play or direct instruction in early years?

One of the challenges levelled at advocates of the importance of play for learning in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) has been the absence of solid evidence for its importance. Has anyone ever tested this theory? Where are the randomised controlled trials?

The assumption that play is an essential vehicle for learning is widespread and has for many years dominated approaches to teaching young children. But is it anything more than an assumption?  I can understand why critics have doubts.  After all, EY teachers tend to say “Of course play is important. Why would you question that?” rather than “Of course play is important (Smith & Jones, 1943; Blenkinsop & Tompkinson, 1972).”  I think there are two main reasons why EY teachers tend not to cite the research.

why don’t EY teachers cite the research?

First, the research about play is mainly from the child development literature rather than the educational literature. There’s a vast amount of it and it’s pretty robust, showing how children use play to learn how the world works: What does a ball do? How does water behave? What happens if…?  If children did not learn through play, much of the research would have been impossible.

Secondly, you can observe children learning through play. In front of your very eyes. A kid who can’t post all the bricks in the right holes at the beginning of a play session, can do so at the end. A child who doesn’t know how to draw a cat when they sit down with the crayons, can do so a few minutes later.

Play is so obviously the primary vehicle for learning used by young children, that a randomised controlled trial of the importance of play in learning would be about as ethical as one investigating the importance of food for growth, or the need to hear talk to develop speech.

what about play at school?

But critics have another question: Children can play at home – why waste time playing in school when they could use that time to learn something useful, like reading, writing or arithmetic? Advocates for learning through play often argue that a child has to be developmentally ‘ready’ before they can successfully engage in such tasks, and play facilitates that development ‘readiness’. By developmentally ‘ready’, they’re not necessarily referring to some hypothetical, questionable Piagetian ‘stages’, but whether the child has developed the capability to carry out the educational tasks. You wouldn’t expect a six month-old to walk – their leg muscles and sense of balance wouldn’t be sufficiently well developed. Nor would you expect the average 18 month-old to read – they wouldn’t have the necessary language skills.

Critics might point out that a better use of time would be to teach the tasks directly. “These are the shapes you need to know about.” “This is how you draw a cat.” Why not ‘just tell them’ rather than spend all that time playing?

There are two main reasons why play is a good vehicle for learning at the Early Years stage. One is that young children are highly motivated to play. Play involves a great deal of trial-and-error, an essential mechanism for learning in many contexts. The variable reinforcement that happens during trial-and-error play is strongly motivating for mammals, and human beings are no exception.

The other reason is during play, there is a great deal of incidental learning going on. When posting bricks children learn about manual dexterity as well as about colour, number, texture, materials, shapes and angles. Drawing involves learning about shape, colour, 2-D representation of 3-D objects, and again, manual dexterity. Approached as play, both activities could also expand a child’s vocabulary and enable them to learn how to co-operate, collaborate or compete with others. Play offers a high learning return for a small investment of time and resources.

why not ‘just tell them’?

But isn’t ‘just telling them’ a more efficient use of time?   Sue Cowley, a keen advocate of the importance of play in Early Years, recently tweeted a link to an article in Psychology Today by Peter Gray, a researcher at Boston College. It’s entitled “Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm”.

This is a pretty dramatic claim, and for me it raised a red flag – or at least an amber one. I’ve read through several longitudinal studies about children’s long-term development and they all have one thing in common; they show that the impact of early experiences (good and bad) is often moderated by later life events. ‘Delinquents’ settle down and become respectable married men with families; children from exemplary middle class backgrounds get in with the wrong crowd in their teens and go off the rails; the improvements in academic achievement resulting from a language programme in kindergarten have all but disappeared by third grade. The findings set out in Gray’s review article didn’t square with the findings of other longitudinal studies. Also, review articles can sometimes skate over crucial points in the methods used in studies that call the conclusions into question.

what the data tell us

So I was somewhat sceptical about Dr Gray’s claims – until I read the references (at least, three of the references – I couldn’t access the second). The studies he cites compared outcomes from three types of pre-school programme; High/Scope, direct instruction (including the DISTAR programme), and a traditional nursery pre-school curriculum. Some of the findings weren’t directly related to long-term outcomes but caught my attention:

