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Guest editorial: Play and learning in educational settings.


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This issue explores play and learning within educational settings. Whilst play has always been viewed as central to learning, there is very little empirical work available to illustrate and justify this position, even though die view is globally held; this issue hopes to go some way towards redressing this imbalance. The majority of the contributions focus on the early years between 3 and 8. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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Play and learning in educational settings
Guest editors
Pat Broadhead & Diny van der Aalsvoort
4 About the contributors
5 Guest Editorial: Play and learning in educational settings
Pat Broadhead & Diny van der Aalsvoort
9 ‘Don’t enter – it’s dangerous’: Negotiations for power and exclusion in pre-school girls’
play interactions
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
19 Gendered discourses and practices in role play activities: A case study of young children in
the English Foundation Stage
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
31 Behavioural differences exhibited by children when practising a task under formal and
playful conditions
Karen McInnes, Justine Howard, Gareth E. Miles & Kevin Crowley
40 Play, Cognition and Self-Regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn
through play?
David Whitebread, Penny Coltman, Helen Jameson & Rachel Lander
53 Observed classroom interaction processes between pre-school teachers and children:
Results of a video study during free-play time in German pre-schools
Anke König
66 Play, narrative and learning in education: A biocultural perspective
Pam Jarvis
77 Conceptualising progression in the pedagogy of Play and Sustained Shared Thinking in
early childhood education: A Vygotskian perspective
Iram Siraj-Blatchford
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 3
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
4Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
About the contributors
Pat Broadhead, PhD, is Professor of Playful Learning at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Penny Coltman is Lecturer Director of the Early Years & Primary PGCE, Faculty of Education,
University of Cambridge.
Joanna Cook is a Reception class teacher in a Primary School.
Kevin Crowley, PhD, is a Principal Lecturer in Psychology, Faculty of Humanities and Social
Science, University of Glamorgan.
Ann-Carita Evaldsson, PhD, is a Professor at the Department of Education, Uppsala University.
Justine Howard, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Director at the Centre for Child
Research, Swansea University.
Helen Jameson is an early years teacher and MPhil student, Faculty of Education, University of
Pam Jarvis, PhD, Early Years Professional Status Academic Programme Co-ordinator Early
Years and Children’s Agenda, Teaching, Health and Care Sector.
Anke König, PhD, is Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Vechta.
Rachel Lander is an ex-MPhil student in Psychology and Education, Faculty of Education,
University of Cambridge and currently an Assistant Psychologist.
Karen McInnes is a doctoral student and tutor in Psychology, Faculty of Humanities and Social
Science, University of Glamorgan.
Gareth E. Miles, PhD, is a Lecturer in Psychology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Science,
University of Glamorgan.
Iram Siraj-Blatchford, PhD, is Professor of Early Childhood Education, Institute of Education,
University of London.
Britt Tellgren, PhD, is Lecturer In Education at the Department of Education, Örebro
Diny van der Aalsvoort, PhD, is Professor of Play at University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.
David Whitebread, PhD, is Senior lecturer in Psychology and Education, Faculty of Education,
University of Cambridge.
Elizabeth Wood, PhD, is Professor of Education, School of Education and Lifelong Learning
at the University of Exeter.
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 5
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
THIS ISSUE OF Educational & Child
Psychology explores play and learning
within educational settings. Whilst play
has always been viewed as central to
learning, there is very little empirical work
available to illustrate and justify this position,
even though the view is globally held; this
issue hopes to go some way towards
redressing this imbalance. The majority of
the contributions focus on the early years
between 3 and 8 but one contribution
focuses on aspects of play, through narrative
experiences in older, secondary school
children illustrating that play is not only the
domain of young children.
The editors define ‘educational settings’
as formal places such as preschools and
school classrooms, where professionals
provide play opportunities within a broader
context of educational experiences and
learning, albeit perhaps to differing degrees,
and where they also respond to children’s
self-initiated play though a range of peda-
gogical strategies. We acknowledge that
there are many informal spaces where play
occurs, but this was not the focus of the
publication. Our understandings of play are
influenced by time and place depending on
prevailing ideological, socio-cultural and
economic influences. These influences
shape children’s experience of play, and also
the range of skills, knowledge and experi-
ences they bring into their educational
settings as a basis for their playful encoun-
ters; these aspects are explored within the
contributions to this special edition.
Teachers respond from their own positions
of understanding in relation to play and
playful learning. These pedagogical deci-
sions shape the child’s opportunities and
experiences of play and subsequently also
influence their learning experiences, for
better or for worse.
With all this in mind, we invited Euro-
pean colleagues to contribute either recent
research studies or conceptualisations of
play in order to take forward the debate
about play and learning in educational
settings. The relative emphasis on either the
child’s experiences of playful learning or the
adult’s pedagogies differ across the respec-
tive papers but together, they represent a
solid engagement with these complementary
dimensions and, we hope, a key contribution
to the debates.
Readers will note that the contributing
papers take a range of approaches to the
study and understanding of playful learning
in educational settings. The majority of
contributions are qualitative, using deep
immersions and rich descriptions of actions
and interactions from both adults and
children. But quantitative methodologies
still have a key part to play and are not over-
looked across the contributors. Our contrib-
utors draw from an interesting range of
disciplines. They represent psychological
perspectives on playful learning and bio-
cultural approaches – a relatively newly
emerging field that some find contentious in
its engagement with evolutionary perspec-
tives. Some papers draw on feminist post-
structural theories and others take an
ethnographic approach. Whilst every paper
draws on related theoretical perspectives
and every paper does indeed draw to some
extent on empirical work, the balance varies
depending on what the authors are seeking
to achieve within their papers in pursuit of a
deeper understanding of this complex topic.
In the first paper, Evaldsson and Tellgren
seek a deeper understanding of the commu-
Guest Editorial: Play and learning in
educational settings
Pat Broadhead & Diny van der Aalsvoort
nicative competencies involved in the collec-
tive processes of social exclusion in girls’
play. They also illustrate how these processes
become an integral part of children’s
emerging peer culture and their place in the
adult world. Their research approach has
combined traditional ethnographic observa-
tions with analysis of talk-in-interaction. The
girls display complex communicative compe-
tencies (rejections of request for access,
oppositions, ignorance, justifications, and
directives). In addition the girls creatively
draw on cultural resources provided by the
organization of the play activity. In so doing,
the girls creatively appropriate educational
agendas and institutional rules of conduct,
creating a locally shared peer culture,
through appropriation and resistance both
to peers and to adult rules (pedagogies), in
the midst of play episodes.
Focussing also on aspects of gender in
play, Wood and Cook draw on contemporary
feminist post-structural theories to explore
gendered discourses and practices in role
play, in a small-scale case study of four
children (age 4 to 5 years) in the English
Foundation Stage (age birth to 5 years).
Non-participant observations of classroom-
based role play activities were carried out
over four months, incorporating a focus on
progression and continuity in play. This was
followed by a reflective re-viewing and
analysis of the data by the two authors in
order to provoke critical engagement with
the gendered relationships and meanings in
children’s play. The findings confirm that
children’s gendered identities are related to
their emerging understandings of feminini-
ties and masculinities, and the complex ways
in which these are represented and
performed in their social and cultural
worlds. As noted above in Evaldsson and Tell-
gren’s paper, power and identity are estab-
lished through dynamic social actions and
interactions, humour, teasing, language and
symbolic transformations, as children weave
across ‘real/not real’ boundaries.
McInnes, Howard, Miles and Crowley
have, innovatively, elicited children’s defini-
tions of play as a basis for their study. Their
research aimed to create both formal and
playful practice conditions to demonstrate
the links between playfulness and learning.
They carried out analysis of videotaped
observations to study the children’s behav-
iours in these contrasting conditions. Their
findings indicated behavioural differences
according to whether children participated
in playful or formal practice conditions.
Children in the playful condition exhibited
more fluent and purposeful problem solving
behaviours than children in the formal,
teacher-directed condition. The findings
provide support for a cognitive model of
playfulness based on a behavioural threshold
and fluency theory of play. Using children’s
perceptions of play assists practitioners in
creating and sustaining playful environ-
Whitebread, Coltman, Jameson and
Lander explored the particular aspects of
learning which might be supported through
playful activity. They report here on three
studies which have explored this relationship
– one is observational and two are experi-
mental. Evidence from theirs and other
studies supports the view that play, and
particularly pretence or symbolic play, which
might be with objects or other children, is
particularly significant in its contribution to
the development of children as metacogni-
tively skilful, self-regulated learners.
Evidence from the observational study indi-
cated that child-initiated playful activities, in
small groups without adult supervision,
supported the greatest proportion of self-
regulatory behaviours. The experimental
studies suggested that the experience of the
‘play’ condition was particularly effective in
preparing the children for effortful,
problem-solving or creative tasks which
require a high level of metacognitive and
self-regulatory skill.
König presents research results from a
video study on play and structured activities
in German pre-schools. The research
provides an analysis of how individual
teachers interact with children, both individ-
6Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Pat Broadhead & Diny van der Aalsvoort
ually and in groups. This video study is orien-
tated on social constructivist theories and
rooted in empirical research results. The
focus lies on constructs of quality in
preschools using teacher-pupil interaction as
a starting point for conceptualising a stimu-
lating learning environment. Video data of
teachers (N=61) was gathered in this field
study. The teacher-pupil interactions
captured on film were analysed using micro-
analysis techniques. The results suggest that
these pre-school teachers have a poorly
developed understanding of how children
can be meaningfully engaged in a stimu-
lating educational setting. The findings also
show how play and structured activities are
offered to the children in pre-school.
In her paper Jarvis claims that a substan-
tial body of research suggests that both
teachers and students frequently find
teaching and learning within the confines of
the English National Curriculum a frus-
trating and alienating experience. Interviews
were undertaken in five English secondary
schools to explore aspects of both teacher
and student constructions of the teaching
and learning process. The resulting themati-
cally analysed data supported proposals of
‘impoverished’ learning. It is proposed in
the paper that human beings (in this case
young people in a formal learning environ-
ment – the school) should be viewed as
‘storying animals’ who make sense of their
world through cohesive narratives within
Wittgensteinian ‘language games’ via collab-
orative play and discovery activities. Within
this model of teaching-learning, educators
might more readily recognise the problems
that emerge for learners and for themselves
when they rely heavily upon ‘transmission’
teaching practices.
Finally, Siraj-Blatchford’s paper is
concerned with the pedagogies applied in
supporting learning through children’s play.
The paper is framed outside mainstream
discourses on the nature of play. The devel-
opment of the paper represents one stage in
a continuing effort to develop a better
understanding of ‘sustained shared think-
ing’ in early childhood education and
focuses on the educational potential of
shared playful activities. Taking a psycholog-
ical perspective, the paper begins with an
account of ‘sustained shared thinking’
presenting it as a pedagogical concept that
was first identified in a large-scale, mixed-
method, but essentially educational effective-
ness study. Following this a consideration of
the nature and processes of ‘learning’ and
‘development’ is offered. It is argued that
popular accounts of a fundamental differ-
ence in the perspectives of Piaget and
Vygotsky have distracted educational atten-
tion from the most important legacy that
they have left to early childhood education;
the notion of ‘emergent development’. The
paper goes on to identify pedagogic progres-
sion in the early years as an educational
response to and an engagement with the
most commonly observed, evidence based
developmental trajectories of young
children as they learn through play.
Methodological issues
From the perspective of methodology we
draw attention to the different approaches
that are represented in this special issue.
McInnes et al. and Whitebread et al. have
utilised experimental approaches to clarify
the meaning of play in relation to learning in
educational settings. Evaldsson and Tellgren,
and Wood and Cook seek to better under-
stand the child’s world by looking at the rich-
ness of social interactions and the patterns
that emerge when analyzing discourse
between children carefully. The descriptive
approaches of König and Jarvis add to the
former methodologies as they try to grasp
the meaning of what they see happening as
teachers become involved with children at
play and for young people in transmissive
learning modes. All of the approaches have
their own virtues and shortcomings. At the
same time they allow specific insights in
classroom settings with regard to the
meaning of play for adults and for children.
The authors who presented research find-
ings have all accounted for their method-
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 7
Guest Editorial
ology. In doing so they move the theme of
play forward in the strengthening of theories
about the meaning of play and its relation-
ship with learning.
Theoretical considerations
As we mentioned above, our understandings
of play are influenced by time and place.
When children play as an expression of on-
going self determined activity that stimulates
learning experiences, the position of
teachers becomes crucial in deciding when,
where and why space for play is required.
The meaning of a pedagogy of play, there-
fore, seems obvious. Siraj-Blatchford
describes why this pedagogy is necessary to
guide children’s thinking. Drawing upon
research findings about child care quality
indicators she suggests that the continuum
between play and learning can include
playful activities that are guided by pedagog-
ical decision making on the part of the child
care teachers/pre-school teachers.
From the perspective of a transactional
model of child development we also stress
the reciprocal relationship between the
child as a player and the professional adult as
a pedagogue. In particular the findings of
both McInnes and her colleagues and Jarvis
reveal that play in educational settings is a
two-way activity in which both professional
and child define when and how play is play.
