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Listening to young children's voices: an ethnographic study on nursery play

Maria Stamatoglou
University of Wolverhampton

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 16-18 September 2004

Over the past decades young children’s play has been the focus of biological, psychological, sociological and educational research. Play is considered to be the medium of early learning, yet it has mainly been researched by observing children at play within early childhood educational settings and by interviewing proxy raters (for example their parents/carers and educators); hardly ever had young children been asked to provide their own accounts regarding their nursery play experiences. On these accounts this paper addresses the need for young children’s voices to be heard. It is based on a yearlong study at a nursery school in the north of England where approximately 100 young children aged between 3 and 4:6 years old, 22 parents and 9 nursery teachers and nurses participated. The aims of the study were to ‘listen to young children’s voices’; to place their views alongside the perceptions of their significant adults; to allow young children to become active participants in the ‘play’ research process. For the purposes of this ethnographic study the researcher’s fieldnotes, children’s drawings, ‘peripheral’ observations, a video camera, a tape recorder, and still photographs taken by the children themselves provided data for analysis. The video footage and still photographs were later used as stimuli for the group interviews with the children and the semi-structured interviews with their significant adults. Discourse analysis suggested that young children’s play comments on their nursery play can provide practitioners and other significant adults with valuable insight into their views of nursery play. With children’s constructions of learning, gender and power relations providing the main themes of this study it is believed that young children’s voices are distinct and if placed alongside the perspectives of their parents/carers and nursery practitioners can help us create a complete picture of the nursery play with implications on the implementation of the early childhood education curriculum.

Researching play in the early years from the children’s perspective

As it will be argued, studies that research young children’s play through observations or interviews with significant adults supersede these that place the children’s views in the centre of attention. Apart from a few examples of similar studies in the late 1970’s (King, 1979) and mid and late 1980’s (Kaarby, 1988; Paley, 1988; Kelly-Byrne, 1989), there is an increase in studies that are seeking the children’s perspectives on early years play during the 1990’s and beyond (Paley, 1990; Gura, 1992; Corsaro, 1992, 1994, 1997; Wing, 1995; Danby, 1998; Holland, 2003; Pollard, 1996; Nutbrown, 1997; Sawyer, 1997; MacNaughton, 1999; Keating, et al. 2000). The majority of these studies used participant or non-participant observations, field notes, interviews or discussions with children and collection of relevant play material. More recently, audiovisual techniques were used to record and analyze children’s play (Clark and Moss, 2001; Fasoli, 2003).

To begin with, one of these studies (King, 1979) researched children’s perspectives on play in four kindergarten classrooms; children’s play was observed and later children (both girls and boys) were interviewed. Children were asked to talk about their play and work experience within the setting and according to King (1979) no child had difficulty in labelling each activity as either play or work. However, in children’s talk most of their kindergarten activities were viewed as work rather than play and children identified the voluntary nature of play as its most salient characteristic. King (ibid.) concludes that:

‘children in the kindergarten learn their play does not hold a significant place in the important business of school and by using play as a reward for children who have finished their work, or regarding play to recess, an activity apart from the classroom schedule and often outside the school building, further separates play from the central concerns of the school’ (p.86).

Kelly-Byrne (1989) in her ethnographic study of a single child at the child’s home, tried to explore the child’s perceptions of play. Most of the times the researcher was following the child’s agenda; she revealed that the child’s play was complex and at times difficult for the researcher to follow, but gradually she received equal rights from the child and become the child’s playmate and companion, sharing the same fantasies and enabling thus the child to flourish.

In 1995 Wing, used participant observations and in-depth interviews to explore young children’s perceptions of classroom activities and also the perception of their early educators. By concentrating on children’s views on play and work, the researcher found out that children were very skilled at distinguishing between activities that are related to work and these related to play; a distinction of which teachers are unaware of. Children did not perceive work negatively; although they could recognize the fact that play was a voluntary activity, while work was teacher initiated (Wing, 1995).

Children’s thoughts about play and toys within a preschool setting were also studied by Hjorth (1999). She interviewed children between the ages of 5 and 7 and revealed that children shared their play experiences and explained the reasons behind it and also provided the motivation for choosing a particular toy. Through play, as Hjorth (ibid.) suggests, children structure their own way of imposing order on activities and toys and they create a clear connection between motive and content which results in actions becoming conscious, deliberate and reflective.