  • In first, second and third grades, school districts used retention in grade rather than special education services for children experiencing learning difficulties (Marcon).
  • Transition (in this case grade 3 to 4) was followed by a dip in children’s academic performance (Marcon).
  • Because of the time that had elapsed since the original interventions, there had been ample opportunity for methodological criticisms to be addressed and resolved (Schweinhart & Weikart).
  • Mothers’ educational level was a significant factor (as in other studies) (Schweinhart & Weikart).
  • Small numbers of teachers were involved, so individual teachers could have had a disproportionate influence (Schweinhart & Weikart).
  • The lack of cited evidence for Common Core State Standards (Carlsson-Page et al).

Essentially, the studies cited by Dr Gray found that educational approaches featuring a significant element of child-initiated learning result in better long-term outcomes overall (including high school graduation rates) than those featuring direct instruction. The reasons aren’t entirely clear. Peter Gray and some of the researchers suggested the home visits that were a feature of all the programmes might have played a significant role; if parents had bought-in to a programme’s ethos (likely if there were regular home visits from teachers), children expected to focus on academic achievement at school and at home might have fewer opportunities for early incidental learning about social interaction that could shape their behaviour in adulthood.

The research findings provided an unexpected answer to a question I have repeatedly asked of proponents of Engelmann’s DISTAR programme (featured in one of the studies) but to which I’ve never managed to get a clear answer; what outcomes were there from the programme over the long-term?  Initially, children who had followed direct instruction programmes performed significantly better in academic tests than those who hadn’t, but the gains disappeared after a few years, and the long-term outcomes included more years in special education, and later in significantly more felony arrests and assaults with dangerous weapons.

This wasn’t what I was expecting. What I was expecting was the pattern that emerged from the Abecedarian study; that academic gains after early intervention peter out after a few years, but that there are marginal long-term benefits. Transient and marginal improvements are not to be sniffed at. ‘Falling behind’ early on at school can have a devastating impact on a child’s self-esteem, and only a couple of young people choosing college rather than teenage parenthood or petty crime can make a big difference to a neighbourhood.

The most likely reason for the tail-off in academic performance is that the programme was discontinued, but the overall worse outcomes for the direct instruction children than for those in the control group are counterintuitive.  Of course it doesn’t follow that direct instruction caused the worse outcomes. The results of the interventions are presented at the group level; it would be necessary to look at the pathways followed by individuals to identify the causes for them dropping out of high school or getting arrested.


There’s no doubt that early direct instruction improves children’s academic performance in the short-term. That’s a desirable outcome, particularly for children who would otherwise ‘fall behind’. However, from these studies, direct instruction doesn’t appear to have the long-term impact sometimes claimed for it; that it will address the problem of ‘failing’ schools; that it will significantly reduce functional illiteracy; or that early intervention will eradicate the social problems that cause so much misery and perplex governments.  In fact, these studies suggest that direct instruction results in worse outcomes.  Hopefully, further research will tell us whether that is a valid finding, and if so why it happened.

I’ve just found a post by Greg Ashman drawing attention to a critique of the High/Scope studies.  Worth reading.  [edit 21/4/17]


Carlsson-Paige, N, McLaughlin, GB and Almon, JW. (2015).  “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose”.  Published online by the Alliance for Childhood.…

Gray, P. (2015). Early Academic Training Produces Long-Term Harm.  Psychology Today

Marcon, RA (2002). “Moving up the grades: Relationship between preschool model and later school success.” Early Childhood Research & Practice 4 (1).

Schweinhart, LJ and Weikart, DP (1997). “The High/Scope Pre- school Curriculum Comparison Study through age 23.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12. pp. 117-143.