Only in sharing the definition of play can
playful learning take place.
Guest Editors
Professor Pat Broadhead, PhD
Professor of Playful Learning,
Leeds Metropolitan University,
Professor Diny van der Aalsvoort, PhD
Hogeschool Utrecht,
University of Applied Sciences,
The Netherlands.
8Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Pat Broadhead & Diny van der Aalsvoort
N THIS STUDY, particular attention will be
given to the empirical study of play as social
action with a focus on pre-school girls’
everyday play participation in situated activi-
ties (Goffman, 1961). The study of play as
situated activities implies a shift in focus
from the function of children’s play for indi-
vidual development – the pre-occupation of
developmentally oriented studies of play – to
how children collectively contribute to the
organization of play, generating qualitatively
different versions and experiences through
their everyday play participation (see Corsaro,
2005; Evaldsson & Corsaro, 1998; Goodwin,
1990, 2006). In contrast to the romantized
view of play as a free activity, outside ordinary
life, not serious, but at the same time
absorbing players (Opie & Opie, 1969;
Piaget, 1962) studies of children’s play inter-
action demonstrate that pre-school children
are overtly playful, risky, assertive and even
threatening, as they protect their interactive
space from intruders and organize ongoing
joint play activities (Björck-Willén, 2007;
Cromdal, 2001, 2004; Danby & Baker, 1998;
Corsaro & Rizzo, 1990; Goodwin, 1990, 1993;
Kyratzis, Marx & Wade 2001; Sheldon 1996).
The speech activities explored are important
because they demonstrate the complexities
and ambiguities in children’s relationships
with each other and adults, and that power,
status and social exclusion are accomplished
along with social inclusion and solidarity in
pre-school children’s play. Although studies
provide important information, we still know
relatively little about the collective processes
and meaning of social exclusion in
children’s play, and how those orders
children accomplish in play are related to
the adult world and the educational setting
at large.
For the present study, data are drawn
from an ethnographic research combined
with video recordings of pre-school
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 9
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
‘Don’t enter – it’s dangerous’:
Negotiations for power and exclusion in
pre-school girls’ play interactions
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
Instead of focussing on the implications of children’s play for individual development, this study explores
children’s play participation and their appropriation of cultural resources, as collective cultural
productions. In short, we are interested in the communicative competencies involved in the collective
processes of social exclusion in girls’ play, and how these processes are part of children’s emerging peer
culture and their place in the adult world. Data are drawn from ethnographic research in children’s peer
groups in a pre-school setting in Sweden. The approach taken combines ethnography with studies of talk-
in-interaction. As demonstrated the girls in foci display complex communicative competencies (rejections of
request for access, oppositions, ignorance, justifications, directives). In addition, the girls creatively draw
on cultural resources provided by the organization of the play activity (pretend characters, play-script, etc.)
to build social hierarchies, strengthen alignments of power, claim authoritative stances, casting some peer
group members into more subordinate positions and excluding others. In so doing, the girls creatively
appropriate educational agendas and institutional rules of conduct, creating a locally shared peer culture,
through appropriation and resistance, in the midst of play episodes.
Keywords: pre-school girls, play, situated activity, social exclusion, cultural learning,
ethnography, talk-in-interaction.
children’s everyday play interaction in a pre-
school setting in Sweden. In foci are the
communicative competencies a group of
pre-school girls’ display as they collabora-
tively negotiate social exclusion. More specif-
ically, we investigate the multiple interactive
and cultural resources used by both the girls
excluding others from play and the girls
seeking to resist social exclusion. Of interest
are also the cultural resources the girls
deploy in their protection of play space, for
getting around educational agendas, in pre-
school in Sweden, that ‘everyone can join’
(Löfdahl & Hägglund, 2006).
As will be shown institutional rules of
conduct such as ‘everyone can join’ along
with individual characteristics such as age
and size were creatively appropriated in the
midst of the children’s play interactions and
used for different practical purposes. In line
with Corsaro (2005, see also Evaldsson &
Corsaro, 1998) this process of creative
appropriations is seen as interpretive reproduc-
tion. As will be shown, such appropriation is
creative in that it both colludes with and
transgresses educational agendas and institu-
tional norms of conduct, and simultaneously
contributes to the production and extension
of the children’s social worlds. By exploring
how social exclusion is accomplished within
situated action in children’s ongoing play
activities we will demonstrate the need to go
beyond essentialist accounts of learning as
individual development that consistently
reappears in the literature, attributing indi-
vidual, and gender differentiated behaviours
to children and seeing their play as separate
from the adult word. This does not mean
that we are uninterested in change and
learning. However, instead of focussing on
the function of play for individual develop-
ment we are interested in learning as situ-
ated (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in local cultures
and how interpersonal processes are collec-
tively produced and change over time and
across place in childhood.
Research on access and social exclusion
in play
Several researchers have shown that gaining
access is difficult in pre-school settings since
children tend to protect shared space and
objects and ongoing play from the multiple
possibilities of disruption and intrusion of
other children (Björck-Willén, 2007; Danby
& Baker, 1998; Cromdal 2001, 2004; Corsaro,
1979, 1986; Corsaro & Rizzo, 1990; Löfdahl
& Hägglund, 2006; Sheldon, 1996; Tellgren,
2004; Whalen, 1995). In particular Corsaro
(1979, 1986, 2005) has shown that gaining
access to play groups and maintaining
control over shared activities involve
complex and elaborate access strategies. In
his classic work on children’s access rituals
Corsaro (1979) identified 15 access strate-
gies ranging from non-verbal (i.e. non-verbal
entry, producing variant of ongoing behav-
iour, disruptive entry, encirclement) to
verbal strategies (making claim on an area or
object, request for access, questioning partic-
ipants, reference to adult authority, offering
of object, greeting, reference to affiliation,
aid from non-participant, accepting invita-
tion, suggest other activity, reference to indi-
vidual characteristic). It was found that the
children used a multiple of non-verbal and
verbal strategies, starting with the non-verbal
strategies that involved a low risk of rejec-
tion, as the first attempts often were denied.
The non-verbal strategy of ‘producing a
variant of the ongoing behaviour’ of the
participants involved in play was the most
successful strategy for gaining access.
More recent discourse analytic work by
Cromdal (2001), Corsaro and Rizzo (1990),
Sheldon (1996), Danby and Baker (1998)
and Whalen (1995) has drawn attention to
the importance of investigating the collabo-
rative nature of play entry. Here multifunc-
tional aspects of play entry including social
exclusion are analyzed, providing an under-
standing of the collaboration between the
child seeking access and the children
protecting their ongoing play. For example
in his work on children’s procedures for
entering play activities in a bilingual
10 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
(English-Swedish) school setting Cromdal
(2001) demonstrates the role of bilingualism
as a resource for children’s play entry and
that bilingual displays are used for various
practical purposes such as forming alliances,
building oppositions and preventing others
from participation (see also Björck-Willén,
2007). In addition, Sheldon (1996) has
shown how pre-school girls participate in
extended access disputes and verbally
accomplish social exclusion in play. In
keeping a third girl out of a play activity, the
girls used a range of verbal resources such as
mitigators, indirectness, reframings, token
agreements, dramatic imagery, etc., that
enabled them to confront others without
being confrontational. Sheldon (1996, p.58)
describes the techniques used by the girls as
‘double-voice discourse’, which has ‘an
overlay of mitigation and has the effect of
softening rather than escalating discord.’
Sheldon’s work is interesting as it demon-
strates that pre-school girls use powerful
language to actively enforce complex social
hierarchies (see also Goodwin, 1993; Gris-
wold, 2007; Kyratzis & Guo, 1996). These
descriptions are important as they under-
score that empirical work based on play as
social action provides insights into the
multiple meaning of play for children and
language as having a role in children’s
cultural production.
Ethnography combined with recordings
The integrated long-term ethnographic
studies of children’s everyday peer activities
combined with methodologies for studying
talk-in-interactions have influenced the
method used in this study (Evaldsson, 2004;
Goodwin, 1990, 2006; Kyratzis, 2004). Video
recordings (20 hours) of children’s everyday
play activities were collected by the second
author, as part of a PhD study, during a
period of five months in a Swedish pre-
school setting (Tellgren, 2004). An emphasis
on play as a situated activity underscores the
importance of video recordings in order to
capture the interactional and cultural
recourses that children draw upon in their
play interactions (Evaldsson, 2004; Goodwin,
2006). As will be demonstrated, the girls’
proficiency in aligning to one another’s
actions provides a rich resource base on
which to organize participation and enact
power in the midst of play interaction. At the
same time, multiple cultural resources
(concerning personal and social standards)
are instantiated and mediated through
ethnographically observable peer group
Data, play group and setting
It was found that processes of social exclu-
sion were recurrently initiated among the
oldest girls in the pre-school setting. For the
present analysis extracts from play episodes
in the girl group involving social exclusion
were selected. The girls in the study are Fia
(age 4.5), Nilla (age 4), Sara (age 5), Tina
(age 5), Mia (age 5), Marie (age 4), Linn
(age 4), Isa (age 4). Seventeen children (10
girls and seven boys), 2 to 5 years of age
attended the pre-school setting in this study.
The pre-school was located in a suburban
area in Sweden, where most families were
indigenous Swedes with working-class back-
The Swedish pre-school adheres to a
national curriculum based on democratic
values of gender equality and equity. In this
context children’s play activities are
constructed as educative and a context for
children’s learning and development
(compare with Danby, 1996; not in the refer-
ences Cobb-Moore, Danby & Farrell, 2008).
In their daily practices, the teachers encour-
aged and supported children’s play partici-
pation, which was articulated in rules such as
‘everyone can join’ and children’s rights to
‘play on their own’. The fact that the
teachers usually sanctioned all forms of
exclusion was in conflict with the recurrent
social processes of social exclusion among
the pre-school girls in foci. As will be shown
the girls had developed strategies for getting
around adult conventional rules in pre-
school that ‘everyone can join’ (compare
with Löfdahl & Hägglund, 2006).
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 11
‘Don’t enter – it’s dangerous’
Managing social exclusion in play entry
As noted in previous research gaining access
is difficult in pre-school settings as children
actively protect their play from intruders
(see Björck-Willén, 2007; Cromdal, 2001;
Corsaro & Rizzo, 1990; Sheldon, 1996;
Danby & Baker 1998). The verbal request
‘can I join’ was frequently used among the
children as an access strategy in the bidding
of entry. Similar as Cromdal (2001, p.522)
notes in his study, producing such minimal
entry bids could be seen as a ‘routine-like
property’ in the girls’ play. The teachers also
supported the children to use the verbal
request ‘can I join?’. As will be shown in the
first episode (Ex. 1a to Ex. 1b), where two
girls (Nilla and Marie) protect their play
from a third girl (Sara), a common strategy
were to verbally reject the request for partic-
ipation ‘can I join?’ by creating a sense of a
shared activity and shared interactive play
Verbal rejection of request for access and social
The following episode starts as Sara asks for
permission to join ongoing doll-play with two
other girls Nilla and Marie. It is one of
several longer negotiations of entry involving
serious disagreements that occurred in the
girls’ group. As will be shown, the girl
bidding for entry does not accept the verbal
rejection of request for access. Instead, the
rejections are responded to by a series of
resistance moves.
The following transcription conventions
apply: – abrupt cut-off; o:: prolonging of
sound; nine stressed word, NO high pitch;
°no° low pitch; <we want> high speed; hh
laughter; [yeah] overlapping speech; =
contiguous utterances; (.) micro-pause; ↑↓
rising and falling in intonation; (xx xx) non-
transcribable segment of talk; ((laughs))
non-speech activity (see Sacks, Schegloff &
Jefferson, 1974). The English translations in
italics are as close as possible to the Swedish
verbatim records. All names are fictional.
Exc. 1a
01 Sara can I join? ((stands in the doorway
into the room))
02 Nilla but we are here
03 Sara yeah but I (.) ((enter the room))
everyone can join
04 Marie ((turns to Sara))(xxx) we want to
play on our own
05 Nilla ((fetches a doll’s pram))<we want to
be on our own>
06 Sara everyone can actually join
07 Marie NO:: now we want to play
on our own
As shown the use of an exclusive ‘we’ in the
rejection of the request for access invokes a
positive category affiliation for the two girls
(Nilla and Marie) involved in the play (line
2) and contrasts with the use of the single
pronoun ‘I’ in Sara’s request (line 1). As
Corsaro (1979) demonstrates verbal request
for access is a high risk-strategy, which most
often result in rejection by the play partici-
pants. The high risk of being refuted is also
noticed by Sara, who justifies her request by
invoking the institutional adult-based rule
that ‘everyone can join’ (line 3). However,
Sara’s bid for entry is refuted by Marie who
refers to the right to play on her own (line
4). The argument that Marie invokes to
assign authority is related to a contrasting
institutional rule that sees children has
having ‘the right to play on their own’. The
second girl, Nilla aligns to Marie’s justifica-
tion and recycles the argument (line 5). The
alignment is strengthened in terms of both
verbal and spatial proximity, as the two girls
are standing close to each other, and have
access to the equivalent play materials.