More recently, Keating et al. (2000) researched the views of 5 stakeholders (head of nurseries, teachers and parents) and children in 10 primary schools in the UK about the role of play in the Reception Class with very diverse findings due to the heterogeneity of the participants. The interviews with the adults revealed that there is ‘pressure on the teachers to provide evidence of learning and attainment, which can be recorded and reported to parents and other professionals’ (p. 441) something that is extremely difficult to be accomplished in settings where play is the main ‘vehicle for learning’, but despite this tension teachers believe that play is a ‘powerful and productive learning medium’ (ibid., p.441). On the other hand, children thought that play is inferior to ‘work and for them work meant sitting on a table with a pencil and a pen’, while play was self initiated and consisted of the ‘home corner, painting, Lego, the writing station, paper, crayons, clock, books, the wooden bricks, the sand’ and so forth (ibid. p. 444).

Although the studies of King, (1979), Wing (1995) and Keating et al. (2001) had taken place more than 25 years apart identify the difficulty of placing play within the early years setting without having to prove its value for learning and development. Play seems to be less important than work and teachers seem to have difficulty in providing evidence of children’s learning through play, while the children themselves seem to be aware of the differences between play and work, although they learn from early on that play is not equally important with work.

The work of Paley (1988, 1990, 1993) consists of extensive and systematic inquiry of young children’s perceptions and experiences of play within their nursery setting through storytelling. It is one of a few longitudinal works being reported in this section (see also Kelly-Byrne, 1989; Corsaro, 1993). Children’s play incidents are recorded either by hand written notes or by the use of tape recorder and latter children are asked to present their own version (stories) of their play lived experiences. Issues that are being explored through Paley’s work vary from children who are experiencing emotional difficulties (1993) to children’s use of pretend play to explore the importance of rules and social competence (1989; 1990).

In his ethnographic studies, Corsaro researched children’s play experiences in nursery settings of the US and Italy with the aim to examine children’s everyday discourse processes within the children’s peer culture and how these reflect the general school culture as well as the local communities. Corsaro (1993; p. 23) argues that:

‘friendships are constituted in the everyday routines of peer cultures that are influenced by and contribute to the reproduction of the adult world… friendship is a complex phenomenon… friendship processes are seen as deeply embedded in children’s collective, interpretive reproduction of their culture’.

Marsh (2001) studied the role of popular culture in the literacy curriculum in the early years. During the project emphasis was given to a pre-set sociodramatic role-play area (the Batman cave) where children’s play was recorded by field notes, video recording and photographs. Although the role-play area could be considered as highly gendered and would attract more boys than girls, the study revealed that girls were equally attracted by the theme and became involved in writing and reading activities. Girls at the same time explored issues of autonomy and were able ‘to position themselves within heroic discourse’ (Marsh, 2001; p.219).

Thus as it was presented above most researchers based their accounts on detailed observations of children’s play experiences while only a few have also included the views of significant adults in children’s life to compliment these observations. Apart from a few noticeable exceptions there has been little attempt to incorporate young children’s voices in these accounts; accounts that are also limited as far as children’s participation and overall involvement is concerned.

It is also becoming apparent that there are a few examples in research that directly seeks the perceptions of young children in relation to their play in the early years (for instance, King, 1979). Nevertheless, during the late 1990’s there is an increase in seeking the views of young children themselves and in this attempt researchers employ different research methods to enable this participation.

Why is this study different?

Why is this study, being reported in this thesis different? Firstly, this study acknowledges this fact that there limited literature of young children’s constructions of nursery play, secondly, that children’s perceptions of nursery play had been sought through observations over a short period of time – apart from some exemptions – and by interviewing children. This study instead, has researched children’s perspectives by using a wealth of research methods in order to enable the children not only to be involved in the research but also to participate and the main informants. Thus, this paper wishes to add to the growing early childhood education research literature by stressing the importance of the need for young children to be heard. In doing so, it presents evidence that young children are capable of becoming research participants and informants provided that the researcher has thoroughly and carefully considered the importance of sufficient time and appropriate use of research methods based on those young children’s age, needs, and understanding. Their views could obviously provide additional knowledge about their nursery play experiences along with the views of their significant adults with significant implications for implementing the early childhood curriculum. Although no generalizations could be claimed because of the small-scale nature of this study, the present findings will provide us with valuable insights regarding young children’s perceptions and experiences of nursery play.