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Sue Cowley is a robust advocate of the importance of play in learning

play: schools are for children, not children for schools

Some years ago, the TES carried an article about a primary school that taught its pupils how to knit. I learned to knit at school. My mum dutifully used my first attempt – a cotton dishcloth – for months despite its resemblance to a fishing net with an annoying tendency to ensnare kitchen utensils. The reason I was taught knitting was primarily in order to be able to knit. But the thrust of the TES article wasn’t about the usefulness of knitting. It was that it improved the children’s maths. It seemed that at some point since the introduction of mass education in England the relationship between schools and the real world had changed. The point of schools was no longer to provide children with knowledge (like maths) that will help them tackle real-world problems (like knitting), but vice versa – the point of useful real-world skills was now to support performance in school.

school readiness

I was reminded of the knitting article earlier this year, when Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of Ofsted, suggested to inspectors that not all early years settings are preparing children adequately for school. In a comment to the BBC he added;

More than two-thirds of our poorest children – and in some of our poorest communities that goes up to eight children out of 10 – go to school unprepared,” he said. “That means they can’t hold a pen, they have poor language and communication skills, they don’t recognise simple numbers, they can’t use the toilet independently and so on.”

His comments prompted an open letter to the Telegraph complaining that Sir Michael’s instruction to inspectors to assess nurseries mainly in terms of preparation for school “betrays an abject (and even wilful) misunderstanding of the nature of early childhood experience.” One of the signatories was Sue Cowley, who recently blogged about the importance of play. Her post, like Sir Michael’s original comments, generated a good deal of discussion.

Old Andrew responded promptly. He comments “This leads me to my one opinion on early years teaching methods: OFSTED are right to judge them by outcomes rather than acting as the “play police” and seeking to enforce play-based learning“.

The two bloggers have homed in on different issues. Sue Cowley is concerned about the shift in focus from childhood experience to ‘school-readiness’; Old Andrew is relieved that Ofsted inspectors are longer expected to ‘enforce play-based learning’. The online debate has also shifted from the original question implicit in Sir Michael’s comments and in the response in the letter to the Telegraph i.e. what is the purpose of nurseries and pre-schools? to a question posed by Old Andrew; “Is there any actual empirical evidence on the importance of play? All the “evidence” seems to be theoretical.”

empirical evidence

Responses from early years teachers to questions about evidence for the benefits of play are often along the lines of “I have the evidence of my own eyes”, which hasn’t satisfied the sceptics. Whether you think it’s a satisfactory answer or not depends on the importance you attach to direct observation.

The problem with direct observation is that it’s dependent on perception, which is notoriously unreliable. David Didau has blogged about some perceptual flaws here. He also mentions some of the cognitive errors that occur when people draw conclusions from observations. The scientific method has been developed largely to counteract the flaws in our perception and reasoning. But it doesn’t follow that direct observation is completely unreliable. Indeed, direct observation is the cornerstone of empirical evidence.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’ve noticed that every time I use a particular brand of soap, my hands sting and turn bright red. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that I have an allergic response to an ingredient in the soap – but I wouldn’t know that for sure. There could be many causes for my red, stinging hands; the soap might be purely coincidental. The conclusions about causes I could draw solely from my direct observations would be pretty speculative.

But the direct observations themselves – identifying the brand of soap and what happened to my hands – would be a lot more reliable. It’s possible that I could have got the brand of soap wrong and could have imagined what happened to my hands, but those errors are much less likely than the errors involved in drawing conclusions about causality. I could easily increase the reliability of my direct observations by involving an independent observer. If a hundred independent observers all agreed that a particular brand of soap was associated with my and/or other people’s hands turning bright red, those observations wouldn’t be 100% watertight but they would be considered to be fairly reliable and might prompt the soap manufacturer to investigate further. Increasing the reliability of my conclusion about the causal relationship – that the soap caused an allergic reaction – would be more challenging.

is play another Brain Gym?

What intrigued me about the early years’ teachers responses was their reliance on direct observation as empirical evidence for the importance of play. Most professionals, if called upon to do so, can come up with some peer-reviewed research that supports the methods they use, even if it means delving into dusty textbooks they haven’t used for years. I could see Old Andrew’s point; if play is so important, why isn’t there a vast research literature on it? There are three characteristics of play that would explain both the apparent paucity of research and the teachers’ emphasis on direct observation.

First, play is a characteristic typical of most young mammals, and young humans play a lot. At one level, asking what empirical evidence there is for its importance is a pointless question – a bit like asking for evidence for the importance of learning or growth. Play, like learning and growth, is simply a facet of development.

