For many years, Northern Ireland has been renowned for producing academically high-achieving pupils, and while this has been the case for some young people, issues of division and inequality are still rife within its education system. Despite positive reading outcomes in the most recent PISA results, a long tail of underachievement prevails and being left behind is the reality for many pupils throughout Northern Ireland (NFER, 2019). What makes matters worse is that gaps in attainment start early, as young as five years, and such gaps become even more pronounced throughout formal education (Save the Children, 2017). The recent Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such existing inequalities, impacting most severely on those children and young people already disadvantaged. Yet against this grim backdrop is a solution to enabling all young learners a fair start, and in this blog I will outline why the answer lies in prioritising ‘fair’ play in practice.
First, sitting at desks for a large proportion of the school day and engaging in written, sedentary tasks is totally unnatural for young children and can impose undue stress and anxiety that impedes later learning and development. A playful approach to teaching and learning instead ensures a rich, unhurried and relaxed experience where children do not feel pressured to find the ‘right’ answer or to compete against their peers, encouraging them instead to express their own ideas and make mistakes without fear of failure. Indeed, the lasting social and emotional benefits of playful experiences have long been recognised, resulting in positive effects on children’s interpersonal and negotiation strategies, on their personal relationships and community behaviour, and on their ability to deal with stress, as well as improving their overall academic aspirations (Walsh, 2017a).
‘A playful approach to teaching and learning ensures a rich, unhurried and relaxed experience where children do not feel pressured to find the “right” answer or to compete against their peers, encouraging them instead to express their own ideas and make mistakes without fear of failure.’
Second, rich, playful opportunities provide a broad and balanced learning experience, enabling young children to develop the breadth of skills they need, not only for later schooling but throughout their lives (Dowd & Stjerne-Thomsen, 2021). Such playful experiences might include fishing for keywords, searching for money in a basin of sawdust, or imagining that you are a famous pirate and designing a raft that will allow you to sail to a treasure island. Playful learning affords all children the opportunity to showcase what they can do, while simultaneously enabling teachers to tune into the needs and capabilities of all young learners, providing each individual child with the support and/or challenge that they require (Walsh, 2017b).
Third, playful pedagogies unlock dispositional learning, initiating in children a desire to want to learn and keep on learning as they are engaging in playful experiences that are fun, enjoyable and suitably motivating (Walsh, 2017a). Infusing playfulness in teaching and learning generates a low-stakes atmosphere where all children are more inclined to take risks, to think outside the box and to try out new ideas, creating opportunities for higher levels of thinking to be sustained (Sproule et al., 2021). In this way, when play is appropriately playful, and in the hands of skilled practitioners, it affords opportunities for all young learners to engage in stretch and challenge, where a spirit of investigation and enquiry is encouraged within a supportive and encouraging learning environment.
Most of all, play can be accessible to all young learners as children don’t need a specific level of ability, a dedicated space, or even expensive toys to learn playfully (Dowd & Stjerne-Thomsen, 2021). Indeed, we know that the best type of learning comes from natural, authentic and open-ended playful resources, rich in possibilities and adventure, encouraging young children to be highly creative and imaginative in response (Walsh, 2017a). All that remains is for schools to take play more seriously and, in so doing, enable all young children to experience the fair start they so truly deserve.
Dowd, A. J., & Stjerne-Thomsen, B. (2021). Learning through play: Increasing impact, reducing inequality. The LEGO Foundation. https://cms.learningthroughplay.com/media/jxgbzw0s/learning-through-play-increasing-impact_reducing-inequality_white-paper.pdf
National Foundation for Educational Research [NFER]. (2019). Achievement of 15-year-old pupils in Northern Ireland: PISA 2018 national report. https://www.nfer.ac.uk/achievement-of-15-year-old-pupils-in-northern-ireland-pisa-2018-national-report/
Save the Children. (2017). Tackling the poverty-related gap in early childhood learning in Northern Ireland. https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/content/dam/global/reports/education-and-child-protection/tackling-poverty-related-gap-ni.pdf
Sproule, L., Walsh, G., & McGuinness, C. (2021). Signalling playfulness: Disguising work as play in the early years’ classroom, International Journal of Play, 10(3), 228–242. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2021.1959232
Walsh, G. (2017a). Why playful teaching and learning? In G. Walsh, D. McMillan, & and C. McGuinness (Eds.) Playful teaching and learning, Sage.
Walsh, G. (2017b). Pillars of practice for playful learning and teaching. In G. Walsh, D. McMillan, & and C. McGuinness (Eds.) Playful teaching and learning, Sage.