Giving voice to young children: some ethical considerations

Why should we include young children in research? Why is giving young children a voice important? Morrow and Richards (1996) consider that ‘the biggest ethical challenge for researchers working with children is the discrepancies in power and status between adults and children’ (p.98), whilst Taylor (1998) argues in relation to the methodological challenges:

‘…the researcher who wishes to study children particularly during the early years, is faced with a wealth of potential, as well as a few methodological ‘headaches’! For example, traditional methods of collecting data may be inappropriate or even impossible because of the child’s stage of development’ (p.265).

The Children Act of 1989 established the right of the child to be listened to and promoted the concept of social agencies working in partnership with parents (Lloyd-Smith and Tarr, 2000). A movement that promotes this necessity for children to be listened to has been developed, although Roberts (2000) believes that listening to children has a longer history than hearing and taking full accounts of what children are telling us as part of their interviews. She suggests that, although more listening does not automatically means more hearing, listening is crucial because, it means that we recognize and respect their worth as human beings. On the same account, Lansdown (1994) stressed that ‘we do not have a culture of listening to children’ (p. 38).

Hearing and listening to what the children tell the researcher are two separate and distinct activities. In my view, hearing is the process through which children’s views are recorded through everyday practices within and out of school settings; such process is generally passive and automatic in some cases. Whereas listening, employs more active ways of actually taking into account children’s views, especially when it comes to informing current research and educational practices.

Only if young children are included in early childhood research will researchers find better ways of communication and the former will enhance their way of learning, living, respecting and sharing their views. The nurseries in Reggio Emilia, in Italy, provide examples of good practice when it comes to involving children in their education and decision making in particular. The founder of the Reggio Emilia approach very eloquently informs us that children have ‘a hundred languages’ (Malaguzzi, 1996). Children, and in particular young children, should be enabled to express their views in any way possible whether this is practiced through the medium of talk or through children’s activities and overall behaviour. In this way if could replace the word ‘language’ with what Clough (2000) calls ‘voice’, could it be that listening to children’s voices in less complicated than it seems provided that the researchers have ‘wide eyes and open minds’ (Nutbrown, 1996)?

Justifications for giving voice to children can be made from an educational as well as a sociological point of view (Lloyd – Smith and Tarr, 2000). Davie and Galloway (1996) point out the practical benefits of giving children a say in their education. They believe that by doing so we could provide a desirable model of cooperative working and we will give a sense of ownership over what goes on in school, adding also that it is effective because children who have been involved in decision making will find it harder to complain later about what goes on in their schools. From a sociological point of view on the other hand:

‘the practical justification for giving children a voice in educational policy making, in monitoring and quality assurance as well as in research is epistemological. The reality experienced by children and young people in educational settings cannot be fully comprehended by inference and assumption. The meanings they attach to their experiences are not necessarily the meanings that their teachers or parents would ascribe; the subcultures that children inhabit in classrooms and schools are not always visible or accessible to adults’ (Lloyd – Smith and Tarr, 2000; p. 61).

In particular, in the U.K. the children’s consent is not considered enough by researchers (Mayall, 2000). However, researchers are learning how to work with children on use of space, for example, research is taking place in a familiar environment for children preserving the ‘ecological niche’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1989), and research proceeds according to the needs and pace of the children - in ways acceptable to the adults.

Consequently, the children are, most of the time, treated as the objects of the research and not the subjects, who are in a position to speak ‘in their own right’ and report valid views and experiences; such participation involves a changing emphasis in research methods and topics (Alderson 2000).

Some methods in research with young children

The vast majority of the studies presented in the literature, are concentrated on observing and intervening with children within familiar and non-familiar settings, but few studies address any research questions directly to the children. Sayeed and Guerin (2000) note that

‘research is largely based on observations of players (children) and non-players (adults) as the players are not generally expected to be able to describe what they are/were doing while they are/were engaging in play’ (p.2).