Second, play, like most other mammalian characteristics, is readily observable – although you might need to do a bit of dissection to spot some of the anatomical ones. Traditionally, play has been seen as involving three types of skill; locomotor, object control and social interaction. But you don’t need a formal peer-reviewed study to tell you that. A few hours’ observation of a group of young children would be sufficient. A few hours’ observation would also reveal all the features of play Sue Cowley lists in her blog post.

Third, also readily apparent through direct observation is what children learn during play; the child who chooses to play with the shape-sorter every day until they can get all the shapes in the right holes first time, the one who can’t speak a word of English but is fluent after a few months despite little direct tuition, the one who initially won’t speak to anyone but blossoms into a mini-socialite through play. Early years teachers watch children learning through play every day, so it’s not surprising they don’t see the need to rely on research to tell them about its importance.

The features of play and what children can learn from it are not contentious; the observations of thousands of parents, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists and anthropologists are largely in agreement over what play looks like and what children learn from it. This would explain why there appears to be little research on the importance of play; it’s self-evidently important to children themselves, as an integral part of human development and as a way of learning. In addition, much of the early research into play was carried out in the inter-war years. Try finding that online. Or even via your local library. Old Andrew’s reluctance to accept early years teachers’ direct observations as evidence might stem from his admission that he doesn’t “really have much insight into what small children are like.”

play-based education

The context of Old Andrew’s original question was Michael Wilshaw’s comments on school readiness and the response in the Telegraph letter. A recent guest post on his blog is critical of play-based learning, suggesting it causes problems for teachers higher up the food chain. Although Old Andrew says he’d like to see evidence for the importance of play in any context, what we’re actually talking about here is the importance of play in the education system.

Direct observation can tell us what play looks like and what children learn from it. What it can’t tell us about is the impact of play on development, GCSE results or adult life. For that, we’d need a more complex research design than just watching and/or recording before-and-after abilities. Some research has been carried out on the impact of play. Although there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between how much young mammals play and their abilities as adults, not playing does appear to impair responsiveness and effective social interaction. And we do know some things about the outcomes of the more complex play seen in children (e.g. Smith & Pellegrini, 2013).

Smith & Pellegrini agree that a prevailing “play ethos” has tended to exaggerate the evidence for the essential role of play (p.4) and that appears to be Old Andrew’s chief objection to the play advocates’ claims. Sue Cowley’s list describes play as ‘vital’, ‘crucial’ and ‘essential’. I can see how her choice of wording might give the impression to anyone looking for empirical evidence in the research literature that research findings relating to the importance of play in development, learning or education were more robust than they are. I can also see why someone observing the direct outcomes of play on a daily basis would see play as ‘vital’, ‘crucial’ and ‘essential’.

I agree with Old Andrew that Ofsted shouldn’t be enforcing play-based learning, or for that matter, telling teachers how to teach. There’s no point in training professionals and then telling them how to do their job. I also agree that if grand claims are being made for play-based learning or if it’s causing problems later on, we need some robust research or some expectation management, or both.

Having said that, it’s worth noting that for the best part of a century nursery and infant teachers have sung the praises of play-based learning. What’s easily overlooked by those who teach older children is the challenge facing early years teachers. They are expected to make ‘school-ready’ children who, in some cases and for whatever reason, have started nurseries, pre-schools and reception classes with little speech, who don’t understand a word of English, who can’t remember instructions, who have problems with dexterity, mobility and bowel and bladder control, or who find the school environment bewildering and frightening. Sometimes, the only way early years teachers can get children to engage or learn anything at all is through play. Early years teachers, as Sue Cowley points out, are usually advocates of highly structured, teacher-directed play. What’s more, they can see children learning from play in real time in front of them. The key question is not “what’s the empirical evidence for the importance of play?” but rather “if children play by default, are highly motivated to play and learn quickly from it, where’s the evidence for a better alternative?”

I’m all in favour of evidence-based practice, but I’m concerned that direct observation might be being prematurely ruled out. I’m also concerned that the debate appears to have shifted from the original one about preparation for school vs the erosion of childhood. This brings us back to the priorities of the school that taught knitting in order to improve children’s maths. Children obviously need to learn for their own benefit and for that of the community as a whole, but we need to remember that in a democracy school is for children, not children for school.


