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"Come and be an animal - you haven't done it today." Is Role-Play Really Play?

“Come and be an animal – you haven’t done it today”
Is Role-Play Really Play?
By Junnine Thomas-Walters and Jill Morgan

Play is the natural activity of childhood. It’s how children learn about their world and their place in that world. It’s generally associated with “having fun,” natural curiosity, and pushing boundaries. But here in Wales since 2008, play has also featured large in early years pedagogy. The Foundation Phase, which covers the first four years of formal schooling in Wales (with children from age three-and-a-half to seven) is based on the notion of experiential learning, or what is often referred to as “learning through play.” There are mixed feelings about this extended “play time” and, indeed, the English school system has restricted play-based learning to the first year of school. But in 2010, the then First Minister of Wales defended the practice because children are “gaining first-hand experiences through play and active involvement which enables them to be creative, imaginative, and have fun whilst learning.” And who could object to such a rationale? – it sounds like the perfect situation.

Now in 2017, the jury is still out on whether the Foundation Phase is actually fulfilling expectations and transforming early years education as hoped, but it has highlighted some interesting issues. All teachers – including those who work in the Foundation Phase – are expected to assess pupils’ progress in terms of knowledge acquisition and skills development. This makes sense to ensure that pupils get what they need; assessment, after all, is not only to report current levels of attainment, but also to indicate where a child should head next, and what the adults should do to help them move in the right direction. But can you assess play? And even if you can, should you? Can you teach play? Should we even need to? Unless we have concerns over a child’s social skills or physical coordination (that is, an unnatural lack of inclination and ability to engage in play) we wouldn’t normally assess a child’s play, but with play used as a deliberate vehicle for learning, the question isn’t quite that simple.

We recently investigated play in two Reception classes (the second year of schooling with children age four to five) in Wales, interviewing the teachers and support staff, and observing children in role-play areas set up by the teacher. This is what we saw.

In the first classroom, the role-play area was set up as a supermarket with a variety of empty food containers on a central table (egg boxes, milk cartons, etc.). There were small shopping baskets, labelling aplenty, and two toy cash registers. This role-play area was supervised by a member of the support staff who encouraged the children to use the area as set up, and essentially kept them on-task: role-playing shopping for food. Small groups of children were taken into the area to have their turn playing there. The children were encouraged to ‘write’ themselves a shopping list (using emergent writing) before shopping.
One particular exchange between the adult and one of the children was fairly typical and suggested that ‘play’ was definitely a misnomer for what was occurring in the area. The child approached the cash register with her basket of shopping, ready to pay for her goods. The adult was at the cash register and chastised her for having items in her basket which were not on her list. She was sent back to collect the correct items!

This doesn’t look like much fun. But even if the adult was attempting to correct the child’s role-play and teach the child about “shopping for food,” she must have entirely forgotten how it really works. Has she never been to the supermarket and picked up extra items that aren’t on her list? Does she never change her mind once the list is written?

So we might well ask what purpose this role-play area and the assigned time spent there was intended to serve. It would appear to be based on the notion that an activity such as shopping is a pretty rigid, step-by-step process which children need to learn (properly) so that they can practice for adult life. The approach was prescriptive and corrective – words which don’t figure in the usual definition of play. Small wonder that during the afternoon of the observation, when the role-play area was one of the options open to the class, not one child chose to “play shop.”

The second Reception class we observed also had a dedicated role-play area, with a Teaching Assistant assigned to supervise.

A story from ‘Percy the Park Keeper’ by Nick Butterworth had been read to the children and the role-play area held props and character masks relating to the story. A small group of children were being encouraged to pretend to be the different characters; rakes and shovels represented the badger digging.
One of the boys in the group takes a rake and walks off across the classroom. He’s told to bring the rake back – which he does, but as soon as the TA’s back is turned he takes it again and goes over to the construction area. Seeing this, a boy who’s not part of the role-play group comes over, takes a shovel and joins the first boy in the construction area, using the shovel to dig, but also swinging it around. Boy 1 meanwhile circulates around the room with his rake, periodically digging.
The TA is distributing masks to other children, notices that Boy 1 still has the rake, and asks him to return it, so that she can show the children how to dig. She demonstrates digging, encouraging the children to use their hands like claws. One of the children has a shovel, which he throws down – for no obvious reason - and stands on, breaking it. The TA’s attention is distracted while she deals with this, during which time some of the children wander off. One of them asks, ‘Have we finished now?’
The group all take off masks and return props but one mask is missing. While the TA looks for it, 4 boys put on masks and, pretending to be animals, hop and crawl around the room saying ‘Rabbit, rabbit’ over and over again.

The overall impression left by this observation was that the children could find much more interesting ways of using the props than those suggested by the TA – what some have referred to as the “subversive” nature of children’s play. The TA in turn was constantly having to bring the children’s attention (and themselves) back to the area and the task in hand.

