Playfulness and Playlessness: The Politics and Pedagogy of Play

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. My good friend Debi Keyte Hartland who inspires me with her insight on pedagogical documentation recently wrote a blog post that spoke to the challenging times and the potential of documentation to make visible the values of a humane society. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that I too have been thinking about the potential of play to make visible the values of early learning teachers. Do they value children’s competency, capacity and potential? Are they supporting children’s independence and autonomy or are they looking to control children’s experiences in order to support children to become obedient and respectful of authority? Play offers children an opportunity for freedom. It gives them the chance to feel independent and in control. Those who would suggest replacing play in early learning with work (or the dreaded worksheets) might be doing so to remove this freedom from children? Play is freedom and so much more. According to Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff (2003), there are five essential elements that make play what it is. Play must:


Last week, in my History and Philosophy course with second year, ECE degree students we reflected on our interpretations of play and illustrated them in a word cloud. The words that appear larger were said more often by the 62 students in the class.


Free, fun, open-ended, interactive and adventurous experiences happen through play, especially play outdoors! When the students reflected on play in their reading response to an article about Plato some of them made connections to current political climates. Play is political. When early learning teachers support play they are being political. When they don’t they are also being political but from a position at the opposite end of the political continuum from left to right. I have written about politics before and it is a very heady subject that requires continued reading and reflection. I am currently trying to absorb an article that speaks to the political world of children  and considering the politics as well as the pedagogy of play.


What would be the political outcome of a systematic approach to teaching and learning that supports play? Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote the book “Emile” in 1762 depicting a world in which the child should roam freely, explore the woods and fields, and learn to read through play. Rousseau believed that play was a child’s right and was very influential in this time period. He wrote that Emile should be taken outside everyday, “far out into the fields” instead of suffocating in the “exhausted air indoors” (Rousseau, 1889, p. 41).

The ideal world for a child was (and still is) to play outside.

…let him run about, play, fall down a hundred times a day; oftener the better, as he will sooner learn to get up again by himself. The boon of freedom is worth many scars. My pupil will have many bruises, but to make amends for that, he will always be light-hearted. Though your pupils are less often hurt, they are continually thwarted. Fettered; they are always unhappy. (Rousseau, 1889, p. 41)

Hats off to Rousseau who after centuries continues to ground our thinking about the importance of full-body play outdoors! This is play that is joyful and political! I am looking forward to more joyful play on May 6th when early learning teachers and other educators get together to participate in the Pedagogy of Play in Nature conference to experience a pop up adventure playground and a keynote address by Marlene Power, Executive Director of Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. In addition, there will be stations set up throughout the forest facilitated by educators who value outdoor play. They will share how they support children to be competent and capable community members with rights and voice. Support a democratic approach to early learning and children will learn to control themselves as active citizens of their world. That’s play, pedagogy and politics!


5 thoughts on “Playfulness and Playlessness: The Politics and Pedagogy of Play

  1. Thank you for recognizing the political aspects of play in the world of the child. I wonder if play is political in the world of the adult who in relation to the world of the child, the world of school and the world of curriculum has politicized play to the point where play is now intentional and purposeful. This creates tension among the Kehilders interested in the growth and development of children but postulates the notion of play as a point of control in order for some and I repeat to make meaning of curriculum. I also wonder about the notion of documentation as we learn about the child. I wonder if our interpretations of play are politically bound as educators feel a strong sense of accountability but struggle with what learning is happening. Do we fully understand the learning in play? Have we taken the time to really observe which requires our own stillness to listen and observe, to watch for understanding rather than interpret the play from our accountability stance rather than a learning stance? For it is in these focused quiet moments that we come know the child and ourselves in relation to others that true connection may occur.


  2. Thanks for another important post, Diane. I think the Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff list is a great jump off point for new questions:
    Is it pleasurable and enjoyable because it’s play or is it play because it’s pleasurable and enjoyable? In what is the pleasure rooted (i.e., is pleasure derived from feeling a sense of purpose and agency and belonging?)
    Is it possible for learning experiences simultaneously to have no extrinsic goals, spontaneous, and voluntary – and be purposeful and community oriented? Might something that is not a participant’s “first choice” – that involves nudging – still be seen as voluntary? Is there a spectrum of “voluntary-ness” within which playful learning experiences might sit – that still distinguishes those experiences from alientatingly compulsory?
    What is the role of imagination in learning?
    Great stuff.


  3. Pingback: Play: A Four Letter Word To Embrace | The road traveled

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post. I truly agree that the values of the educators in the classroom are reflected in the kinds and content of the documentation that they produce for their children. One of the challenges I can see for some educators is a struggle between what they are taught about children’s play and learning, and what they experienced as a child. For a lot of us, our childhood experiences involved rich free play outside, but in the classroom, the “dreaded” worksheets ruled! Many parents as well hold the same values in hand; that learning is measured through paper and pencil tasks and memorization. Authentic documentation is a great way to help parents to see and celebrate the learning of their children. So how do we get educators to be brave and move beyond their comfort zone? I would offer time, support and information would benefit educators in providing rich visual accounts of the learning of the children!


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