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The Importance of Play in Key Stage 1

As thoughts turn to a new school year, KS1 teachers stand at a crossroads. With the world still in unprecedented turmoil, teachers are faced with decisions about whether to travel in the direction of education policy, or to follow their own principles. Schools have been shaken up. They have looked at education differently. They have been faced with altered priorities. So now is a great time to challenge the status quo in schools and to ask - is there a better way of educating children in KS1? Is there a better way of managing the transition of children as they move up from the EYFS?


Countless children will enter Key Stage 1 in September 2020 only having spent half of their school year in their Reception class. Many may have been in school for part of that time but not engaged in all aspects of the EYFS curriculum due to other priorities. Because of the ongoing consequences of lockdown, there has been an entirely appropriate focus on children’s personal, social and emotional needs. For some, this focus has been seen as an unwelcome deviation from the more formal aspects of schooling, resulting in demands that teachers offer a ‘catch-up’ curriculum. But I believe it should be seen as a welcome reminder that unless we offer experiences to children that foster their wellbeing, then their learning will always be hampered.


So what experiences nurture wellbeing? What experiences do 5, 6 and 7 year old learners need in order to thrive? Research tells us that when experiences are developmentally appropriate (Copple and Bredekamp 2009) when they are meaningful (CODC 2018) and when they are enjoyable (Pritchard 2018) then, not surprisingly, children will engage with them more readily and learn from them more effectively. Despite the current tenor of the KS1 curriculum, at this age what is developmentally appropriate, what is meaningful and what is enjoyable is very often initiated by children and not by teachers (Fisher 2020). So why aren’t such opportunities a requirement in every KS1 classroom? Even the new EYFS Reforms (DfE 2020) barely mention play and it is a long time since it was mentioned in any policy documentations for KS1. Yet we know that children aged 5-7 still love to play. We know that given any freedom – on holidays, on family outings, at the supermarket checkout – they will find resources and spaces that allow them to explore, investigate and disappear into imaginary worlds. But does this mean that play warrants a place in the KS1 classroom? I believe it does.


Yet in too many schools, play and child-initiated learning are left at the KS1 classroom door. This is a result of misunderstandings on the part of those who see play as merely recreational or ‘a waste of learning time’. Yet this is so misguided. Children’s enjoyment of play means it is highly motivating which, in turn, encourages greater concentration and perseverance (White et al. 2017) as well as deep level involvement (Laevers 2000). These are executive functions of the brain (Whitebread 2016) that research suggests are more reliable indicators of academic success and emotional wellbeing than a range of other abilities including early literacy (McClelland et al. 2013). And play offers KS1 children even more. Through play they develop attitudes, skills and understandings that can never be as readily achieved through adult-initiated activity. Skills such as using their initiative; creating and recreating scenarios and experiences; finding new strategies; collaborating and negotiating. Neil Carberry, Director for Employment and Skills at the CBI says: ‘Business is clear that developing the right attitudes and attributes in people – such as resilience, respect, enthusiasm and creativity – is just as important as academic or technical skills’. These attitudes give children a sense of agency over their own learning which in turn creates self-confidence as a learner – taking an active rather than a passive role in the process.  And play offers children control. The control to set their own goals and objectives and not become dependent on teachers, the control to chose how to go about the process of learning and not be concerned with outcomes, the control to be inventive, creative and daring, without fear that this might be ‘below average’. In a world affected by Covid-19, control is what many of us crave.


Play is not sufficient on its own of course. There are many aspects of the formal KS1 curriculum that play does not teach (Fisher 2020). Skills such as handwriting, phonics and place value. But even here, play is often underestimated. Although play may not teach certain skills and knowledge, it is often the activity in which these are consolidated. Play offers children a safe space in which to experiment, to try out, to practice, to rehearse and repeat. Children will often take something learned in an adult-led situation and become more confident by playing with the skills and concepts taught, in ways that help them make meaning and become more proficient. Research reminds us that when experiences are repeated in this way, neural pathways are created in the brain (Conkbayir 2017) which in turn strengthen the connections between what is new and what is already established. So much more important for young children than rushing ever onward to Next Steps.