Research involving children is unlikely and arguably should not take place unless the parents’ / carers’ and educators’ (those two groups are known as gatekeepers) consent is being secured. In some cases children, especially pre-school children do not even know that they are part / focus of the study, let alone being asked for their consent.

Different ways of collecting data are being developed so that the views of young children themselves can be uncovered. Video and audio techniques have been used to enable children to express their views (Paley, 1989; Sawyer, 1997; MacNaughton, 1999; Forman, 2001). Children’s play and daily activities have been video and tape-recorded (Paley, 1989; Reynolds and Jones, 1997; Sawyer, 1997) and in some cases the incidents are played back to the children for their comments (MacNaughton, 1999 – personal communication). In some studies children are being given ‘ownership’ of the project by taking their own photographs with disposable cameras (Clark and Moss, 2001; Fasoli, 2003). Other studies (Corsaro, 1993; Hutt et al., 1989; James, 1993; Nutbrown, 1999) provide evidence that it is important and possible to include young children’s voices in research related to children’s development, well being and learning.

Methodology and analysis

This study is of an ethnographic nature. Through the use of ethnography the aim was not to discover what children think of their nursery play activities but mainly how they experience these activities on a daily basis. For ethnography

‘first … assumes that an understanding of how children learn, not simply what they learn is central to the comprehension of processes of cultural learning. A second, and closely linked assumption is that it is not sufficient simply to observe adults’ behaviour towards children; it is important also to see children as social actors in their own right, to observe and understand what it is that children do with one another as well as with their adult care-takers and, most importantly, to canvass children’s own views and opinions directly’ (James, 2000; p. 250).

Ethnography has the most established place in the social sciences and humanities, (Alldred 1998) and because ‘children are another socially silent group: their opinions are not heard in the public sphere and they wield little power as a social group’ (ibid.), such approach seemed to me as the most appropriate for the purposes of this study. The following statements by Brown and Dowling (1998) and Tedlock (2000) also came to support my decision:

‘For the educational researcher the adoption of an ethnographic approach makes the exploration of the processes of teaching and learning in the classroom, the ‘lore’ of the playground, power relations amongst school staff, the relationship between the home culture and of the school and so on’ (Brown and Dowling 1998; p.43).


‘by entering into firsthand interaction with people in their everyday lives, ethnographers can reach a better understanding of the beliefs, motivations and behaviours of their subjects than they can by using any other method’ (Tedlock 2000).

So, baring in mind that choosing a methodology is a personal issue and after having seriously thought of the topic under investigation, this study commenced. Following is a presentation of the research participants.

Participants of the study

Children predominantly came from middle class white British families; two girls were of Asian origin with parents being brought up in the UK; another girl had mixed British and other European origin; one girl had mixed British and black Caribbean origin and one boy had just arrived in the city from South America. During the main study 50 children aged between 3:6 and 5 years old (21 boys and 29 girls) were surveyed about their toy requests from Father Christmas; an additional 33 children aged between 3:6 and 5 years old (20 girls and 13 boys) were involved in group discussions based on the video footage and 31 of these children (15 girls and 16 boys) took photographs, while 18 of them chose to make stories based on these photographs.

As far as the video based group discussions are concerned, initially, 38 children – with 33 of them taking part - were identified. The total time of unedited video footage was 6 hours. The edited video compromised approximately 4 hours. Seventeen groups of children, each watched video clips between 6 and 15 minutes. This difference in duration mainly had to do with the activities that the children were involved in, the number of the children in the group and the age of the children.

Group discussions that took place with the young children did not have the form of a focus group.

"A focus group is a carefully planned discussion held in a permissive, non threatening environment that is designed to provide in-depth information about how a certain group of people perceive a certain area of interest. Focus group members are led to interact with each other so that they respond to opposing ideas and comments and reveal many facets of a given issue … [focus group] … gives decision makers valuable insights into the target audience’s perspectives without providing statistical data" (Moulton and Roberts, 1993; p.35).