Thereby the two girls Marie and Nilla
construct a social organization of two-
against-one, which function to strengthen
Sara’s negative category affiliation as an
intruder. The girls’ actions are immediately
opposed by Sara, who recycles the format in
her prior argument, ‘everyone can actually
join’ (line 6). The justification is expanded
with the authoritative stances ‘actually’,
presupposing the truth of the claim, which
12 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
positions Sara as possessing a specialized
knowledge of the institutional rules.
However, Sara’s attempts to strengthen her
own power and justify her inclusion in the
play, by utilizing adult formulated rules
(Maynard, 1985), is immediately opposed.
Marie responds with a prosodically marked
expression of polarity (NO::) that works to
highlight the other girl’s oppositional stance
(line 7). She then justifies her opposition
‘now we want to play on our own’. In saying
this, Marie for the second time strategically
invokes the adult formulated rule to legiti-
mate their right to play on their own.
The above example demonstrates that
the girls align with each other’s version to
strengthen solidarity along with social rela-
tions of power in play (see Griswold, 2007;
Sheldon, 1996, p.63). Within the process of
social exclusion, the girls’ draw upon justifi-
catory devices that invoke adult-formulated
rules in order to increase their own power
(Maynard, 1985) and strategically support
their own interactional interests and posi-
tions, or argue for a particular version or
course of action (Cobb-Moore, Danby &
Farrell, 2008).
Non-Verbal ignorance of request for access
In the continuation of the previous extract,
there is an escalation of the girls’ conflict
starting when Sara forcefully grabs Marie’s
arm (Exc. 1b, line 10). Since she does this as
a way of responding to the other girls’ rejec-
tion of her play entry, instead of complying
with it, she displays her oppositional stance
against the two girls’ demand to play on their
own. By addressing Marie with ‘you know
that’, Sara positions herself as possessing the
right to teach the other girls’ to ‘understand
better’ what is expected of them. Simultane-
ously, as she addresses Marie, she switches
into a softer voice with a lower pitch. As
shown in the subsequent turns, Sara’s
contrasting actions accomplish rather
diverse interactional work (compare with
Cromdal, 2001).
10 Sara ((grabs Marie’s arm))yeah everyone
can join (.) Marie
11 ˚you know that˚
12 Nilla STOP:: don’t hold her ((releases
Marie)) then- (.) then you
13 might strangle her ((leaves the room))
14 Linn ((enters the room))
15 Marie ((looks at BT)) <˚Britt is here˚>
16 Sara no she can no::t ((looks for Nilla))
17 Linn ((leaves the room)) yeah::
18 Sara no::(looks in the girls’
19 Marie ((sits at the table stirring freneticly in
a saucepan))
20 Sara °everyone can play° ((looks at
21 Marie ((looks down, stirring in the
22 saucepan, looks up)) we don’t have
any food ((shakes her head)) to you
23 Sara ((grabs Maries sweater))(.) I might
24 not (.) wa:nt any foo:d ((pushes
25 Marie ((covers her face with her hand and
leaves the room))
26 Sara I’ll tell the teacher
The physical action set up by the beginning
of Sara’s turn in line 10 intensifies and esca-
lates the social opposition between Sara and
the other two girls, which is evidenced by
Nilla’s subsequent directive ‘stop’ and her
statement that Sara ‘might strangle’ Marie
(line 13). In contrast to Nilla’s previous turn,
where she overtly opposed Sara’s claim for
access, her current statement disqualifies
Sara’s resistance moves, casting her opposi-
tion as irrelevant. Although Nilla succeeds in
forcing Sara to release Marie, she just leaves
the room (line 13). One possible interpreta-
tion is that Nilla’s account, which is directly
addressed to Sara, may display an attempt to
close the dispute. However, if we take a
closer look at the girls’ response work the
oppositional stances are more elaborated –
that is, they are simultaneously escalated and
downplayed in a step-by-step fashion.
In response to Sara’s aggravated moves
the two girls (Nilla and Marie) orient
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 13
‘Don’t enter – it’s dangerous’
towards less confrontational verbal strategies
for managing social exclusion. Nilla
responds to Sara’s repeated access attempts,
by withdrawal from the actual play space
(lines 13, 17). If we look at the other girl,
Marie, she makes use of the resources of
pretend play to display her objection against
Sara’s bid for entry (lines 19, 21–22). Marie
postpones Sara’s participation within the
logic of the pretend frame, referring to that
‘we don’t have any food left’ (lines 21–22).
The tactic used by Marie is an example of
what Sheldon (1996, 58) calls ‘double-voice
discourse’, ‘which has an overlay of mitiga-
tion and has the effect of softening rather
than escalating discord’. It is a sophisticated
use of verbal and non-verbal resources to
pursue her own agenda without disrupting
the social fabric of the doll-play, resulting in
Sara being excluded. However, these moves
are not understood by Sara as an attempt to
close the dispute, but as an adversarial form
of interaction as displayed through her
objections, recycling of the institutional
rules and references to the teacher (lines 16,
18, 20, 23, 24). As Sheldon (1996) also
demonstrates in her study of American
White middle-class pre-school girls play, non-
verbal ignorance of request for access is
commonly understood by girls as a strategy
to exclude non-participants from play.
Negotiating exclusion within role play
Let us now turn to another episode involving
more complex patterns of collaboration. As
will be shown social exclusion was not only
accomplished in play entry but also emerged
in ongoing play within role play frame, and
was embedded in ‘the play theme and in the
fiction’ (see Sheldon, 1996). In the
following, we analyse two different episodes
where the girls are involved in family play,
acting ‘as if’ the family members were the
cat-mother and cat-sisters. As will be shown
the structure of the play activity provides a
pattern for the development of sophisticated
processes of social exclusion. It is, as Sheldon
(1996) demonstrates, the social organisation
of the play activity (i.e. play characters, play
script, etc.) that provides the girls with
resources to define a player’s status as a rati-
fied participant or as a non-ratified partici-
pant in the play. In this process the players
draw on cultural resources from the social
world outside, such as age and size, as well.
Postponing exclusion within the frame of pretend
The following episode takes place in the doll
room. The characters of cats in a family, with
a cat-mother (Linn) and three cat-sisters
(Mia, Tina, Sara) are assigned to all the girls
in the play. The episode starts with that the
youngest cat sister (Sara) asks the cat mother
(Linn), to help her in line 1. In what follows
Mia, the oldest cat-sister, controls Linn’s
involvement in the play and establishes a
process within the pretend frame for
excluding Linn.
Exc. 2a
1 Sara mummy, mummy help ((approaches
3Linn but (.) what is i:t?
3Mia ((comes crawling and pretends as if
4she eats up Linn)) now you’re dead
and now you ((points at Tina)) and
5I and she ((points at Sara)) are
6friends (.) all three are friends
7 Tina no not quite yet ((puts her socks up))
8Mia no soon
9 Sara ((to Linn)) you’re dead
10 Tina now now you chased us ((to Sara))
11 Mia now (1s) ready steady go ((Mia and
Tina crawl away))
12 Sara never ((turns away, shakes her
head)) NE:VER
13 Tina what (.) never she says (2s) but (.)
you were a little-you chased us
14 Sara <okay> (1s) but then only me and
15 you can be cats ((chase the others))
16 Linn ((rests in the bed for a while, then
17 leaves the room, stamping her feet))
In response to Sara’s cry for help in line 1,
Mia the oldest cat-sister approaches Linn the
cat mother and pretends to eat her up.
14 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
Then Mia tells her that she ‘is dead’ (lines
3–5). In the next step she makes her own
pretend character and the relationship
between the other characters relevant ‘all
three are friends’ (lines 4–6), also within the
logic of the pretend frame. By using the
exclusive ‘we’ and portraying her and the
other two girls as ‘friends’, Mia solidifies her
alliance with the other two play characters,
Tina and Sara. The others align to Mia’s
version of the play script (lines 7–9) and
establish a social organization of three
against one, where three of the girls in play
position themselves as ‘friends’ while one
girl, Linn, is not taken into account. In what
follows Tina introduces a renegotiated play-
script in which one of the three girls, Sara, is
forced into the character of a wild cat which
the other two (Mia and Tina) avoid by
running away (lines 10–15). By giving Linn
the character as a dead cat the other girls’
postpones Linn’s participation in the play,
without entirely refuting her. Thereby, the
dead cat is given a future possibility to partic-
ipate in the play not yet realized but one that
is still within the imaginative play framework.
However, the character given to Linn is a
rather non-existent play character, leaving
Linn alone in the room on the bed (lines
Renegotiating play characters and justifying
In what follows in the continuation of the
previous extract Linn makes several attempts
to change her participation status in the play.
When the sequence begins the two cat sisters
(Tina and Mia) have captured the wild cat
(Sara) and put her in a cage (lines 21–22).
Parallel to this, Linn has left her bed and
circles around the others and sits down close
to where the girls are playing. However,
without Linn having said anything Tina justi-
fies her own actions and tells Linn to not
enter the room (lines 24–27).
Exc. 2b
21 Tina ((to Sara)) but the two of us had
22 caught you (.) but then tomorrow we
opened ((closes gate))
23 Sara let’s say that I was very quiet, that I
was very good
24 Tina we have to make a cake ((to Linn))
25 you can’t enter it’s very dangerous
>we are Kling and Klang< and you
26 can’t enter because this cat is very
27 dangerous ((Linn stands up))
28 Linn shall I prepare tea for you
29 Tina don’t enter it’s really dangerous
30 Sara if someone enters then I’ll be very
31 Tina Yeah I told you so ((to Linn))
32 Sara no (.) I wasn’t angry with you
33 Tina no because we were nice to you
In the above exchange Tina provides the
justification for Linn’s exclusion in the doll-
room by stating, ‘you can’t enter because it’s
very dangerous’ (lines 24–25). By this
reasoning, it would seem that Tina protects
Linn from facing the dangers and the fears
from the adult world (see Corsaro, 1986,
2005; Löfdahl, 2005). However, as shown in
the example children not only learn to deal
with concerns like facing dangers in their
play but also draw on these concerns to
support their own interactional interests and
positions. Here, Tina, uses children’s
concerns of facing danger to achieve
authority and counter Linn’s request to
participate in the ‘approach-avoidance’ play
(Corsaro, 2005). Without disrupting the
ongoing play Tina then introduces two new
pretend characters, ‘Kling and Klang’, the
names of the two policemen in the story
about Pippi Long-stocking, for herself and
for Mia (lines 25–26). The pretend charac-
ters of two policemen function to position
Tina and Mia as the most powerful partici-
pants in the play. Tina’s plans include Sara as
a wild cat, who is kept in a cage, while Linn’s
bid for participation in the play is still
Tina’s response does not appear to satisfy
Linn who instead tries to get herself
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 15
‘Don’t enter – it’s dangerous’
accepted and visible in the girls’ play by
offering to prepare tea (line 28). Yet Tina,
who is in control of the play agenda is not
persuaded, and counters by recycling the
format in her prior argument ‘don’t enter
it’s really dangerous’ (line 29). The recycling
is elaborated with the word ‘really’ (Sw. ‘ju’),
which intensify and provide the local topic of
‘facing of dangers’ with greater validity.
Once again Tina postpones Linn’s participa-
tion in her play script, without entirely
refusing her to participate, keeping the cat
(Linn) a possibility to participate later in the
play. The ways Tina draws on cultural
resources such as the renegotiation of play
characters and play script to justify the social
exclusion of Linn, has similarities with the
tactic used by Marie in example 1b, which
was referred to as a form of double-voicing
(Sheldon, 1996). Through the renegotiatons
of play characters and play script Tina
manages to soften disagreements and mask
the exclusion of Linn. This in turn makes it
more difficult for Linn to counter Tina’s
directives. If Linn were to contest it would
not only question the stance taken, but also
Tina’s position of authority, maintained
through her pretend characters (oldest cat-
sister, hunter, policeman) in the play. As
demonstrated the pretend frame of play
itself allows participants both accomplishing
exclusion and social hierarchies as well as
soliciting support, seeking affiliation and
strengthening alliances.
Referring to individual characteristics and
invoking powerful positions
As shown, so far, Linn’s participation status
as a participant in the pretend play is post-
poned and remains unsolved for the
moment. Linn is still ignored and cast as a
peripheral member of the play and
continues to play off stage. In the continua-
tion of the episode Linn returns to the room
where the three girls are playing, now
requesting an explanation for why she
cannot join (line 41). The utterance ‘why
can’t I join’ can be interpreted as a meta-
commentary of the other girls’ play behavior,
attributing blame or responsibility to the
others for excluding her from their play,
indicating that the issue of social exclusion
has to be explained and accounted for.
Exc. 2c
41 Linn why can’t I join (.) why can’t I join?
42 Tina well cause it’s too scary (.) if you fall
43 down you can hurt yourself
44 Mia yeah
45 Sara we are grown ups you are only four
46 Tina I’m so many years ((demonstrates
with her fingers))
47 Sara yeah: cause we’re only five
48 Linn ((leaves the room running))
In saying that Linn cannot participate
because ‘its too scary’ and that ‘you can hurt
yourself’ (lines 42–43), Tina takes the role of
a ‘protector’ who protects Linn from facing
dangers. In so doing Tina gives voice to and
takes up the institutional identity of a pre-
school teacher using a genre associated with
adult authorities, which care for children.