As well as enjoyment and motivation, play offers KS1 children opportunities to learn and develop life skills. The first of these is flexibility. All that is certain about the future is its uncertainty, and play teaches children to deal with uncertainty in creative ways (Mardell et al. 2019). Because children are motivated to achieve whatever goals they have set themselves (Whitebread 2012) then this sense of agency liberates them to make mistakes without fear, to try alternative, creative solutions, to tear up an idea (figuratively) and simply start again. All of these dispositions will enable a child in the future to have the ‘blue-sky’ thinking so beloved of business and to develop what Alan Sugar refers to as ‘thinking on your feet’ (Sugar 2005). The child of the future will also need to interact skilfully with others. Not simply to sit next to them, but to work with them, negotiate with them and create solutions with them. In play, KS1 children usually choose with whom they collaborate. They see the purpose and the benefit of creating play scenarios together, frequently drawing on the ideas, the knowledge, the skills of their peers to help them achieve their own planned outcomes (Broadhead 2004).



And so we return to wellbeing. Play supports the foundations of children’s wellbeing for life (Howard and McInnes 2012; Allee-Herdon et al. 2019). Researchers have discovered strong statistical correlations between some of the most vulnerable children in our schools and their level of risk when play is absent from their lives and from their learning experiences. In school, it is too often the case that the children who need play the most are those who experience it least – sometimes because they ‘haven’t finished their work’; sometimes because they are removed from playful experiences in the classroom to be tutored in an ‘intervention’ to improve specific skills. It is easy to see how the lack of high-quality play in KS1 classes compounds the academic, behavioural, and social-emotional challenges in school for the most vulnerable children (Weisberg et al. 2013). Because of the impact of Covid-19 there will be many more children this September who are vulnerable and in need of play to help them make sense of their experiences and give them back some control over their lives. Indeed, as the pressure of the external outcomes-driven school agenda increases, all children - more than ever – will respond positively to times in their day when play allows them the freedom, the control, the release to do what they choose to do and to follow their own interests and ideas. Sriram (2020) writes that the first critical period of brain development begins around age 2 and concludes around age 7 and that this period offers ‘a prime opportunity to lay the foundation for a holistic education for children’. He suggests that to maximise this critical period we should encourage a love of learning, focus on breadth instead of depth and pay attention to emotional intelligence. Play offers children the opportunity for all of these.


I believe that Covid-19 has re-awakened the educational world to some of these issues. So how might teachers in KS1 respond? Firstly, many teachers have gone above and beyond in finding ways of making the return to school enjoyable for children. There are copious articles, blogs and webinars all exhorting schools (e.g. Moylett 2020) to tune into children’s needs before rushing them into the taught curriculum. Putting children before goals, targets and data should always be the driver for school development. Then, fears around the transmission of the virus have taken more and more teachers (and children) out of doors, to find out – if they did not already know so – about the many and varied benefits of learning away from tables and chairs, in a learning ‘environment’ that is full of natural learning opportunities, provided free of charge with instantly disposable resources. KS1 children enjoy taking their learning outside and much of what can be unpalatable at a desk can be made playful and fun in the outdoors. Then, also, relationships between adults and children have shifted. Many teachers have found themselves able to spend more time with smaller groups of children and (re)discovered the joy of interacting in a less hurried (even if extremely challenging) school day. They have been able to tune in to what children are feeling and thinking in order to make plans for the days that follow that are relevant and meaningful in the here and now, rather than taken from plans constructed many weeks or months previously. And lastly, the pandemic has torn up the terror that is the school timetable. So much of what makes learning lack meaning for young children, so much of what makes it disjointed and muddling is caused by the rigidity of timetables which are like they are because it’s how they’ve always been. Covid-19 has meant that in many schools playtimes have been scrapped. Assemblies have been scrapped. And teachers as well as children have come to appreciate how much they are held to ransom by the school bell and how much more relaxed they are when the ebb and flow of learning is in the teacher’s hands.


We must reflect on what we have learnt about our children, how they learn and where they thrive. A developmentally appropriate KS1 pedagogy should ‘build on’ the very best of Foundation Stage practice, not be constantly concerned with ‘getting ready for’ the end of the key stage. That KS1 pedagogy should offer a balance between learning that is led by adults and learning that is led by the child. Both have much to offer, but one without the other is impoverished practice. Adult-led learning without child-led learning privileges the children who relish the more formal situation, who rush to sit at the front of the carpet with their backs straight and their hands up. But, in a developmentally sensitive KS1 classroom all children have the chance to shine and thrive. So that if den-building is your forte rather than calculation, you have a chance to show what you can do and where your talents lie. We must not let policy and dogma wreck the image children have of themselves as learners, not just for now, but for the rest of their learning lives.


