, during play, he draws on and develops his creativity while using his imagination to solve a problem. In order to sustain creativity and creative pedagogies, practitioners need to reclaim their beliefs about children and how they learn and play.

Time is required for practitioners to articulate these beliefs, engage in reflective discussions with colleagues to define creativity and articulate what creativity looks and feels like in their setting. The Durham Commission (2019) definition of creativity is a valuable starting point, ‘the capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before.’

Together early years practitioners need to identify the many different opportunities to foster children’s creativity and creative competences, by constructing engaging pedagogic practices. Examples of these are likely to include open ended resources in the inside and outside learning environments. Open ended resources afford children many possibilities when developing their play; a large piece of yellow material can be a super hero’s cape, a fire, a blanket to wrap baby or something to hide under. Children require uninterrupted time to become highly involved and control their play. Marcus, above, spent an hour at the water tray. He had time to solve the problem and decide when his play was complete. The practitioner alongside him did not control but complimented the play, by noticing and commenting on what was happening.

Arriving at a shared definition of creativity and pedagogic principles will enable an early years team to confidently explain to those who may be less familiar with play, how children learn and how their creativity and creative competencies are fostered during play.

Dr Karen Wickett is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Plymouth.

Further Reading

Bruce, T. (2004) Cultivating Creativity in Babies, Toddlers and Young Children. Hodder & Stoughton.

Department for Education (DfE) (2021). Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage Setting the standards for learning, development and care for children from birth to five. DfE: London

Early Education (2021) Birth to 5 Matters: Non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage St Albans: Early Years Coalition

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