Why play doesn’t always mean learning, and ways around it: lessons from the Footsteps Study

Yeshe Colliver

    Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


    Play forms the basis of most quality early childhood education (ECE) curricula around the world (OECD, 2006; Sylva et al., 2014). Yet turning children’s play interests (e.g., Spiderman, Barbie) into important learning reified in curricula (e.g., literacy, numeracy) is a difficult challenge for most educators (Anning, 2010; Cooney, 2004; Rogers & Evans, 2008). Cultural historical theory provides one explanation why.History shows that children’s play has always reflected traditional societies’ most valued activities (Elkonin, 2005). For example, 18th-Century records show Ostiak children’s play in Siberia almost exclusively reflected the main way adult society subsisted: bow-hunting (Zuev, 1771/1947). Similarly, in remote Pacific island communities, children played in small dugout canoes, imitating the fishing so central to the communities’ livelihoods.Research also shows that imitation is the very way that children learn these prized adult practices (Rogoff, Mistry, Göncü, & Mosier, 1993). Through ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, children observe and increasingly imitate traditional societies’ subsistence activities (Lave, 1991, p. 63). How play connects to learning in these contexts is clear. However, in post-industrial societies, adults typically work outside the home (Rogoff et al., 2006) and so opportunities to influence children’s play are limited. Additionally, extraneous influences on children’s play are abundant in mass media, intensified by powerful, research-driven marketing, increasingly targeting children’s consumerism (Calvert, 2008). Thus, in post-industrial societies, the connection between children’s freely chosen play and useful learning is muddied by multiple factors. Little surprise, then, that educators struggle to connect children’s play interests to curriculum content (e.g., Anning, 2010). The Footsteps intervention described in this presentation sought to solve this problem, doing so in partnership with families, given the importance of continuity between home and ECE contexts (Melhuish, 2010).Rather than taking children’s play as the starting point for learning, as is accepted practice in ECE (Stephen, 2012), the intervention described in this presentation exposed four-year-olds to different adult activities to see if they influenced what children were interested in playing with, as in traditional societies. Results indicate that children exposed to their families and educators engaging in numeracy activities played significantly more with numeracy concepts, and those exposed to literacy demonstrations improved on reading measures. These results suggest that adult activities in post industrialised contexts do influence what children are interested in, play with and ultimately learn about. Educators and families should scrutinise what children are exposed to and how doing so can influence children’s learning dispositions, interests and learning. The Footsteps intervention provides a useful platform from which educators and families can work together to influence what children are interested in playing with. Piquing interest in useful learning is likely to outlast the fads of commercial products and characters because greater connections exist with adult society than those products. Thus the Footsteps intervention aims to sustain children’s interest in language and numbers throughout life.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages1
    Publication statusPublished - 2017
    EventEarly Start: Helping children flourish and realise their potential: Translating research for policy, practice and community - University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia
    Duration: 27 Sept 201729 Sept 2017


    ConferenceEarly Start
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