Never has there been a better time to review KS 1 pedagogy and to campaign for ‘early childhood education’ in this country to embrace KS1. Covid-19 has given us all another view of schooling, learning and education. Let’s take this opportunity with both hands and change things for the better.


Julie Fisher is the author of ‘Moving On to Key Stage 1: improving transition into primary school’ (Open University Press 2020). This articles contains extracts from her book recently published in its second edition. The book not only offers theory and research underpinning developmentally appropriate practice, but also offers a range of practical strategies and case studies to give teachers ideas and encouragement to develop this approach.


Allee-Herndon, K.A., Taylor, D.D. and Roberts, S.K. (2019) Putting play in its place: presenting a continuum to decrease mental health referrals and increase purposeful play in classrooms, International Journal of Play, Vol.8 No.2, 186-203.

Broadhead, P (2004) Early Years Play and Learning: developing social skills and cooperation, Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.

Conkbayir, M. (2017) Early Childhood and Neuroscience: Theory, research and implications for practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Copple, C. and Bredekamp, S. (2009) (3rd edn) Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. 

CODC (Center on the Developing Child) (2012). Executive Function (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.

Fisher, E. P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play & Culture, Vol.5, No.2, 159181.

Fisher, J. (2020) (2nd edn) Moving On to Key Stage 1: improving transition into primary school. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Howard, J. and McInnes, J. (2012) The impact of children’s perceptions of an activity as play rather than not play on emotional wellbeing, Child: Care, health and development, Vol.29, No.5, 737-742.

Laevers, F. (2000) Forward to basics! Deep-level Learning and the experiential Approach, in Early Years, Vol.20, No.2, 20-29.

Mardell, B., Lynneth Solis, S. and Bray, O. (2019) The state of play in school: defining and promoting playful learning in formal education settings, International Journal of Play, DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2019.1684157

McClelland, M.M., Acock, A.C., Piccinin, A., Rhea, S.A. and Stallings, M.C. (2013) Relations between Preschool Attention Span-Persistence and Age 25 Educational Outcomes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 28. No.2, 314-324.

Moylett, H. (2020) ‘How to cope with change you didn’t ask for’. https://www.early-education.org.uk/news/guest-vlog-how-cope-change-you-didnt-ask-helen-moylett

O’Shea, M. (2005) The Brain: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pascal, C., Bertram, T. and Rouse, L.

(2019) Getting it Right in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a review of the evidence. Watford: Early Education.

Pritchard, A. (2018) Ways of Learning: Learning theories for the classroom. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sriram, R. (2020) ‘Why Ages 2-7 Matter So Much for Brain Development’


Sugar, A. (2005) The Apprentice: how to get hired not fired. London: BBC Books.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Guided play: Where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind, Brain, and Education, Vol.7, No.2, 104112.

White, R., Prager, E.O., Schaefer, C., Kross, E., Duckworth, A.L. and Carlson, S.M. (2017) The “Batman effect”: Improving perseverance in young children. Child Development, Vol.88, No.5, 1563-1571.

Whitebread, D. (2012) Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Education, London: Sage.

Whitebread, D. (2016) Self-regulation in early childhood education, Early Education Journal, No.80, Autumn 2016.

Julie Fisher
Julie Fisher is an independent Early Years Adviser and Visiting Professor of Early Childhood Education at Oxford Brookes University. She held the post of Early Years Adviser in Oxfordshire for 11 years, prior to which she was lecturer in early childhood education at the University of Reading. She has taught children from 3 to 12 years and has been headteacher of two urban, multi-cultural schools. Julie remains connected with daily life for educators and children through her research projects in schools and settings and she has written many articles on early childhood education as well as being the author of Starting from the Child (2013-now in its 4th edition); The Foundations of Learning (2002); Moving On to Key Stage One (2020: 2nd edition) and her recent best-selling book Interacting or Interfering? (2016). Julie has achieved a doctorate for her research into the changing role of early childhood educators. She is also a recipient of the prestigious Nursery World Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to early childhood education.

Edited by Jules

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