Pellegrini, A & Smith PK (2005). The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans. Guilford Press.
Smith, PK & Pellegrini, A (2013). Learning through play. In Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters (eds). Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Developmentand Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development 1-6. Available at Accessed 11.8.2014.

all work and no play will make Jack and Jill bored and frustrated

Another educational dichotomy revealed by a recent Twitter conversation is learning vs play. Although I know people make this distinction, I found myself wondering why, traditionally, work and play have been contrasted, as in the old adage All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and when learning might have slipped into the place of work.

The function of play

Hunting and gathering

For many thousands of years, human beings have been hunter-gatherers. Most human infants are capable of gathering (foraging for berries, leaves, shoots etc) before they can walk, although they might need a bit of support and guidance in doing so. Hunting is a more complex skill and needs the dexterity, attentional control, tuition and rehearsal that only older children can handle.

The primary function of typical play in humans, like that seen in other mammals, is to develop the skills required to obtain food and to make sure you don’t become food for anyone else. All that chasing, hiding, running, fighting, climbing, observing, collecting and pulling things apart can make the difference between survival and starvation. Of course human beings are also social animals; hunter-gatherers forage, hunt and eat in groups because that increases everyone’s chances of survival. So humans, like many other mammals, have another characteristic in their play repertoire – mimicry. Copying the behaviour of older children and adults forms the foundation for a wide variety of adult skills not confined to acquiring food.

Hunting and gathering involves effort, but the effort is closely related to the reward of eating. The delay between expending the effort and eating the food is rarely more than a few hours, and in foraging, the food immediately follows the effort. The effort could be described as work, and a child who’s poking an anthill or fighting another child when they should be gathering or hunting could be considered to be playing as opposed to working, but the play of hunter-gatherer children is so closely aligned to their ‘work’, and the consequences of playing rather than working are so obvious, that the distinction between play and work is rather blurred.


For a few thousands of years, human beings have been farmers. Farming has advantages over hunting and gathering, which is why it’s been so widely adopted. It increases food security considerably, especially in areas that experience cold or dry seasons, because surplus food can be produced and stored for future use. It also reduces,but doesn’t eliminate, the risk of territorial conflict – having to compete for food with another tribe.

In contrast to hunting and gathering, farming involves a great deal of effort that isn’t immediately rewarded. There’s a delay of months or even years before food results from the effort expended to produce it. Human children, like other mammals, aren’t good at delayed gratification. In addition, their default play patterns, apart from mimicry, don’t closely resemble the skills needed to produce food via agriculture. Ploughing, sowing, irrigating, weeding, protecting, harvesting and storing food involve hard, repetitive effort for no immediate reward to an extent that rarely occurs in hunter-gatherer societies. In addition, farming requires a lot of equipment – tools, containers, buildings, furniture etc, also requiring repetitive effort in their manufacture and maintenance. Communities that survive by subsistence farming can do so only if children do some of the work; they don’t have the spare capacity to allow children to spend their childhood only in play. This means that for farming communities, there’s a clear divide between children’s play and the work involved in producing food.


In England, subsistence farming was a way of life for thousands of years. As the population increased, pressure was put on land use, and areas of common land used for grazing animals, were increasingly ‘enclosed’ – landowners were given legal rights to take them out of public use. Following the Enclosure Acts of the late 18th/early 19th centuries, thousands of families found they didn’t have access to enough land to sustain themselves. They couldn’t survive by making and selling goods either, because of competition from the mass-production of cheap items in factories, made possible by the invention of the steam engine.

This double-whammy resulted in a mass migration to towns and cities to find work, which often consisted of hard, repetitive, dangerous labour in factories, or, because of the huge increase in demand for coal, in mines. Child labour was in great demand because it was cheap and plentiful, and many families couldn’t survive without their children’s earnings. Working in factories or in coal mines put children’s health in jeopardy. Previous generations of children working on the family smallholding might have found the work boring and repetitive and unpaid, but, poor harvests aside, would have had a reasonably good diet, plenty of fresh air and exercise and free time to pay with their friends. In industrial settings, children were working for twelve hours or more a day in dangerous environments, and, in the case of mines, almost complete darkness. The opportunity to play became a luxury.


