Play reinforces existing hierarchies

If a relationship already exists and you do nothing to intervene then you might expect that relationship to persist.

This is the logic explored in a recent paper in the British Journal of Sociology of Education. The paper is written in a regrettable style, full of sociological jargon and lashings of ‘neoliberalism’. It also uses an interesting empirical approach; the researchers investigate three pre-schools that use a play-based approach and then try to draw conclusions about the effects of such an approach. If you want to know that then you need a control condition that doesn’t use play. To do this would be pretty difficult, however, because a play-based approach to pre-school has become ubiquitous and has even been written in to legislation.

As the authors note, the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework in England, “privileges play as the primary means of delivering the aims of EYE [Early Years Education]”. They also quote Bernstein’s illuminating 1975 comment:

“If the ideologies of the old middle class were institutionalised in the public schools and through them into the grammar schools, so the ideology of the new middle class was first institutionalised in private pre-schools, then private/public secondary schools, and finally into the state system, at the level of the infant [to which we might add nursery] school.”

Across the three pre-schools that the authors study, they suggest that it is middle-class children who are most likely to be deemed ‘school ready’ and working class children who are most likely to be seen as ‘difficult’. However, the laissez-faire play-based philosophy doesn’t allow for the instructors to intervene and teach children the behaviours that would make them school ready. Instead, assumptions are made about the ability of the students, assumptions that then persist through time. The authors’ view is that a potentially mutable social reality has been taken as a fixed attribute of the child.

They tentatively suggest the need for a new pedagogy. Good luck with that. Anyone who criticises the play-based orthodoxy is likely to be lynched as a hater of children and childhood.

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4 Comments on “Play reinforces existing hierarchies”

  1. howardat58 says:

    In Denmark kiddies start school at 7 years old.

  2. Ephemeral321 says:

    Hi Greg, I was only able to read the abstract because of the paywall. But I have three thoughts, regarding legitimised hierarchies, ‘play’, the role of agency (labelling/behaviour):

    1) “If a relationship already exists and you do nothing to intervene then you might expect that relationship to persist.” Young children arrive at pre-school: there is no established relationship; there is no established hierarchy.

    “That such hierarchies prevail is the fault of neither teachers nor parents. Indeed, it is what early years education settings are legitimised to do: sieve and sort, and make children ‘school ready’, pliant and prepared for a lifetime of learning to succeed or fail.”

    The child arrives into the pre-school’s culture in which adults determine the acceptable relationship dynamics. In my view, the EY’s legitimate role, for 3 year olds, is to introduce the child into a structured day – with intellectual, sensory, and physical development – whilst further socialising in readiness for primary. I’m not clear how any of that translates into legitimised ‘sieving and sorting’ so ‘hierarchies prevail’.

    2) What is meant by ”play’ in the EY, in your post and by Stirrup, Evans, and Davies? Is it it: http://www.nicurriculum.org.uk/docs/foundation_stage/learning_through_play_ey.pdf
    I found this to be of interest more generally. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/200811/the-value-play-i-the-definition-play-gives-insights

    3) From your post the authors’ criticism EYFS “privileges play as the primary means of delivering the aims of EYE [Early Years Education]” for two reasons:

    i) Middle-class children are often viewed as ‘school ready’ more than than working class children. The authors state, because “assumptions are made about the ability of the students, assumptions that then persist through time. The authors’ view is that a potentially mutable social reality has been taken as a fixed attribute of the child”.

    ii) “the laissez-faire play-based philosophy doesn’t allow for the instructors to intervene and teach children the behaviours that would make them school ready.

    What I find interesting about (i) and (ii) is that agency not ‘play’ attaches fixed attributes to a child; agency, not ‘play’, fails to make children ‘school ready’. The EY pdf link (above) does not prevent an adult from interacting with the child in order to develop them. Watch a positive parent-child dynamic and you will see the adult (depending on the age) talk and guide the child through an activity, immediately able to respond to the child’s questions.

    It is a point not covered here, but I have serious concerns about the weight given to peer interaction to develop academically strong pupils in EY and primary schools, especially when adults leave behaviours unchecked’; it appears to undermine the role of ‘play’.

  3. Florrie says:

    ‘Free Flow’ or ‘Free for All’ – the interpretation has gone wrong. Not just play, but directed play. Just leaving toys out for children to play with doesn’t show them the possibilities. The best teaching is just direction and showing possibilities – this takes adult intervention.


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