The role of the protector includes the rights
and responsibilities not only to tell other
children what to do, but also to define play
characters and manipulate the play script.
Tina’s accounts, therefore, position herself
as an authority in the play that is able to
direct the others without moving out of the
pretend frame (Griswold, 2007).
Ultimately, Sara, who has previously been
part of the audience, steps outside the play
frame and elaborates Tina’s argument by
making a reference to age ‘we are grown ups
you are only four years’ (line 45), describing
Linn’s need of protection as a display of
being a minor. Although ‘age’ is not explicit
as a category in Tina’s prior talk, it is avail-
able as part of the sequential environment,
belonging to the frame of reference for the
categorization of Linn as someone who
needs protection. The other girls demon-
strate their orientation to Tina as an
authority in the play by aligning to her
version, elaborating on her suggestions and
obeying her orders (lines 44–47). The girls’
16 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
collaborative actions along with the refer-
ence to age cast Linn as not having equal
status and as being powerless. As Danby and
Baker (1998) note age and size are visible
characteristics of pre-school aged children
and being younger and smaller is usually
associated with being less powerful. As
shown the reference to age makes it difficult
for Linn, who is the youngest girl in the play
group, to refute the arguments and is effec-
tive in getting her to give up her bids for
entry (line 48).
Conclusions and discussion
In this article we have stressed the importance
of viewing children’s play as situated activities
that are collaboratively produced and articu-
lated with features of the interwoven local
cultures that make up the children’s social
worlds (Evaldsson & Corsaro, 1998). These
pre-school girls creatively appropriate
multiple interactional and cultural resources
provided by the turn structure of the play
activity. They transform the activity by: (a)
controlling the play boundaries; (b) deciding
on and (re)negotiating pretend characters;
(c) (re)defining the play agenda; and (d)
shifting between the pretend and non-
pretend play frames, to mitigate, postpone
and justify social exclusion. The intricate
collaborative interactional process involves
complex communicative competencies
(requests and rejections of request for access,
oppositions, ignorance, withdrawal, justifica-
tions, directives, format tyings). Moreover the
girls appropriate a variety of characteristics
concerning personal and institutional stan-
dards such as adult-based institutional rules,
language structures (voicing, directives,
commands, requests, justifications) and indi-
vidual characteristics such as age, length, size,
etc., to achieve power, subordinate others and
strengthen alliances. This kind of creative
appropriation highlight how play is not the
result of an individual actor’s social compe-
tence but evolves in the children’s collective
actions and is embedded as routine, situated
activities in their peer cultures.
As shown in the detailed analysis, the
girls appropriate and strategically manipu-
late power and language structures available
in the adult culture in peer play interactions
to produce their own rules of orders. The
ways in which the girls’ actively manipulated
and skilfully exploited the adult based insti-
tutional rules ‘everyone can join’ and the
rights to ‘play on their own’ in peer play
interactions underscores that it is necessary
to attend to the collaborative nature of
children’s play and how play participation is
embedded in the institutional practices that
organize these activities. Moreover children
do not simply passively reproduce or learn to
deal with adult based rules, but also draw on
these rules to support their own interac-
tional interests, and claims for a particular
play position or course of action (compare
Cobb-Moore, Danby & Farrell, 2008). All
these features are important because they
point to that children are active agents in
their own cultural learning engaged in
orderly actions for producing and resisting a
taken-for-granted social world.
Ann-Carita Evaldsson
Department of Education,
Uppsala University,
Britt Tellgren
Department of Education,
Örebro University,
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 17
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18 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Ann-Carita Evaldsson & Britt Tellgren
Gender, power and socialisation in
early childhood
ment retain currency in early child-
hood, and are used to explain gender
differences in maturation, behaviour, sociali-
sation and educational achievement. From a
bio-cultural perspective, Jarvis (2007, 2008)
argues that children are born with sex differ-
ences, which derive from genetic, chromo-
somal and hormonal make-up, and
determine pathways of development. These
discourses assume that children’s progress
reflects different norms for boys and girls in
specific areas. For example, boys typically
out-perform girls in areas such as visual-
spatial abilities, gross- and loco-motor skills,
but mature more slowly than girls in their
language, emotional and social skills
(Kimura, 2000). In contrast, socio-cultural
theories propose that children learn to
perform gendered roles as a result of
cultural beliefs and practices, such as
assigning different tasks, having different
expectations of behaviour and performance,
and being offered different play activities
and toys (Rogoff, 2003). Girls and boys may
be socialised into different social affiliations,
with girls tending towards more intensive
friendships, and boys towards more exten-
sive peer relationships in larger groups and
with more assertive language and action,
such as fostering independence, task orien-
tation, physical activity and overt competi-
tion (Tietz & Shine, 2001).
Within developmental discourses, gender
categories are positioned as binary and
mutually exclusive (Ryan & Grieshaber,
2005). However, from feminist post-struc-
turalist perspectives, such discourses ignore
dimensions of diversity across gender,
ethnicity, ability, sexualities and social class
(Blaise, 2005; Brooker, 2002; Browne, 2004;
MacNaughton, 2000, 2008). MacNaughton
(2000, 2008) challenges essentialist accounts
of gendering which maintain patriarchal
gender relations and positions, including
the ways in which children are regulated
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 19
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
Gendered discourses and practices in role
play activities: A case study of young
children in the English Foundation Stage
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
This paper draws on contemporary feminist post-structural theories to explore gendered discourses and
practices in role play, in a small-scale case study of four children (age 4–5 years) in the English Foundation
Stage. Non-participant observations of classroom-based role play activities were carried out over four
months, with an original focus on progression and continuity in play (Cook, 2003). This was followed by
a reflective re-viewing and analysis of the data by the two authors in order to provoke critical engagement
with the gendered relationships and meanings in children’s play (Cook & Wood, 2006). The findings
reveal the ways in which role play provides flexible contexts for children to explore and take up gender
identities, and the social competences and power dynamics used to sustain or disrupt play.
The findings confirm that children’s gendered identities are related to their emerging understandings of
femininities and masculinities, and the complex ways in which these are represented and performed in their
social and cultural worlds. Power and identity are established through dynamic social actions and
interactions, humour, teasing, language and symbolic transformations, as children weave across real/not
real boundaries. Re-viewing the data through feminist post-structural theories challenges established free
play/free choice pedagogical approaches in relation to diversity and equity.
through institutional norms and practices.
She explores the concepts of discourse,
power and subjectivity in early childhood,
and argues that gender is a social construct
in which gendered discourses and practices
are established and maintained. Reay (2001)
and Blaise (2005) concur that gendered
power relations are complicated and contra-
dictory. In a study of Year 3 pupils (age 7–8)
in an inner-city primary school, Reay
observed children engaged in ‘gender work’,
in which some transgressed prevailing
gender regimes, and others followed more
conformist patterns. Blaise (2005) demon-
strates how children create and re-create
meanings about gender through their talk
and action (including play): they are not
simply being boys and girls, but are taking an
active part in constructing what it means to
be a boy or a girl at a particular time and
place. Therefore, gender work may also be
related to ‘identity work’ as children estab-
lish friendships, play patterns and prefer-
ences, and peer group cultures. In contrast
to developmental and bio-cultural theories,
post-structuralism provides contrasting
propositions about the degree of power and
agency that children exercise in constructing
and contesting gendered identities.
From a policy perspective, gender differ-
ences are reinforced in national assessments
of children at the end of the Foundation
Stage (age 3–5) in England (DfES, 2007),
where girls perform at higher levels than
boys in measures of language and literacy,
creative development, and personal, social
and emotional development. Therefore,
policy frameworks and pedagogical practices
may also be implicated in maintaining
gendered discourses and practices, particu-
larly in play.
Gendered play?
The value of play is well-established in early
childhood education, with many contempo-
rary curriculum frameworks supporting
pedagogical approaches that combine adult-
and child-initiated activities (Wood, 2009).
There is broad agreement that children
should have some freedom to make choices
and decisions, and follow their own needs,
interests and ideas, with minimal or no adult
control. However, such truths have, until
recently, remained uncontested. From post-
structuralist perspectives, the ‘free play/free
choice’ discourse is problematic in terms of
the choices that children make, whose
choices and interests are privileged, and
what implications those choices have across
peer groups (Ryan, 2005). Such pedagogical
practices can present problems for individ-
uals or groups, because, as Ryan argues,
some of the discourses that are enacted
through play may limit children’s agency
and identities as learners. The ‘free play/
free choice’ discourse also creates conditions
of power, where institutional values and
cultures approve some freedoms and choices
and disapprove others. For example, girls
and boys are typically discouraged from
engaging in noisy, boisterous, play, especially
rough and tumble play (Jarvis, 2007), aggres-
sive play with weapons (Holland, 2003), and
irrational, wild, deep and dark play (Sutton-
Smith, 1997).
Role play is considered to be important
for children’s social development and friend-
ship skills, because they have the freedom to
co-construct shared contexts of meaning and
experience, and create discursive spaces
which may be child- rather than adult-
controlled (Broadhead, 2004). Play can
create sites for cultural production, where
children create individual and group identi-
ties which are imbued with their own imagi-
native interpretations and meanings. Role
play may also promote cultural reproduction
where boys and girls are assigned different
subject positions according to their under-
standing of social roles. Browne (2004)
argues that boys learn to perform versions of
hegemonic masculinities that reflect a domi-
nant or culturally accepted form of
masculinity, and emphasise men’s (and
boys’) superiority to women, competitive-
ness, physical strength and rationality. This is
complemented by ‘emphasised femininity’,
which juxtaposes male masculine power with
20 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
female compliance, nurturance and
empathy. Reay (2001) proposes the
contrasting viewpoint that girls map out their
gendered positions in the form of transgres-
sive but less prevalent discourses of femi-
ninity, in which they can which construct
their identities as powerful in different ways.
As the data from this study reveal, children
also play with meanings and identities, and
may exaggerate the gendered positions they
perform, as well as contesting classroom
power dynamics in which they are regulated
by adult-dominated rules and routines.
Research design
The original research on which this article is
based was carried out by Cook (2003), and
focused on identifying children’s progres-
sion and learning in role play activities
(Cook & Wood, 2006). The four children in
the study, Alice, Lucy, Callum and John, were
well-known to her, because she had studied
their progress from pre-school (age 3–4)
into the Reception class (age 4–5), where
she was the class teacher. Their role play
activities were tracked across four months,
using non-participant observation methods.
Each child was observed four times, for
10-minute periods, with detailed field notes
capturing the children’s actions, interactions
and dialogue. The data were analysed using
Broadhead’s Social Play Continuum (1997
version), and learning stories were then
written for each child in order to capture
patterns, connections and themes over time.
In the original analytical processes,
gender emerged as a key issue in children’s
role play themes and activities, their choices
of friends and co-players, social inclusion
and exclusion, and their power, agency and
control in relation to both peers and adults.
Following Ryan and Grieshaber (2005) we
(the co-authors) subsequently engaged in a
reflexive re-viewing of the data. We identi-
fied specific episodes and events where
children were actively using gendered
discourses and practices, and the implica-
tions this had for individuals and co-players.
We were interested in the differences in the
children’s free play choices and activities,
their behaviour and dispositions, and the
ways in which they negotiated and contested
roles, rules and space. These episodes were
analysed in relation to poststructural theo-
ries with the intention of reflecting on the
values and interests framing classroom prac-
tices, viewing teaching and learning interac-
tions from contrasting perspectives, and
considering ways in which pedagogical
responses could be framed with greater
consideration for gender equity. Key points
from these discussions were scribed, and
have been integrated into the following case
studies of the four children. (Cg=girl;
Cb=boy; SG= small group)
Alice’s domestic play themes reflect her
understanding of social rules and relation-
ships: she is tidy and conformist, and likes to
set the rules in role play activities. She makes
many attempts to exclude girls and boys who
challenge her authority, and regulates the
behaviour of the boys. In Observation 1, she
tries to develop the ‘party’ theme in the café,
by setting the rules, and keeping the area
tidy. Alice tries to involve two girls and a boy
by getting them to dress up and choose their
own roles. Alice argues with a girl about who
dresses up in a shawl, which is resolved by
using a ‘counting out’ rhyme, which Alice
won. Cg chooses another shawl from the
rack, but makes further attempt at devel-
oping the play around her own ideas. This is
resisted by Alice who tells the group: Well if
you don’t dress up you can’t come to the party.
Two boys dress up and look to Alice for
Alice-Cb: Oh Harry you’re smart.
She laughs at another boy who has put a
hat on:
Cb-Alice: Am I cool?
Alice: Yes, you’re cool.
At minute 8, the teacher calls for tidy up
time. When the boys throw clothes on the
floor Alice takes on a teacher role:
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 21
Gendered discourses and practices in role play activities
9.0 Alice: No Harry. That’s not how you do it.
You’re both being silly boys … Put the money back
into the till please boys … You two, look how messy
it is there.
