Theorists have been linking play and child development for hundreds of years and asserting that play is an integral part of a child’s development, fostering creativity, problem-solving skills, and social interactions, as well as contributing to their wellbeing. In recent years in Scotland, more importance has been given to theories around allowing children to be children, the encouragement of natural curiosity, play and the child’s innate desire to learn and be creative.
The philosophy and ideas of theorist such as Friedrich Froebel have started to influence guidance, frameworks, and strategies, especially in the early years, however from what I’ve seen recently this is gaining momentum in primary schools, which is hugely encouraging to see. Froebel wrote back in the 1800s that play is the highest form of learning and brings all learning together and he appreciated that children’s learning is influenced by their surroundings, and this is something that fully resounds with me.
During my career in early education, I’ve often observed children bringing their own experiences into play, especially in the home corner or role play area. I’ve seen them setting the table, making dinner, and acting out things that they see in their home, probably to the horror of their parents, if they knew! This kind of play provides opportunities for imagination, creativity, abstract thinking and to try out what they have been learning about and to make sense of the world.
In Scotland, Play Scotland, are one of the organisations at the forefront of promoting and advocating for play-based learning approaches in early education, and are the lead organisation for the development and promotion of children and young people’s play in Scotland. Established in 1998, their mission is to ensure that play is valued, prioritised, and incorporated into the everyday lives of children, and they work collaboratively with policymakers, educators, parents, and communities to advocate for play-based learning approaches and provide resources and support.
Play Scotland believe that play is the best way to learn, as it brings all learning together and it’s an integral part of a happy, healthy childhood!
National Play Strategy
We are lucky in Scotland, as our government recognises the importance of play and we have had a National Play Strategy since 2013.
Our Vision is that ‘we want Scotland to be the best place to grow up, a nation that values play as a life-enhancing daily experience for all of our children and young people, in their home, nurseries, schools and communities.’
Our mission is to enable all children and young people to have equal opportunities to participate in diverse and quality play experiences that meet their individual need. This includes early intervention through play and creating increased and improved play opportunities both indoors and outdoors – at home, in early learning childcare, schools, and also in the community.
Part of Scotland’s Play Strategy is to ensure that all children enjoy high quality play opportunities, particularly free play, in stimulating spaces with access to nature on a daily basis. The weather in Scotland can be challenging, we have wind, rain, sun, snow, and that can be in just one day! Educators in Scotland are well aware of the rewards to health and wellbeing and encourage children to be out in all weathers. I’m a trained Forest Kindergarten practitioner and I’ve been out in ALL weathers and one of my favourite quotes is, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing!”
The Power of Play-Based Learning
Play-based learning is a pedagogical approach that integrates children’s play experiences with curricular learning and children’s right to play, in line with article 31 of the UNCRC. It encourages active engagement, curiosity, and exploration, allowing children to learn through hands-on experiences and meaningful interactions with their environment. By integrating play into the learning process, children develop critical skills such as problem-solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration.
Research has consistently shown that play-based learning positively impacts cognitive, emotional, and social development. It nurtures a child’s imagination, promotes self-expression, and builds resilience. Moreover, play-based learning creates an inclusive and engaging environment that supports children of all abilities and backgrounds.
Play Pedagogy in Practice
Over the last decade in Scotland, there has been a growing realisation by policy makers that learning, development and play are interlinked, and that play stimulates, engages, and offers children challenge and enjoyment. This has resulted in play becoming embedded in Scottish educational policy frameworks and guidance and our curriculum has become more play and active learning based.
It can be a challenge to get everyone on board with integrating play into the curriculum through child and adult-initiated activities and ensuring that it’s not being driven by adults. Thankfully there is more widespread recognition of the importance of listening to children’s voices, and ensuring that teachers consider the whole child, and there is a growing realisation that we should be taking the lead from the children. This is being encouraged in modern theory-led teaching practice in Scotland. However, the traditional view of moulding children into an ideal, where children sit at desks, getting taught by a teacher at the front of the room still exists in some schools, but thankfully this is becoming less common. More and more schools have open, accessible areas for play and active learning and the emphasis is now on scaffolding learning and co-construction.
I’ve found that this encourages independence, free-thinking and sets the correct balance between giving the children too little assistance and overloading them.
Realising the Ambition
One of the latest documents in Scotland, written by Education Scotland is Realising the Ambition: Being Me. The new guidance retains the relevant content from previous guidance; however, it also extends and strengthens it in line with current research and evidence about how children develop and learn.
I was lucky to be working in Early Years when this document came out and I welcomed the new framework, as it refreshed our national practice guidance and presented updated key information about the characteristics of child development based on research and evidence.
It also explores the range of interactions, experiences, and spaces that we need to provide for babies and young children to help them learn and grow best from their earliest days through to being a young child in early primary school. The document was well received, and I have spoken to colleagues who have different levels of experience from the just qualified to the more ‘mature’ experienced among us and they have all found it very helpful, informative, and inspirational.
The important thing about ‘Realising the Ambition: Being Me’ is that it increases expectations of high quality but still provides the necessary support for all who work in the early years sector and beyond.
Play Scotland Play Pedagogy Award
Many teachers and schools in Scotland are already incorporating ‘active learning’ and ‘learning through play’ into their curriculum, however, Play Scotland want to do more and have created a Play Pedagogy Award, which recognises and celebrates the creativity and commitment of schools and teachers to improving learning through play and embedding play pedagogy in their practice.
Prior to the creation of the award, the feedback received from teachers was that they desired strategic-level support, resources, and specific expertise to develop Play Pedagogy theory-led practice and an endorsement to demonstrate they are doing ‘the right thing’.
With this in mind, Play Scotland developed a four-tier Play Pedagogy Award framework, which is specifically for Scottish Primary Schools and Educational Policy. To ensure that it was ‘fit for purpose’ and practical, it was developed in collaboration with play experts, ‘A Place in Childhood’ and play pioneers and teachers from different schools across Scotland, so that it provides a framework and recognises and rewards the creativity and commitment of schools and teachers to improving learning through play. The award covers theoretical frameworks underpinning Play Pedagogy and practice, with the aim to embed play in school practice, ethos and protect play times. The handbook and toolkit provide practical ideas and an easy-to-follow framework to encourage evaluation, observation, and reflection and to inspire and support teachers on their Play Pedagogy journey.
Over the years, play pioneers and organisations like Play Scotland have made a significant impact on Scotland’s educational landscape. By raising awareness about the benefits of play-based learning, they have influenced educational policies and practices across the country and working in collaboration with schools, local authorities, and communities has led to the development of innovative play-based learning programs and the transformation of learning environments.
Success stories from schools and early learning settings that have adopted play-based learning approaches are a testament to the effectiveness of this pedagogical approach. Educators have reported improved engagement, motivation, and achievement levels among their students. Play-based learning has not only positively impacted children’s academic progress but also their overall health and wellbeing and I look forward to being part of Scotland’s continuing Play Pedagogy journey.