During the interviews with the adults in the classroom, these are some of the things they told us:

  • The teachers set up a role-play area because it’s a very traditional, and still recommended, feature of early years settings; the theme of the area was generally based on the theme currently adopted in the class. However the teachers didn’t seem to have any real vested interest in the role-play area per se – it was dutiful rather than committed action. The TAs generally helped with set-up but didn’t necessarily have any part in the decision-making.

  • The teachers generally only monitored the role-play area for behavioral concerns: if the children were too noisy, they worried about disrupting other classes or looking as if they couldn’t control their own class, so they intervened; if too many children were trying to play in the area simultaneously, it generally caused disruption so they reminded children of the ‘no more than four’ rule. The TAs likewise watched out for children being “too rowdy” in the area.

  • Neither of the teachers had considered that they should assess the children at play, and both acknowledged the difficulty of attempting to do so. The TAs saw assessment as the teacher’s role; their job was to ensure that all children had a turn in the role-play area and engaged with the materials provided there.

What quickly became obvious from the observations was that the role-play area had very little to do with play – the usage of the word in the phrase “role-play” related to rehearsed performance, not free and spontaneous action, and certainly not exploration and creativity. Actors might dispute this rather limited view of the level of creativity required for them to perform their chosen roles, but would also no doubt object to such a prescriptive and corrective approach on the part of those who are directing their activities. And indeed, the TAs’ responses clearly constituted a form of assessment, as the children’s actions were so often adjudged to be falling short of expectations and in need of correction.

As both areas were supervised by support staff, we might attribute the negative quality of the supervision to the TAs’ lack of understanding. That is quite another discussion which we won’t attempt here, except to say that it would be the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that the TA monitored the role-play area in line with accepted good practice.

We have made some suggestions for what we can learn and use from this research – both for those who interact professionally and personally with children in a play setting – and you’ll find these in the box below.

For educators and other professionals involved in children’s play:

In lieu of the phrase “role play,” some educators recommend using terms such as “real world play” and “fantasy play” to distinguish between unrestrained activity using a variety of props and the more structured vocation-based set-up. But if we call both of those play, isn’t that just as confusing? And isn’t it perhaps the adults who are confused? Let’s just call these areas of the classroom the Home Corner or the Doctor’s Surgery, perhaps even the Play Corner and allow children to play, unfettered. If you feel they need an adult to refer to, let there be one there, but one who’s prepared to play with the children, not constrain their play so that it becomes unrecognisable and unpalatable to them. Let the adult indulge in creativity and exploration, not correction and restraint, if they feel the need to model activity. We can still impose rules, but these should relate to safety and yes, even to excessive noise, but only as part of the general social etiquette of the classroom.

For parents and those not professionally involved in children’s play:

We would advocate – in line with other authors, including some on this website – that we allow children to indulge their fantasies through play, that we respond in kind by at least sometimes playing freely along with them, and that we clearly demonstrate by what we say that nothing’s really impossible or too silly when you’re playing. Let’s use play as an opportunity to learn from the children, rather than to impose our ideas on them. We can still impose rules, but these should relate to safety and, yes, excessive noise.

We wouldn’t wish to suggest that all play in Foundation Phase classrooms is of the type we have described here. We know that play is used as a very effective vehicle for learning in many classrooms, as children are supported in their active learning by well-informed and sensitive adults. But as is so often the case, the glaring errors here easily highlighted issues for consideration. Above all, given that the whole Foundation Phase classroom is dedicated to exploratory and experiential learning, we would suggest that there could be one area of the room – call it what you will – where targets can be cheerfully disregarded, and where monitoring is limited to ensuring that the children are safe in their chosen playful activities; where play isn’t seen as something that children have to “do” each day, but as an essential part of what makes them the delightful young people they are.

Junnine Thomas-Walters' teaching career began in 1995 as a Reception class teacher where she predominantly taught Early Years within the Primary sector before moving into HE in 2006. Her particular interests are in Early Years, Additional Learning Needs, Coaching and Mentoring and CPLD. These have become the focus for her professional work within HE. Junnine is the Programme Director of three Master of Arts Programmes at University of Wales Trinity Saint David. She is also the CPLD Leadership and Quality Assurance Manager overseeing all aspects of continuing professional learning and development and the UWTSD Strategic Lead for the Outstanding Teacher Programme (OTP) and the Improving Teacher Programme (ITP). Her particular interest in Early Years has led to her being appointed as a trustee of Early Education (British Association for Early Childhood Education). Junnine’s research interests are focussed around creative and imaginative play in the Foundation Phase in Wales. Junnine is currently Chair of IPDA Cymru, a Welsh professional development association that is linked to IPDA (International Professional Development Association). She currently sits as a member of both IPDA and the International Committee.

Jill Morgan is a former primary school teacher from the UK. After 12 years in the classroom, she studied for a PhD in Special Education and Teacher Education at Utah State University, where she subsequently worked on a variety of projects developing training programmes for classroom support staff and their supervising teachers. She now works at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, where she continues her interest in the work of support staff through a Foundation degree in Inclusive Education, which gives access to Higher Education for those with non-academic qualifications.

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