Alice and a girl go into the kitchen to tidy
the money: Let’s tidy up so Mrs Smith won’t
believe her eyes.
10.00 The two boys choose not to conform to
Alice’s instructions, and re-claim the agenda
on their own terms:
Cb-Cb: Shall we tidy up properly now?
In Observation 2, Alice is engaged mostly in
solitary play, alongside two girls and a boy.
The role play area has changed to the
Hogwarts Wizard School so there is much
exploration of new resources. There is
evidence of continued power play as Alice
excludes a girl, and refuses to allow her to
develop a play theme. Her peers are
becoming increasingly resistant to Alice’s
controlling behaviours. This solitary play
contrasts with Observation 3, which takes
place two weeks later when the children have
become familiar with the new resources, and
are developing imaginative play. One girl
makes four attempts to develop a play
theme, which Alice resists, and remains
engrossed in her solitary activity. Cg then
excludes Alice from the play: We’ll pretend
you’re dead so we can’t talk to you. In terms of
power and agency, this represents an effec-
tive retaliation against Alice, who immedi-
ately tries to regain control of the play:
Alice–Cgs: You’re back yet ... I was making it
(referring to a pretend meal) … I’m the mummy
and you’re the sister.
This leads into some imaginative play based
on a domestic theme of setting the table,
watering the flowers, and beginning the
meal. At 7.5 Cg runs out of the role play area
and calls: A shark’s out here. She tries to intro-
duce an ‘external danger’ to disrupt the
domestic play and challenge Alice’s
authority, a device that is also evident in the
observations of John and Callum (below).
Alice ignores this attempt to change the
theme, and re-establishes control by giving
everyone a piece of fruit.
A month later, in Observation 4 two girls
are playing alongside Alice, and a boy is
pretending to be the three-headed dog from
the Harry Potter story. There is evidence of
competing control, power and resistance as
Alice continues to manage and dominate the
play. The boys pretend to be disruptive dogs,
resisting Alice but at the same time wanting
to be included in the play.
2.0 Alice: He’s in his kennel … Hey Lucy, he’s
going to come out. Hey come on dog, wake up.
3.0 Alice assigns roles: You’re Hermione and I’m
Hermione’s mum, and Richard is Hermione’s dad.
I wonder why our dog has been so naughty.
(To two boys) You two play about and eat sweets as
bones. I need a doll.
The boys play in role, hiding bones in the
washing machine. Then Richard decides to
join them as a dog, not as the dad, which
gives rise to some re-negotiation of roles:
Cg: Richard’s turned into a dog.
Alice–Cg: But he can’t.
Cb–Cgs I’m a doggy.
Alice-SG: No turn him back to Hermione’s dad,
we want somebody to marry.
6.0 Cg–Cbs: Marry me marry me. Abracadabra.
Make Richard turn into a boy.
The girls chase Richard around the role play
area, with Alice again in control:
Hey Lucy there’s a big surprise for you. These
wands will turn Richard into a grown up … I’ve
got off his doggy hair.
Cb–Alice: I’ve put on real hair.
Alice–SG: He’s standing up like a real person.
8.0 The girls are getting really excited now
and spoke in much louder voices:
Cg–Alice: The spells aren’t working.
Alice–Cg: I know, magic drink.
They pick up bottles of coloured water and
pretend to mix a drink.
Alice occupies an ambivalent position in free
play: although she has some credibility as a
play leader who can develop and sustain play
themes, she likes to maintain control. Boys
22 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
and girls still resist this, although are more
willing to play with her. Acting as fierce
animals (dogs, sharks and crocodiles are
repeated themes in this classroom) is a
familiar device, especially for boys, to change
power relations because they represent
danger and chaos, and cannot easily be
controlled. This device enables children to
disrupt domestic play themes, thereby
engaging in identity and gender work. Posi-
tioning Richard as the husband re-estab-
lishes domesticity and reflects the children’s
understanding of heteronormative social
and cultural rules. Using magic spells and
potions represents an imagined level of
power, which Richard does not resist as he
chooses to remain involved in the play on
Alice’s terms. Negotiating rules, roles and
relationships is, therefore, crucial to main-
taining inclusion in play for boys and girls.
In Observation 1, Callum is in the beach café,
trying to engage Toby in imaginative play by
putting on an apron and a visor: ‘I am looking
cool.’ A teaching assistant asks for a child to
come and read to her, but Callum successfully
resists her interruption, and stays in the play:
6.5 A: Someone has to come and read.
Callum–A: Not me.
Cg–A: Callum.
Callum–A: No definitely not me.
Callum–Cb: See you next time Louis.
The rough and tumble play continues with
Callum taking the lead in maintaining the
momentum, transforming a carrot into a
light sabre, inviting another boy into his
space ship, and negotiating roles:
Callum–Cb: Do you want to be a baddy?
Cb–Callum: No one can hurt me.
This boy wants to be included in the rough
and tumble play but is establishing the rules:
either he does not want to be hurt, or he is
sufficiently tough and rugged to play on
Callum’s terms.
In Observation 2 Callum is playing in
Hogwarts, with three boys. This energetic,
noisy episode shows high levels of engage-
ment and some rough and tumble play
(making magic potions and spells, killing
snakes and each other). Callum shows resist-
ance to adults, and contestation of classroom
power dynamics. Two teachers are talking
outside the role play area. Callum waves a
pipette behind their backs and whispers to
Cb ‘I hate it when they talk.’ Callum refers to
adults as ‘trolls’ whenever they come near the
play. (In the Harry Potter stories the trolls are
very big and powerful, but not very intelli-
gent, and easily outsmarted by the young
characters.) Callum’s disdain for adults
reflects his preference for energetic play,
which is typically constrained or banned, and
his desire to maintain privacy. The boys
continue to negotiate roles and ideas:
Callum + Cb–SG: We frightened someone away
with our magic spells.
Callum–Cb: I’ll turn you into a girl.
Being changed into a girl may allow a boy to
explore play from another gender perspec-
tive. However, it may also be used to
diminish peers by placing them in less
powerful positions.
In Episode 3, Callum continues the
Hogwarts play, helping to sustain the
pretence and involving others:
3.0: Callum–Cb: Let’s go the Chamber of Secrets
at Hogwarts.
Cb–Callum: The battery’s inside the yoghurt pot.
Callum–Cb: You know if they blow you up they’ll
be a massive explosion and you’ll die.
4.0 Callum–Cbs: We’re Harry Potter. Ally ally
osa I can do another spell. 54321. Let’s hide. The
walls are closing. Get in. Now we’re trapped in the
horrible bit. The spiders kill us.
There follows a disagreement with two girls
who try to change the play to their own
agenda (painting the walls). Callum plays
dead, and the girls want to take him to
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 23
Gendered discourses and practices in role play activities
hospital. He re-directs the play by telling the
girls to put a spell on him, and he ‘wakes up’
as a zombie. He tries to give one of the girls
a plastic snake, but they resist Callum’s
attempt to put a spell on them:
Minute 9.5
Callum–Cgs: You’re playing with the snake
outside and we’re not watching.
Cg–Callum: There’s special blood in the wand
you know. We’re sort of fairies with our magic
Again, the children use spells and potions to
change power dynamics in play. But the girls
are happier with fairies and magic wands
than they are with zombies and snakes,
revealing gender differences in their use of
resources and symbolic transformations.
In Observation 4, Callum is leading
rough and tumble play by being a ‘bad
doggy’; he scares a girl, who runs under the
bench to hide and remains there for the rest
of the episode, playing with a doll. The
episode continues with Callum in superhero
mode, looking for sharks, using a plastic
asparagus stick and then a magic teapot as
weapons to kill the sharks so that he can
‘save everyone’. The children are running
and jumping on to a bench to escape the
Callum–SG: Swipe, swipe. I’m still looking for
sharks … There’s some sharks down there.
Callum picks up a board duster and runs
around, shouting:
Callum-SG: I’ll use my dusters then they’ll go.
Run. You nearly got blown up by that thing.
Callum is articulate, imaginative, and able to
initiate and develop role play. His co-players
(mostly boys) go with the flow of his ideas
and suggestions, even though they are not
consistently engaged in maintaining the
pretence. Callum’s resistance to authority
(from girls and adults) is demonstrated in
each episode, often through adopting a
superhero narrative. In Episode 2, using
magic spells to turn a boy into a girl appears
to be a way of diminishing his power and
status. Similarly in Episode 3 he resists the
attempts of two girls to redirect his play. Girls
play at the margins of these boisterous
episodes, and Callum is more concerned at
directing the play of boys than girls. This
appears to be a strategy for maintaining his
dominance and control in the group,
thereby reflecting both gender work and
identity work.
Lucy lacks confidence and finds it difficult to
engage with other children in role play, to
resolve disputes and negotiate with her
peers. She is wary of boys and has as little to
do with them as possible. Her lack of social
skills prevents her from entering into role
play, and she prefers repetitive domestic
themes. In Observation 1 Lucy dresses up in
high-heeled shoes and a dress, and plays
alongside another girl. Most of her utter-
ances are descriptive and explanatory:
1.5 Lucy–Cg: We’re going to work in the shop. I’m
going to work in that shop … I’m dressing up …
Do you want these on Alice?
At minute 2.0. Lucy watches two boys, one of
whom was pretending to be a robot.
Lucy–Cb: What are you?
The boy does not reply. At minute 5.0 Lucy
opens the till, and a boy tries to prevent her
from taking money from it. Lucy refers to
the classroom assistant (A) for help:
Lucy–A: Can I have some money?
A–Lucy: Why don’t you look in the till?
Cb–Lucy: No you can’t have my money.
A–Cb: Let her have some Robin.
Robin walked away and did not attempt any
negotiations, perhaps because an adult was
In Observation 2, Lucy is more social and
animated in her play, and begins by inter-
acting with a boy in Hogwarts as they explore
the resources. Lucy uses a magnet to attract
paper clips.
24 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
Lucy–Cb: I wasn’t even touching it. Look Jack.
It moved on its own.
Jack–Lucy: Lucy where did you get that from?
Lucy walks away and Jack goes off to look for
a magnet. She observes the boys playing, and
does not get involved even when invited by a
Cb–Lucy: You could be Hermione.
Lucy–Cb: No.
At minute 5 Lucy shows more confidence
interacting with two girls in domestic play
themes (making a picnic, dressing up,
making a cup of tea, making dinner). Mean-
while, some boys are playing noisily in
Lucy–Cg: We can’t go into Hogwarts. It’s got boys
in it.
Cg–Lucy: Are there any boys outside?
They revert to domestic play.
Lucy–Cg: Who are you having to your party
Cg–Lucy: Robert and Jacob.
Lucy–Cg: We’ve got the best friends.
Because of Lucy’s inability to interact with
boys, she excludes herself from play oppor-
tunities, or perhaps feels excluded where
rough and tumble play occurs. By Observa-
tion 4, Lucy is beginning to overcome this,
but continues domestic play themes. She
takes a baby doll into the Noah’s Ark role
play area. A boy enters in role as a monkey,
but Lucy tries unsuccessfully to change him
into the Dad as she and another girl are
cooking. Lucy reverts to solitary play. At
minute 5, she attempts to engage another
girl who is making the dinner, then interacts
with two boys:
Lucy: David what d’you want? Red, yellow, green
or blue for your pancake?
The boys do not respond and leave the role
play area. Another boy enters and
approaches Lucy:
Cb–Lucy: What you making?
Lucy–Cb: Pancakes.
Lucy–Cb: There’s your pancake Paul.
Lucy–Cg: Put the chocolate in. Mash it up and
stir it around.
Although Lucy makes some progress in over-
coming her reluctance to play with boys,
their vigorous play is a marked contrast to
her preferences for play (also shared by
Alice), which centres on family relationships
and domestic events. She seems more
comfortable interacting with boys when they
tune into her play.
In each of John’s observations, there are
high levels of pretend play, dialogue and
social interactions. John plays mainly with
boys, who spend much of their time negoti-
ating themes, roles and power dynamics, as
shown in Observation 1:
Minute 5:
John–SG: I wanna do something. I’m getting the
fire out.
Cg–John: Come and get my money.
John–Cg: Anyway we don’t need any money we’re
John–Cg: There’s no fire any more.
John–Cb: Let’s throw the water on … People are
John–SG: The people are dead. We’re here to put
the fire out.
Cb–John: I know but I need to spray the girls.
John–SG: We’re not here for the money we’re here
for the fire.
John tries to impose some coherence on the
play through his danger-rescue-superhero
narrative. The boy-girl power struggle
continues as one boy needs ‘to spray the
girls’ and John steals money from them. He
expresses his identity as a strong, powerful
boy when he leaves the café and bangs his
head (minute 9):
John–Adult (JC): I’ve banged my arm not my
head. Firemen don’t cry.
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 25
Gendered discourses and practices in role play activities
Observation 2 details a lively, noisy episode
of play in the café, with John using the scales
as a catapult, and throwing money around.
Although the play is ‘free flow’ there is little
coherence or development of a theme.
A teaching assistant intervenes at minute 5 to
check his behaviour, and again at minute 9
when John is play-fighting and chasing a boy
around the classroom. Observation 3, in the
café, sees John returning to these themes
and activities:
Minute 4
Cb–John: What’s the tent for?