It soon became apparent that the above characteristics of an adult oriented focus group were not present in the interviews I had with the children. The pair/group interviews took place in a non-threatening environment and the aim was to collect information about how this particular group of young children perceived their nursery play or whatever they were interested at in relation to the video footage. Also, I had a set agenda of questions that I wanted to ask the children, but they were free to explore other issues as well. The main difference though was that there was limited, if any at all, interaction between the children during the whole discussion. Children concentrated on the video footage and on what I was asking them but in most cases seemed oblivious to what the other children in the group were saying, apart from certain instances where there was limited interaction between the children triggered by one of the children’s comments on the video.

Nine members of the nursery staff took part in the study. Interviews took place at the nursery and lasted around 30 minutes; these interviews were conducted during the normal school time and various rooms were used according to the time of the day and availability when the interview was taking place. Although at that point the time and place seemed appropriate and convenient for the nursery staff, I felt that they didn’t have their full attention on the questions asked because they were distracted by various incidents taking place around them. For instance, where interviews took place in the same room that the children were having a story read by the other member of staff this was distracting. In the pilot study this was a concern for me so I kept such distractions to a minimum during the main study by suggesting use of a quite space away from children whenever possible. All staff were happy for the interviews to take place at the nursery during school time.

In addition to the children and the nursery staff, 20 parents (18 mothers and 2 fathers) were interviewed in the main study so that the opinions of all three groups could be compared for similarities and differences. These interviews took place at the nursery; most of the parents who agreed to be interviewed also watched and commented a video clip of their children playing. Two interviews took place with both the mother and the father and seven other interviews took place with the mother and their younger child present, since they did not have anybody to care for the children with at home. The former provided an opportunity for interaction and exchange of opinions between the two parents; their views seemed to be complimentary to each other. The latter posed certain difficulties as the mother’s attention was obstructed by something the child was doing and in one case the interview took place at the outside area with the child playing around the various equipment and the mother and I walking at a close distance, something that prohibited the use of the dictaphone, although the mother had consented in principle for the interview to be tape recorded and for children’ photographs to be used for the purposes of this research.

Analysis of data

Analysis of interviews and group discussions was carried out by using the computer package for qualitative analysis (QSR, NVivo) and by manually searching for key themes in the texts so that they could be later inserted manually into a certain category that represented this theme.

To start with, all interviews were meticulously transcribed and word-processed. I used the transcripts to look for ‘main themes’ across the interviews and group discussions and for similarities or differences between the responses of the participants within and between the groups (children, parents and nursery staff). The qualitative package (QSR, NVivo) was chosen because I believed it would provide me with the opportunity to compare between my manual analysis and the computer’s abilities to search key themes and words with more accuracy. This dual process allowed me to guard against the possibility of computer analysis creating unrelated categories and me missing important categories through manual handling of the data. The two methods together provided greater rigour, reliability and validity of analysis.

Initially the data were coded. In particular, I ‘tried to make judgements about the meanings of contiguous chunks of text’ (Ryan and Bernard, 2000; p.780). The participants’ responses were divided into three categories: main themes (tree nodes), sub-themes (child nodes or sibling nodes based on their relationship as the names suggest) and free nodes, which are usually the data that cannot be entered neither under a tree node nor under a child or sibling node. After the main themes were identified, the codes were organised into lists and information was provided for each individual code along with the exclusion and inclusion criteria. Finally, conceptual models or analytical frameworks were designed in which sets of views, responses and behaviours of each group of participant separately were presented.

The research process generated these themes through the data collected from the group discussions and semi-structured interviews, thus the analytical process could be described as inductive rather than deductive. I tried to apply rigour to my understanding of the participants’ experiences and views. Similar practices are employed by researchers engaged in ‘grounded theory’ research, when an attempt is made to identify categories and concepts as they emerge from texts and related these concepts into substantive and formal theories (Ryan and Bernard, 2000; p. 782).

For the present study, the main rationale for my approach was that through these processes I would not influence the outcome of the study and could guard against manipulation of the data received from the participants. The nature of the children’s group discussions and their difference in perception and way of talking about issues in comparison with the adult participants of the study also needed careful analysis. Thus, although this was an ethnographic study elements in its analysis drew on grounded theory research. But, as Hammersley and Atkinson (1983) suggest:

‘Ethnographic research has a characteristic ‘funnel’ structure, being progressively focused over its course. Progressive focusing has two analytically distinct components. First over time the research problem is developed or transformed, and eventually its scope is clarified and delimited and its internal structure explored. In this sense, it is frequently only over the course of the research that one discovers what the research is really ‘about’, and it is not uncommon for it to turn out to be about something quite remote from the initially foreshadowed problems’ (p.175).