The terrible working conditions for children didn’t last that long; a series of Factory Acts in the 19th century were followed by the 1870 Education Act which made education compulsory, and further legislation made it free of charge. Increasing prosperity (as a result of the industrial revolution, ironically) meant that most communities had sufficient resources to allow children to spend their childhood learning rather than working.

Learning vs play

Not everybody saw education in the same light, however. For some at one extreme, education was a means to an end; it produced a literate, numerate workforce that would increase national and individual prosperity. For others, education offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be archetypally human; to be free of responsibility and engage only in learning and play – what children do naturally anyway. Not surprisingly, many popular children’s authors (popular because of the increase in child literacy) subscribed to the latter view, including Mark Twain, Louisa M Alcott, Lucy M Montgomery, Edith Nesbitt, Enid Blyton and CS Lewis.

Education has essentially been dominated by these two viewpoints ever since; the ‘traditionalists’ on the one hand and the ‘progressives’ on the other. It’s easy to see how the clear distinction between work and play that emerged with the advent of agriculture, and that became even more stark in the industrial revolution, could carry over into education. And how in some quarters, learning might be seen as children’s ‘work’.

In highly developed industrialised societies, the default play patterns of hunter-gatherers bear little resemblance to the skills children will need in later life. But children’s play is very versatile; they observe, mimic and learn from whatever they see around them, they experiment with technology and become skilled in using it. Children are still ‘doing it for themselves’ as they always have done. The informal education they would get if they didn’t attend school would still provide them, as it has for millennia, with the knowledge and skills they would need to survive as adults.

Of course for most people survival isn’t enough. The lives of people in communities that ‘survive’ tend to be nasty, brutish and short, and most people don’t want a life like that. The best way we’ve found to improve our quality of life and standard of living beyond ‘survival’ is to increase the efficiency with which we produce food, goods and services. In theory, at least, this frees up time to find ways of improving our quality of life further. In practice, the costs and benefits of increased efficiency tend to be rather unevenly distributed, with some people bearing most of the costs and others enjoying most of the benefits, but that’s another story.

The best way we’ve found to improve efficiency is for communities to have access to the knowledge we’ve acquired about how the world works. It isn’t necessary for everyone to know all about everything; what is necessary is for people have access to knowledge as and when they need it. Having said that, childhood and adolescence present a golden opportunity, before the responsibilities of adulthood kick in, to ensure that everyone has a good basic knowledge about how the world works.


A core characteristic of learning is the acquisition of new information in the form of knowledge and/or skills. But human beings aren’t robots; acquiring knowledge isn’t simply a matter of feeding in the knowledge, pressing a button and off we go. We are biological organisms; acquiring knowledge changes our brains via a biological process and it’s a process that takes time and that varies between individuals.


One of the ways in which humans naturally acquire, assimilate and apply new knowledge is through play. A core characteristic of play is that it isn’t directly related to what you do to survive. Play essentially consists of rehearsing and experimentally applying knowledge and skills in a safe environment – one where the outcomes of your rehearsal and experimentation are unlikely to end in disaster.

The amount learning in play varies. Sometimes the play can consist almost entirely of learning – repetition of knowledge or skills until perfect, for example. Sometimes there’s very little learning – the play is primarily for rest and relaxation. And rest and relaxation play can provide the ‘down-time’ the brain needs in order for new information to be assimilated.

Young humans play more than older ones because they have more new knowledge and skills to assimilate and experiment with, and their play tends to incorporate more learning. For very young children all play is learning.

Older humans tend to play for rest and relaxation purposes because they don’t have to acquire so much knowledge. They do learn through play, but it often isn’t recognised as such; it’s ‘kicking an idea around’ or imagining different scenarios, or experimenting with new knowledge in different configurations. In other words learning through play in adults is often seen as a corollary of work – what you get paid to do – not as play per se.

What emerges from this is that construing learning and play as different things and assuming that children and young people must either be learning or playing, is not a valid way of classifying learning and play. Learning can include play and play can include learning. Since play is one of the ways through which human beings learn anyway, it makes sense to incorporate it into learning rather than to see it as something that distracts from learning.