John–Cb: We can jump in it.
John–Cb: That’s the sea robber get up …
John–Cb: I’m surfing. I’m on a surfboard.
Cb: Surfing surfing.
John–Cb: Stay down stay down … There are
sharks in there. Run.
This boisterous episode develops into
fighting and ducking each other into the sea,
surfing and escaping from sharks. Although
the play is rough and physical, John steps in
and out of the play to direct the activity.
However, they are interrupted four times
when an adult attempts to calm the play and
reduce the noise levels. At minute 10, the
teacher tells the boys to ‘Go and sit by my chair
until you have both calmed down.’
Observation 4 takes place in Hogwarts,
with John returning to play fighting and
rough and tumble with boys, which the adult
helper stops at minute 2. The children find
it difficult to get back into role, and John
wanders around looking at resources. Play is
re-energised at minute 6 when John refers to
the adult as ‘the troll’ which is a theme from
Callum’s play:
John–Cb: Quick – the troll. We’re all dead.
Cb–John: I’m dead.
John–Cb: The womping willow gonna get us.
John maintains his power and identity
through rough and tumble, superhero play
and resisting adult control. In role play he is
a confident child who initiates ideas and uses
language, props and symbols in imaginative
ways. In more formal contexts with adults,
John lacks confidence and is quick to say
when he feels he cannot do a task.
Whilst this small-scale case study cannot be
used to make any generalisations about
gendered play activities, this reflexive re-
viewing of the data reveals the ways in which
role play provides flexible and dynamic
contexts for these four children to explore
gender identities and relationships, and the
social competences and power dynamics that
are used to sustain or disrupt play. Inter-
preting these activities through a poststruc-
tural lens enables some connections to be
made with contemporary trends towards
understanding complexity and diversity in
children’s play. It must be remembered that
the imaginative and pretend qualities of role
play afford opportunities for children to
experiment with fluid identities, and engage
in exaggerated performances. Therefore,
interpreting and understanding play from the
perspective of gender needs to take into
account the message ‘this is play’. Children’s
play should always be juxtaposed with their
wider repertoires of activity and participation.
The children and adults were engaged in
gender work and identity work in role play
activities. Gender differences were apparent
in the boys’ boisterous and noisy activities in
rough and tumble play, and in the girls’ pref-
erences for quiet, repetitive domestic play
themes. The spontaneous rough and tumble
play of John and Callum was adventurous
and exciting, with imagined threats and
dangers, which had to be controlled through
exercising their power. They revealed
contrasting ways in which they established
agency: they were willing to share power with
peers in order to revel in the relative
freedom afforded by role play. However, they
did not identify a controlling or powerful
adult in their play because their rules helped
to sustain the roles and pretence. They were
also performing hegemonic masculinities as
they displayed strength, bravery, and ability
26 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
to withstand pain. At the same time they
want to appear ‘cool’ to both boys and girls,
showing concern for social affiliation and
Family and domestic play provided
opportunities for the girls to exercise female
power. As the female protagonist, Alice
controlled the space, events, rules and the
roles of the players. She reproduced a social
world of regulation and conformity in which
boys are positioned as naughty and disrup-
tive. Because Alice’s mother is a primary
school teacher, it is possible that she had
internalized a ‘naughty boys’ discourse from
her home and school experiences. Both girls
maintained domestic play activities in the
same way that the boys preferred rough and
tumble play. Thus the children’s play prefer-
ences were arguably oppositional as they
sought to use the same space in different
ways and for different purposes. The girls
tried to change and regulate boys’ play for
two reasons, first to ensure conformity to
classroom rules and second to maintain their
own play themes and spaces. Successful
mixed gender play happened when girls did
not try to domesticate boys’ play, but when
their ideas and activities were reciprocal.
Such reciprocity represents the paradoxical
nature of play: naughty animals challenge
the established order, but can be accommo-
dated within domestic play when they are
At a micro level, boys and girls explored
and maintained gender positions, with
contrasting ways of constructing power and
agency. Alice and Lucy articulated and main-
tained their needs and interests, which is a
key characteristic of free play and free
choice. Alice, more than Lucy, was prepared
to negotiate gendered power relations, but
her terms included dominance of the group
and control of the play. Her ‘teacherly’
repertoire of behaviours showed how she
reproduced approved classroom rules, and
exercised female power. In contrast, the
boys’ sustained their play by occupying most
of the space through rough and tumble and
chasing. These play modes and strategies
showed the boys’ means of exercising male
power, which was done in transformative and
transgressive ways, by challenging social
order (spraying the girls, acting as naughty
animals, referring to the adults as ‘trolls’).
Interestingly, adults intervened when the
boys’ play became noisy and disruptive, or
when children asked for help or guidance.
They did not intervene in the quiet, repeti-
tive domestic play of the girls, or challenge
stereotypical female behaviour (cleaning,
preparing food, caring for babies).
The children used different strategies for
establishing control and direction of the
play. Lucy lacked confidence and was quite
tentative in her interactions with girls and,
subsequently, boys. Alice gave direct instruc-
tions or commands in assigning roles, estab-
lishing rules, and developing the flow of the
play activity. There was little scope for nego-
tiation, to the extent that her peers use a
range of strategies to resist or ignore her,
challenge her dominance, or exclude her
from the play. Callum sustained play by
offering suggestions and imaginative ideas
which his peers were free to take up or
ignore. Even where the latter happened,
Callum remained in the play because he
enjoyed play activities with peers. John and
Callum revealed more vibrant and energetic
play than the girls, with play episodes often
intensifying in pace and action.
Contesting the free play/free choice
This re-viewing raises dilemmas regarding
the ‘gender fairness’ of allowing free choice
and free play activities, and the role of adults
in play. First, free play/choice is never truly
free, but is always constrained by the
contexts in which it occurs in education
settings (Wood & Attfield, 2005). Regulation
of children’s play occurs at macro levels, by
adults, and at micro levels by children, thus
reinforcing the notion that both groups may
be engaged in gender work.
The issue of war games, superhero play
and rough and tumble remains contentious,
but with evidence of a shifting discourse.
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 27
Gendered discourses and practices in role play activities
Educators often ban these forms of play for a
number of reasons, not least because they
might encourage aggressive, anti-social
behaviour (Holland, 2003). But this creates
an imbalance of power between children’s
and adults’ constructions of free play and
free choice: freedom is permitted only where
play conforms to adult notions of classroom
and playground order. However, these forms
of play help children to develop language
and symbolic skills, imagination, pretence,
peer affiliation and social organisation
(Broadhead, 2004; Holland, 2003; Jarvis,
2007). Therefore, the dilemma is that
limiting (or banning) such opportunities
may inhibit children’s (particularly boys’)
social participation, whilst permitting such
play allows them to perform masculinist
superhero discourses. This dilemma also
calls into question whose, and what needs
and interests can be enacted.
It would be erroneous to interpret these
play episodes solely in terms of gender
stereotypical behaviours and identities.
Children’s play shows enormous fluidity and
flexibility according to the contexts for play,
and the identities, social skills and affiliatons
of the players. However, role play should be
seen not just as ‘the child’s world’, but as a
site of political engagement and activity. The
paradoxical nature of play requires that
children position themselves in particular
ways and in particular narratives: they
suspend rules that are imposed from
outside, and create their own internal rules
in order to sustain pretence. Inevitably, some
children express dominant choices, whilst
others may accept their assigned positions
because of the pleasure of inclusion in the
play, or affiliation with skilled players.
However, when considering the dimensions
of diversity, some children may be excluded
or disadvantaged by the power effects of free
play choices.
This reflexive re-viewing also raised ques-
tions about how educators can change their
practice in relation to gender equity.
MacNaughton (2000) argues that adults
should have a pro-active role in expanding
girls’ and boys’ discursive repertoires, chal-
lenging violence and sexual harassment, and
supporting differences in masculinities and
femininities. However, transforming knowl-
edge and practice is likely to provoke contes-
tations to the efficacy of free choice, and the
traditional commitment to non-intervention
in children’s play. Ryan (2005) proposes that
instead of choice being conceptualised as
freedom from adult authority, adults’ inter-
actions should focus on helping children to
understand the choices offered by different
classroom discourses, and the power effects
of such choices. This is a particularly chal-
lenging concept in the culture and ideology
of early childhood education. Because much
play in educational settings takes place
beyond the gaze of adults, it is unlikely that
they will observe and understand the
subtleties and complexities of play. More-
over, where an educational gaze dominates
practice, educators may be more concerned
with tracking children’s learning and devel-
opment against curriculum goals, than with
deconstructing gendered discourses and
Finding pedagogical solutions to these
dilemmas is not straightforward. As a result
of this reflexive re-viewing, we raised a
number of questions:
Should boys be allowed to sustain same-
sex groupings in order to build complex
sequences of role play?
Should teachers engineer mixed-sex
groupings in order to encourage
equitable practices?
Should teachers find a middle way –
mixing boys and girls on occasions, but
also allowing time for boys to sort out
their differences, and to benefit from the
effects of peer tutoring?
Bearing in mind the importance of peer
tutoring in play, should more
consideration be given to which players
might help each other to develop play
Should adults contest stereotypical
behaviours of children in their free
play/free choice activities?
28 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
What other models and discourses might
be available to children and adults to
expand play themes and roles in ways
that contest gender stereotyping?
These questions reflect poststructural
perspectives on the ways in which multiple
and competing discourses shape pedagogy,
and require educators to engage with
different interpretations of children’s activi-
ties, create responses that are consistent with
dimensions of diversity, and critique the
ideology of free play and free choice.
If early childhood educators are to make
progress in developing equitable approaches
they need a much more sophisticated under-
standing of gendered discourses and prac-
tices. Poststructural theories demand that
children are perceived and understood as
individuals, whose gender is part of their
unique identities, rather than a defining or
oppositional marker. Boys and girls are not
passive victims of their biological or
hormonal make up, or of wider gender
socialisation processes. They do their own
gender and identity work in role play activi-
ties which may reproduce or contest power
relationships. It is argued here that educa-
tors need to look beyond the regulating gaze
of developmental theory and curriculum
goals in order to understand the complexi-
ties of children’s role play activities. A contin-
uing challenge for the early childhood
community is to engage critically with the
free play/free choice ideology in relation to
contemporary concerns with diversity and
The Authors
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
Dr Elizabeth Wood
University of Exeter
School of Education and Lifelong Learning,
St Luke’s Campus,
Exeter EX1 2LU.
Tel: +44 (0)1392 264753
E-mail: e.a.wood
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 29
Gendered discourses and practices in role play activities
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30 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Elizabeth Wood & Joanna Cook
TION play is viewed as essential for
learning and development (Bergen,
1988; Bruner, Jolly & Sylva, 1976). As well as
generally facilitating learning and develop-
ment, many claims are made for play
promoting different aspects of learning:
social and emotional development (Singer,
2006; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990); social
development and language (Garvey, 1991;
Sachs, 1980); creativity (Dansky, 1980;
Lieberman, 1977); problem solving (Sylva,
Bruner & Genova, 1976) and attitude to
learning (Hyland, 1984; Moyles, 1989). As a
result, play has been seen as the main mode
of education for young children and has
underpinned early childhood programmes
since the initial kindergarten developed by
Froebel (1792–1852, cited in Wood &
Attfield, 2005). Play is firmly embedded
within current curricula initiatives for young
children across the UK. The Foundation
Stage provides a framework for early years
practitioners working with children from
birth to 5 years in England, and the Founda-
tion Phase serves children from birth to
7 years in Wales. These frameworks provide
advice and information on all aspects of prac-
tice across the curriculum for practitioners to
support children’s learning and clearly advo-
cate play as a principal mode of action.
(Department for Education and Skills, 2007a,
2007b; Welsh Assembly Government, 2003).
Play has proven difficult to define. Cate-
gory (e.g. Piaget, 1951; Smilansky, 1968),
criteria (e.g. Rubin, Fein & Vandenberg,
1983) and continuum (e.g. Pellegrini, 1991)
approaches all have limitations (Howard,
2002) and it has been argued that the
complexity of play will always defy definition
(Garvey, 1991; Moyles, 1989). A lack of an
agreed definition of play has implications for
research that has attempted to demonstrate
the impact of play on learning and has led to
dichotomous views in relation to its develop-
mental potential. Whilst there are those who
state that play is essential for learning there
are others who believe it is not (Christie &
Johnson, 1983; Fein, 1985; Meadows &
Cashdan, 1988; Smith, 1986) and the
evidence base to support claims that play
aids development is limited (BERA, 2003).
The failure to pinpoint exactly what we
mean by play also potentially limits our
ability to develop theoretical accounts of the
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 31
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
Behavioural differences exhibited by
children when practising a task under
formal and playful conditions
Karen McInnes, Justine Howard, Gareth E. Miles &
Kevin Crowley
Play is viewed as central to learning in the early years despite a lack of empirical evidence to support this.