The data analysis went through various phases. Although data were being interpreted from the first steps into the field, after having completed the fieldwork period I needed to make sense of the data collected as a whole or as separate parts of the research. LeCompte and Schensul (1999) argue that:

‘data analysis means figuring out what to do with the mountains of data that ethnographic research projects generate – drawers full of fieldnotes; boxes of interviews and tests; stacks of documents, maps, logs, artefacts, drawings, and charts; photographs; video-and audiotapes; survey data; and other kinds of material’ (p.147).

Most of the data referred above – fieldnotes, interview transcripts, documents, drawings, photographs, video- and audiotapes – were generated during this study and I now needed to make sense, sort, code, reduce and pattern into a ‘story’ as it is suggested by LeCompte and Schensul (1999).

It should be stressed at this point that every method has its own biases, which can be overcome by using a diversity of methods (Freudenberger and Gueye, 1990). The various methods, if they are put together:

"provide different information which is mutually enriching. Thus, when possible, it is better to select techniques that are complementary in that they provide crosschecks and new information" (Whyte, 1977).

Some of the methods and tools used for this study (such as drawings, photographs, and OfSTED inspection report) are for information gathering only. Others, however, (such as the group discussions and semi-structured interviews, the video recordings and the written play information provided by the parents) work as analytical tools at the same time; they set up a simple analytical framework while gathering information.

Initially, data were isolated so that it was possible for me to carefully look into, sort and match – what LeCompte and Schensul (ibid.) call ‘item level analysis’ and later groups of items that fitted together and express a particular theme were used to create patterns – ‘pattern level analysis’ (LeCompte and Schensul, 1999). In this way, I was able to work through data, clarify some of my thoughts and ‘see the story’ unfold as all the pieces were coming together. The next step was to move on to create a research model or models that would be based on the data itself.

Thus, through this process, I started to develop and generate a formative research model for each group of the participants. According to Schensul et al. (1999) ‘a formative research model is a diagram that represents the initial relationships among elements or concepts with regard to the topic…’ (p.22). This is done in the process of describing and understanding the particular set of data. The models created from the data of this study were being drawn in the computer package NVivo and were based on my assignment of each data set into ‘tree’, ‘child’ / ‘sibling’ or ‘free’ nodes. As the titles assume the ‘tree’ nodes were main categories and the ‘child’ and ‘sibling’ nodes were dependant on the ‘tree’ nodes; whereas the ‘free’ nodes were independent domains and could not directly be associated with ‘tree’, ‘child’ or ‘sibling’ nodes.

Discussion of findings

Although this study explored three different strands in relation to children’s nursery play – learning, gender and power, for the purposes of this paper, the following questions in relation to learning were being addressed:

  1. How do young children view play?

  2. How do young children experience nursery play in relation to learning?

  3. Is there evidence to support that children learn through play within the nursery setting?

Incidents from children’s nursery play video footage and classroom observations were used as the basis for the group and pair interviews with the children. During the group and pair interviews, which were open ended, children were asked to comment on their play behaviour that was captured by the video.

  1. How do children view play?

With regard to nursery play in general, children made comments on the processes, properties and management on play. When children talked about their nursery play experiences, they provided with great details information about the play episodes that were on the video. Although most children mainly referred to their activities in a literal way, there were children who commented that they were playing and later gave more specific information as to what they had been doing on the video. Children did not elaborate on their views of what play is, something that provided evidence of the fact that for children play is a natural activity which is part of their daily lives and probably children are not aware of its differentiation from work. Finally, some children said that ‘work’ rather than ‘play’ happened when they were on the computer and there was a sense from the children that there was a need for them to be involved with the computer when they were at the nursery.