Most research has concentrated on adult definitions of play which fail to capture the intrinsic quality of
playfulness. To achieve this it is necessary to elicit children’s definitions of play. The research discussed in
this paper utilises children’s definitions of play to create formal and playful practice conditions to
demonstrate the links between playfulness and learning. In addition, analysis of videotaped observations
indicates behavioural differences according to whether children participate in playful or formal practice
conditions. These findings support a behavioural threshold and fluency theory of play. Children in the
playful condition exhibited more fluent and purposeful problem solving behaviours than children in the
formal condition. Implications for practitioners in educational settings are outlined.
In order to provide empirical support for
the relationship between play and learning
many experimental studies have focused on
play and problem solving, including both
convergent and divergent tasks (Dansky &
Silverman, 1973, 1975; Pepler & Ross, 1981;
Simon & Smith, 1983; Sylva et al., 1976).
However, these studies have suffered from
methodological weaknesses, for instance
isolating play as the causal determinant in
improved performance and experimenter
effects (Smith & Simon, 1984; Smith &
Whitney, 1987). To demonstrate learning
through play, research needs to capture and
measure the impact of the internal, affective
quality of play; playfulness, rather than the
role of exploration.
Playfulness is argued to be an attitude of
mind which indicates the approach taken to
an activity (Dewey, 1933; Lieberman, 1977;
Moyles, 1989; Schwartzman, 1982). Previous
definitions of play have focused on adult
interpretations of the observed act of play
and may not have identified the unique
quality of playfulness. Play means different
things, to different people, in different
contexts (Howard, 2002). Whilst two activi-
ties might look the same to an outside
observer, the way they will be experienced by
a individual will depend on their own views
of that particular activity. Saracho (1991)
uses the example of a professional carpenter
versus a hobbyist. To understand why an
activity is approached with a playful state of
mind we must ask the players themselves
about their experiences. We need to focus
on children’s own views of their play activity
and the cues they use to determine play as
their mode of action (Goncu & Gaskins,
2007; Howard, 2002; Sutton-Smith, 1997;
Takhvar, 1988).
Children’s views of play – the
Contextual Apperception Procedure
There has been surprisingly little research
on gaining the views of young children and
how they might define play, indeed it has
been a long held view that children do not
distinguish between play and work (Depart-
ment for Education and Employment, 2000;
Manning & Sharp, 1977; Isaacs, cited in
Smith, 1988). Only a limited number of
studies on children’s understanding of play
have been conducted although scholars are
internationally representative (Howard,
2002; Howard, Jenvey & Hill, 2006; Karrby,
1989; Keating et al., 2000; King, 1979; Parker,
2007; Robson, 1993; Rothlein & Brett, 1987;
Wing, 1995).
The majority of these studies have
employed either observation or interview
methodologies both of which can be prob-
lematic with young children. Observations
may be open to subjective interpretation.
Participant observation may result in the
observer influencing the play situation.
Using structured observation schedules may
result in only the selected behaviours being
observed and other important behaviours
being ignored (Rolfe, 2001; Tudge & Hogan,
2005). Interviewing may be problematic due
to young children’s limited linguistic abili-
ties. It involves sustained concentration and
high cognitive load for children to interpret
questions, recall activities and talk about
them. There may be issues concerned with
power relations between young children and
adults. Group interviews may overcome this
but may lead to other issues relating to the
most vocal children influencing the group
(Brooker, 2001; Westcott & Littleton, 2005).
A photographic categorisation method
has been employed in three studies – the
Contextual Apperception Procedure
(Howard, 2002; Howard et al., 2006; Parker,
2007). This is a two-part procedure. The first
part requires children to sort photographs
into those that represent play and those that
represent work. The second part supports
the sorting activity by asking children to
justify their choices for a smaller number of
photographs. The photographs utilise
different cues within the environment to
reflect play and work situations. The method
is based on the idea that perception is deter-
mined by the categorisation of cues from the
environment and that environmental cues
may affect children’s perceptions of play
32 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Karen McInnes, Justine Howard, Gareth E. Miles & Kevin Crowley
(Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, 1956; Pelle-
grini, 1985). The method is quick to use,
involves minimum cognitive load and does
not necessitate a certain level of linguistic
ability. Photographs are used rather than
pictures as for young children these capture
reality and require less hypothetical thought
(Kose, Beilin & O’Connor, 1983) and the
game like procedure is attractive to a young
participant sample (Sturgess & Ziviani,
1996). Furthermore, assessment of reliability
is possible through repetition of the activity
(Parker, 2007).
As with previous studies (e.g. King, 1979),
findings from Howard (2002) revealed that
children clearly distinguish between play and
work activities in their classroom environ-
ment. Play activities may be: outside,
construction, sand or involve role play whilst
work activities involve writing, reading and
using paper. Some activities seem to be
ambiguous such as painting and drawing.
This was also found by Keating et al. (2002)
and Wing (1995). Children determine
whether an activity is play or not depending
upon the cues present and these can be sepa-
rated into emotional and environmental cues
(Howard, Bellin & Rees, 2003). Emotional
cues involve the amount of choice a child
has, whether an activity is voluntary and
whether it is under the child’s control and
self-directed. Environmental cues include:
adult presence, where the activity takes place
and the nature of the activity. Activities
deemed as play are, therefore, freely chosen,
voluntary, controlled and directed by the
child, have little or no adult involvement and
do not take place at a table. Howard et al.
(2006) also found that ‘peers being present
was an indication of play although this was
not replicated by Parker (2007).
Utilising children’s cues to impact on
The cues used by children for defining play
highlight the child being in control and self-
directed. These accord with the internal
affective qualities of play identified by Dewey
(1933) and Moyles (1989) which determine
the attitude or approach a child takes
towards an activity – whether it is playful or
not. This has important implications for
researchers attempting to demonstrate the
impact of play on learning. By utilising
children’s cues to define play, research can
potentially capture and measure this
internal affective quality of play or playful-
Thomas, Howard and Miles (2006)
conducted a study to compare children’s
problem solving and learning in a playful
and formal practice condition using the cues
identified by children. In this study the
problem solving task was time taken to
complete a jigsaw puzzle, a familiar activity to
children thereby separating out play from
exploration. The sample consisted of 30
children aged 3 to 5 years of age in two
primary schools. The procedure was in four
stages. A pre-test task was conducted and
children were timed completing a puzzle.
They were then assigned to either a playful
or formal eight-minute practice condition
where they completed puzzles. After the
practice phase they were re-timed for
completion of the test. This was repeated
one week later to isolate learning from prac-
tice effects. Standardised instructions were
used throughout the procedure. Effective-
ness was measured by comparing pre-test
and post-test times. The cues manipulated in
the experimental conditions were the volun-
tary nature of the task (children were invited
or told to participate), where the practice
took place (floor or table) and adult pres-
ence (present or not).
Results showed that there were no signif-
icant differences between the children’s pre-
test scores in the different conditions.
However, comparison of scores between the
playful and formal practice conditions at first
post-test showed a differential improvement
in children’s performance. Children in the
playful condition improved by a mean score
of 39.68 seconds, whereas children in the
formal condition improved by a mean score
of 14.73 seconds. This significant improve-
ment was also found for the delayed post-test
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 33
Behavioural differences exhibited by children …
in favour of the playful practice condition.
Improvement in the playful practice condi-
tion was 72.56 seconds and in the formal
condition 28.2 seconds.
Similar results have also been found for
other areas of learning. Radcliffe (2007)
used the same procedure with a mathe-
matical activity – threading beads. Results
again showed no difference between the
children’s pre-test scores. However, compar-
ison with post-test scores showed that
children who had been in the playful prac-
tice condition improved on their pre-test
time whilst children in the formal practice
condition took significantly longer to
complete the task.
These empirical data tell us that playful-
ness has potential to help children learn.
However, it is important to understand why
playful practice is so much more effective
than formal practice in these experiments.
The next section reports an observational
study based on the methodology of Thomas
et al. that was designed to yield qualitative
data that might help inform theoretical
accounts of these empirical data.
An observational study of behaviour
exhibited during playful and formal
practice conditions
The study replicated the procedure used by
Thomas et al. (2006) as described above, but
incorporated videotaped observations of
children’s behaviour during the procedure.
This extension of the original procedure was
designed to further develop an under-
standing of how playfulness may help
children to learn more effectively. The
sample consisted of 32 children aged
between 3 to 5 years of age in three early
years settings. Again, jigsaw puzzles were
used to isolate play from exploration and
practitioner, parental and child consent was
gained to video each child during the proce-
dure to enable further fine grain analysis of
behaviour. In addition, an experimenter
blind to the pre- and post-test phases of the
procedure conducted the delayed post-test
in order to eliminate experimenter effects.
As with the previous studies children in
the playful practice condition performed
significantly faster in the post-test and
delayed post-test phases (t(16)=3.15 p<0.05
and t(14)=3.24 p<0.05).
The Leuven Involvement Scale (LIS;
Laevers et al., 1994) was employed to
measure children’s level of concentration
during a selected part of the practice phase
(under both playful and formal conditions).
Involvement is concerned with a child’s
concentration and persistence with a task
and there is evidence to indicate that a
deeper level of involvement results in a
greater learning experience (Csikszent-
mihalyi, 1979; Laevers et al., 1994). For each
child, the LIS was applied to one three-
minute segment of the videotaped observa-
tion of each child. This segment
commenced two minutes into the practice
phase in order to give the child time to settle
into the activity. An unrelated t-test showed a
significant difference in involvement scores
between children in the playful and formal
practice conditions with children in the
playful practice condition scoring higher
t(28)=3.47 p<0.05.
Detailed analysis of the children’s behav-
iour was being carried out using the
Observer Video-Pro package (Noldus Infor-
mation Technology, 2003). The following
categories for analysing the behaviours were
defined: gaze behaviour, facial expressions,
vocalisations, language used, hand move-
ments, posture, whole body movements,
hand movements, puzzle solving strategies,
help given, completion (practice only) and
choice (practice only). Using these cate-
gories enabled a detailed description of
behaviours during the pre-test, practice,
post-test phases of the procedure for each
child. Analysis of delayed post-test behaviour
was only possible in two of the three settings
(N=18 children).
Comparison of behaviours exhibited by
children in the pre-test phase of the proce-
dure showed a range of behaviours between
the different practice conditions with no
obvious patterns. This is probably a reflec-
34 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Karen McInnes, Justine Howard, Gareth E. Miles & Kevin Crowley
tion of individual styles and ability to do
jigsaw puzzles. Analysis of behaviours during
the different practice conditions showed
considerable differences. In the playful prac-
tice condition all the children were moving
constantly, either fidgeting or changing posi-
tion, for example, sitting, kneeling and lying.
In the formal practice condition children
showed little movement and stayed sitting
In terms of problem solving behaviours,
again there were differences between
children in the two conditions. Children in
the playful practice condition engaged in
less off-task talking and more purposeful
problem-solving and decision-making. This
was determined by purposeful sequences of
behaviour such as look-rotate-correct placement
or look-rotate-undo incorrect placement or look-
rotate-pick up-not place. Children in the formal
practice condition were more distracted,
spending more time engaged in off-task
talking, focusing away from the task and
engaging in less purposeful decision-making
utilising behaviour sequences such as look-
rotate-look or search-look-rotate. They also
engaged in more instances of persevering
behaviour such as persevering with incorrect
placements. Overall, there was less fluidity in
problem solving behaviours and decision-
making by the children in the formal prac-
tice condition. This was also reflected in
their affective behaviour. Children in the
formal practice condition exhibited more
negative affective behaviour such as
frowning and sighing. Children in the
playful practice condition demonstrated
positive affect with more smiling, positive
vocalisations and cheering. (See Figure 1,
overleaf, for an example of coded behav-
iours observed in the playful and formal
practice phases.)
In the post-test phase there was a contin-
uation of the behaviours evidenced during
the practice phase. Children in the playful
condition were more focused, less talkative
and more purposeful with increased correct
problem-solving than the children in the
formal practice condition. The main differ-
ence between the practice and post-test
behaviour of children in the playful practice
condition was that in the post-test phase the
children displayed less whole body move-
ments as they became focused on solving the
task quickly.
Discussion and conclusion
The findings discussed in this paper indicate
that the observable act of play can be distin-
guished from the internal, affective qualities
inherent in adopting a playful mode of
action. These affective qualities can be
understood by identifying the cues children
themselves use to define playful activity, The
experimental conditions employed here,
manipulate these cues to create formal and
playful practice conditions and findings
suggest that a playful mode of action has the
potential to impact on learning. This, in
turn, has implications for practitioners
working with children in educational
settings, particularly in relation to their role
as co-operative play partners. It would
appear that there are differences between
the way in which children and adults view
play and there is considerable value in util-
ising children’s views of play. This is in
keeping with current policy based on the
United Nations Convention on the Rights of
the Child and is embedded within Every
Child Matters (HM Government, 2003). It
also enables researchers to identify the
internal affective quality of play, namely play-
fulness, rather than just the observable act of
play itself and to isolate playfulness as a vari-
able in experimental studies.
Children who have practised tasks under
playful rather than formal conditions have
demonstrated significantly greater improve-
ment in performance across a range of activ-
ities. Behavioural differences have also been
exhibited by children in the different prac-
tice conditions which indicate greater on-
task behaviour, deeper involvement in the
activity and therefore a greater learning
experience. In addition, during playful prac-
tice children try out a range of purposeful
behaviours, whereas in more formal condi-
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 35
Behavioural differences exhibited by children …
Child A: Playful practice condition
Pre-test time: 141 seconds,
Post-test time: 107 seconds
Practice phase (sitting, constantly fidgeting)
348.96: talk about puzzle, to self, help
352.00: no talking
356.28: rotate piece
359.48: search for a piece
361.80: rotate piece
364.52: correct placement
367.32: look at piece
370.80: correct placement
373.04: pat puzzle, positive
376.96: search for a piece
380.64: pick up, not place
382.16: search for a piece
383.72: look at piece
385.56: correct placement
Post-test phase (fidgeting and still)
28.48: search for a piece
30.24: look at piece
31.84: rotate piece
33.76: correct placement
36.20: look at piece
38.84: rotate piece
40.96: correct placement
42.44: look at piece
43.52: correct placement
Child B: Formal practice condition
Pre-test time: 228 seconds,
Post-test time: 315 seconds
Practice condition (sitting still)
164.36: look at piece
165.04: no talking
166.52: rotate piece
169.96: persevere with incorrect placement
171.76: talk about something else to adult,
171.92: focus on adult
178.92: focus on puzzle
186.64: focus on adult
187.20: persevere with incorrect placement
188.36: focus on puzzle
196.56: rotate piece
200.16: rotate piece
202.72: rotate piece
202.72: no talking
Post-test phase (still)
197.08: talk about something else to adult,
200.00: correct placement
202.16: look at piece
205.92: persevere with incorrect placement
209.52: undo incorrect placement
211.40: no talking
212.20: look at piece
216.88: correct placement
36 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
Karen McInnes, Justine Howard, Gareth E. Miles & Kevin Crowley
Figure 1: Examples of behaviour of children in the formal and practice conditions.
tions they use fewer purposeful strategies
and repeat behaviours even if they are unsuc-
cessful. These findings provide support for a
behavioural threshold and fluency theory of
play. Building on the work of Bruner (1974)
and Sutton-Smith (1997) it has been
proposed by Howard and Miles (2008) that
playful practice leads to superior perform-
ance as it affords children the confidence
and motivation to practice a range of behav-
iours without the fear of ‘getting it wrong’.
They propose that if an activity is perceived
as play, behavioural thresholds are lowered
and as a result more actions become poten-
tial candidates for execution. A playful mode
of action results in an increased behavioural
These findings have implications for play
practice in educational settings. Using
children’s perceptions of play enables practi-
tioners to create playful environments
(Howard & Westcott, 2007). It also enables
practitioners to view activities differently in
that they need not necessarily be seen as play
or not play but rather, adapted to enable
children to approach them playfully. It also
has implications for the role of the adult in
play and practitioners could develop their
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 37
Behavioural differences exhibited by children …
own playfulness when working with children
(Ceglowski, 1997). Children’s acceptance of
adults as co-operative play partners may be
essential if current curricula initiatives that
centralise play are to be successful. Support
for the relationship between playful practice
and performance allows practitioners to be
confident in utilising play. In particular, find-
ings show that allowing children the time to
be playful, to complete activities in different
areas of classroom and to have time by them-
selves can be productive and produce posi-
tive learning outcomes.
The Authors
Karen McInnes
University of Glamorgan.
Justine Howard
Swansea University.
Gareth E. Miles
University of Glamorgan.
Kevin Crowley
University of Glamorgan.
Justine Howard
Centre for Child Research,
Swansea University,
Swansea SA2 8PP.
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Background: Theory and Research
T IS ALMOST universally accepted within
the world of early years education that
children learn through play. However,
establishing the psychological processes
involved, and the precise nature of the
learning involved, has proved to be difficult.
Play is an extremely difficult phenomenon to
define and, perhaps because of its essential
spontaneity and unpredictability, has
presented significant challenges to
researchers. Opinions within the academic
research community vary between those who
assert that learning in all aspects of develop-
ment occurs most powerfully through play,
and those (see Smith, 1990) who assert that
the evidence is rather equivocal, and that
learning occurs through many kinds of activ-
ities, within which play may have a more
limited role.
At the same time, while there is wide-
spread commitment to the value of play for
children’s learning within the early years
educational community, there is also
evidence that practitioners often find it diffi-
cult to realise the educational potential of
play in practice (see, for example, the study
of Reception class teachers by Bennett,
Wood & Rogers, 1997). In large part, this
appears to relate to their understandable
lack of clarity about the essential attributes
of play and the nature of children’s learning
40 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
© The British Psychological Society, 2009
Play, Cognition and Self-Regulation:
What exactly are children learning when
they learn through play?
David Whitebread, Penny Coltman, Helen Jameson &
Rachel Lander
This paper explores the particular aspects of learning which might be supported through playful activity
and reviews research and theory which link children’s play, and particularly pretence or symbolic play,
to the development of metacognitive and self-regulatory skills.
Three studies are reported, one observational and two experimental, which have explored this
relationship. The observational study involved the video-recording of 582 metacognitive or self-regulatory
‘events’ within Foundation Stage settings. The two experimental studies replicated in different learning
domains the classic study of Sylva, Bruner and Genova (1976), which contrasted the problem-solving
performance of 3- to 5-year-old children who had experienced a ‘taught’ and ‘play’ condition.
Evidence from the present studies reported and other studies supports the view that play, and
particularly pretence or symbolic play, which might be with objects or other children, is particularly
significant in its contribution to the development of children as metacognitively skilful, self-regulated
learners. Evidence from the observational study indicated that child-initiated playful activities, in small
groups without adult supervision, supported the greatest proportion of self-regulatory behaviours. The
experimental studies suggested that the experience of the ‘play’ condition was particularly effective in
preparing the children for effortful, problem-solving or creative tasks which require a high level of
metacognitive and self-regulatory skill.
Metacognitive and self-regulatory development is crucially important in the development of academic
skills which involve intentional learning, problem-solving and creativity. An understanding of the
relationship between pretend or symbolic play and self-regulation is also helpful in providing clear
guidelines for adults working with young children as regards their role in supporting and encouraging play
in educational contexts.
which emerges from it. In particular, there
are long-standing confusions about ‘struc-
tured’ versus ‘unstructured’ play, and about
the relative merits of child-initiation and
adult involvement (Manning & Sharp, 1977;
Smith, 1990).
The purpose of the present paper is to
present evidence which suggests that play,
particularly pretend or symbolic play,
contributes to learning by supporting
children’s development of metacognitive or
self-regulatory skills, which are in turn
crucial in the development of problem-
solving and creativity. The apparent failure
in much of the literature to establish clear
links between play and learning has been, we
would argue, a consequence of inadequate
analysis of the nature of the learning to
which play might make a contribution. Many
of the studies reviewed by Smith (1990), for
example, attempted to relate play to rela-
tively short-term gains in intelligence or
academic skills. More recent research
related to learning within developmental
psychology, however, has moved away from
traditional conceptions of learning as condi-
tioned responses, or as the acquisition of
knowledge and skills, and has established the
overwhelming significance, for children as
learners, of their cognitive and emotional
self-regulation (Hacker, Dunlosky &
Graesser, 1998; Bronson, 2000; Baumeister &
Vohs, 2004). In this paper we aim to review
the theory and research, including three
studies we have carried out ourselves, which
suggest that it is in this aspect of learning
that children’s play makes a significant
contribution to their development of as
learners, and that this has implications for
the quality of their thinking, problem-
solving and creativity. This perspective, we
shall also argue, provides constructive prac-
tical guidelines for early years practitioners
when they are considering the organisation
of playful experiences for the children in
their classes.
The consequences of young children
developing early metacognitive or self-regu-
latory abilities have been shown to be
profound, but also relatively long-term.
Veenman and Spaans (2005) have shown
that, as children grow older, metacognitive
skills make an increasingly independent
contribution to learning outcomes over and
above that of measured intelligence, and
Schneider and Weinert (1989) have similarly
demonstrated that the relationship between
children’s metamemory knowledge and
their memory performance increases with
age. Blair and Razza’s (2007) recent study of
3- to 5-year-olds from low-income homes in
the US showed that aspects of self-regulation
accounted for unique variance, independent
of general intelligence, in early maths and
reading measured approximately a year
later. Over a much greater time-scale,
Schweinhart and Weikart (1998) followed a
group of disadvantaged children who were
randomly allocated to attend one of three
pre-school programmes, one of which,
High/Scope, encouraged children to follow
a pattern of plan-do-review, which crucially
supports children in planning, taking
responsibility for, and evaluating their own
learning. Initially, all three groups showed
an increase in IQ. However, a follow-up study
when the subjects had reached the age of 23
showed that the High/Scope group were
performing to a significantly higher level on
a range of ‘real-life’ measures (e.g. rates of
arrest, emotional problems, home owner-
ship, and salary).
In order to understand why self-regula-
tory abilities might impact so significantly on
learning over the long term, it is worth
considering the nature of the cognitive
processes involved. In this regard there are
two important relevant distinctions between
different kinds of learning. First, there is the
distinction between what might be termed
‘incidental’ learning and deliberate or
‘intentional’ learning. We all effortlessly
learn and remember an enormous amount
of information ‘incidentally’ in our everyday
lives, but to learn and remember something
intentionally requires effort and involves us
in a range of ‘metacognitive’ activities such
as planning, selecting cognitive strategies
Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2 41
Play, Cognition and Self-Regulation
and evaluating our own learning. Work in
the area of metacognition originally stems
from the pioneering work of Flavell (1979)
and colleagues concerned with young
children’s developing abilities to deliberately
remember lists of items, a set of cognitive
processes he termed ‘metamemory’. He
found that young children under the age of
around 7 years suffered from what he
termed a ‘production deficit’ in that they
were perfectly capable of carrying out a
rehearsal strategy when directed to do so,
and this enabled them to remember the
items as effectively as older children.
However, they could not spontaneously and
independently rehearse when it was appro-
priate to do so.
The second relevant distinction is that
between cognitive activities carried out
which are practiced and well understood
(and which, consequently, are increasingly
automaticised) and those required when the
task involves problem-solving and being
creative. In his very influential ‘triarchic’
theory of human intelligence, Sternberg
(1985) distinguished between three kinds of
cognitive processes: ‘knowledge acquisition
components’ through which we initially
acquire information, skills and strategies,
‘performance components’ which enable us
to implement learnt cognitive procedures
and strategies, and ‘metacomponents’,
higher-order processes used to select and co-
ordinate the activities of the other two
components appropriately in relation to the
task in hand and to plan, monitor and eval-
uate task performance.
Consideration of these two distinctions in
relation to different types or aspects of
learning makes it clear that metacognitive or
self-regulatory processes are likely to be
particularly significant when cognitive tasks
involve effortful attempts to intentionally
learn, and when they require us to solve
problems or to be creative. As Bruner (1972)
argued in his classic paper ‘Nature and uses
of immaturity’ it is precisely these higher-
order cognitive skills, which he referred to as
‘flexibility of thought’, which are uniquely
human and which, he argued, are supported
by the extended period of human immatu-
rity or childhood, and by the overwhelm-
ingly playful activities in which children
engage during this period.
In fact, there has been a recent resur-
gence in interest in play amongst develop-
mental psychologists and the evidence for a
close relationship between play and various
aspects of development and learning is now
overwhelming. Bornstein (2006), for
example, has reviewed the extensive
evidence of the inter-relationships between
the complexity and sophistication of
children’s play, particularly their symbolic or
pretend play, and their emotional well-being.
The significance of symbolic play has been
called into question by some commentators,
mostly on the grounds of cultural variations.
However, following an extensive review of
the considerable current anthropological
and psychological literature on culture and
play, Bornstein concludes that ‘pretend play
(including role play and sociodramatic play)
appears to be universal’ but that it ‘typically
expresses concerns that are culture specific’
(p.115). So, for example, Gaskins (2000)
found no evidence of ‘fantasy’ play amongst
Mayan children, as this kind of pretense
would be considered to be untruthful, but
did find extensive evidence of children
enacting role play scenarios of everyday
Mayan adult life.
The relationships between play and
cognition have been equally well established.
Tamis-LeMonda and Bornstein (1989), for
example, demonstrated that infant habitua-
tion (an established measure of speed of
processing) predicted the amount of
symbolic play later engaged in by individuals
as young children. The impact in turn of
play on cognition has been mostly
researched using variants of Sylva, Bruner
and Genova’s (1976) classic study of
children’s problem-solving abilities. Typically
in these experiments, one group of children
was given the opportunity to play with the
objects involved, while the other group was
‘taught’ how to use the objects in ways which
42 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2
David Whitebread, Penny Coltman, Helen Jameson & Rachel Lander
would help solve the problem. Consistently,
the two groups subsequently performed at a
similar level, in terms of numbers of children
completing the task with total success, when
they were individually asked to tackle the
problem. However, in the ‘taught’ group
there tended to be an ‘all or nothing’
pattern of responses, with the children
either succeeding immediately by accurately