The majority of the children recalled the play events shown on the video quite easily, while at the same time they made additional comments about related play incidents, not necessarily shown on the video, but which children considered to be of importance. Some children, however, found it difficult to recall the play events or even associate themselves with their images on the television without being prompted. When prompted most children were likely to understand that it was themselves they could see on the video and this was a good starting point for the interviews.

Comments were also made about the difficulty of certain play activities that the children were involved in and about the role of the adults, mainly the teachers at the setting. These according to some children were present at the nursery to provide their help and assistance to the children when needed. Finally, children showed a level of metacognition when discussing other children’s or their teachers’ play behaviour; it was then that the children were more likely to refer to the play incidents as ‘play’ rather than anything more specific.

  1. How do young children experience nursery play in relation to learning?

Interviews with the children based on the video footage provided valuable information with regards to this research question. Children were observed and videoed whilst involved in various activities within the classrooms; observations and video footage that was later used to stimulate interviews with the children.

According to the children, there was evidence of learning taking place while they were involved in different play activities within the setting. However, these learning processes were not apparent to the children as none of the children commented specifically that they learned something from the activity. Children were likely to comment that they were or were not familiar with the activities or that they were old enough or young enough to get involved with certain activities. For instance, one boy suggested that some activities are ‘good for’ him because he knows how to complete the activity.

Individual children seemed to be making use of certain activities within the setting, gender was an important factor when it came to choosing or participating to these activities.

Finally, children’s play behaviour and responses to the video footage, provided evidence that they were employing a wealth of social, personal, cognitive and imaginative skills when involved in activities either on their own or alongside another child.

  1. Is there evidence of children learning through play within the nursery setting?

As shown earlier, for the purposes of this paper observations and the video footage was structured along the six areas of learning adapted from the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (QCA, 2000).

I believed that by doing so, the structure of the data would become more coherent in terms of current policy. Indeed, by considering the data that had derived from the classroom observations and the video footage, evidence of learning in different areas could be found, thus providing evidence of children’s learning (as described in current English policy) through their play activities. Most of the learning stories presented in this paper emanate from child-initiated rather than teacher-initiated activities which suggests

These learning stories, have shown young children as competent both personally and socially in imaginary situations; situations where feelings were explored and negotiation skills were being developed. Children also showed interest for literacy and numeracy through their play activities; not only were children involved in these activities, but also showed evidence of learning from them.

In addition, children made use of the information provided to them by the teachers to inform their own play patterns and make associations between their personal experiences with what they have talked about at the nursery. Also apparent was the fact that children gained from activities that were initially planned to cover a certain area of learning, by taking the activity a step further according to their own needs, skills and interests. So the children made more of what was provided than teachers expected in their planning.

Although children’s views on their own learning were not explicit, I suggest that the evidence pointed in this paper shows that. Learning was present in children’s play within the nursery setting and that children were using, most of the time without being aware, these activities to practice, perform and refine their personal, social, cognitive, emotional skills. Such skills will provide a starting point for them when they enter formal schooling, which they can build on and extend.

Future directions

Young children’s play in the nursery setting in relation to learning has been the focus of this paper. A review of relevant studies on young children’s perceptions of nursery play has taken place along with a discussion on issues of ethics, methods and methodology related to early childhood research in general.

Although the presentation of the findings for the purposes of this paper has not been extensive, the author suggests that young children are in a position to locate themselves in research practices as active participants and informants. Researchers and practitioners may benefit from such practices as children’s views will form a basis for discussion and consideration of future practices.

Young children’s ability to discuss in details issues that are related to their nursery play practices could inform the early year’s curriculum. As children of this study have shown, they are capable of denoting their opinions on play activities and their usefulness. High levels of concentration, imagination, co-operation, problem solving and creativity were recorded in the video footage and so was accuracy in recalling play events that were related to the video footage shown.

The use of various research methods provided the grounds for discussion between the researcher and the children as well as the adult participants. Such methods could not only benefit researchers but also practitioners who wish to develop their planning alongside the main recipients, which are the children themselves.

Further research could provide more evidence on whether children of older ages (particularly children in reception classes) give the same attributions to play and provide similar information when it comes to their play activities. How do older children view play in relation to learning? Are their views similar or different to these of younger children who have not experienced the formal schooling environment? These are considered to be some of the questions that could support or extend the efforts and attempts of the present research.


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