In Norwegian kindergartens, play has traditionally played a large role. Play and learning go hand in hand, and the pedagogues in the kindergartens often do not define whether the activity is play or learning. - At school, this looks different, says researcher Maja R. Olsson. Photo: Colourbox

It isn’t play if we have to play

Is teacher-led play really play? New students don’t necessarily think so. One researcher believes that more free play in school could improve classroom dynamics and strengthen relationships.

Children in kindergarten experience play as something characterized by great freedom of choice and that gives them a sense of community. However, when Year 1 pupils start at school, they encounter a different kind of play tradition.

Play is included in the curriculum for the youngest school children, but often in connection with teacher-led activities.

Maja Reinåmo Olsson is a researcher at the Department of Teacher Education at NTNU. She regularly visited a Year 1 class in the autumn they started school. She observed and spoke to the pupils about the meaning and function of free play, and what they think play actually is.

“The autumn semester in Year 1 is a good time to explore what pupils think about play. They still have fresh memories of their time in kindergarten, and can express the ways in which play in kindergarten differs from play in school,” Olsson said.

Olsson participated in the class’s everyday school life and routines. She worked with 60 Year 1 pupils who were between 5 and 6 years old.

Play on the timetable

Here in Norway and in the other Nordic countries, play has traditionally had a major role in kindergarten. Play and learning are intertwined, and kindergarten educators do not often define whether an activity is play or learning.

“Free play is important for children to feel good. I associate having a good time with having fun, feeling safe, being able to take part in deciding one’s own everyday life and being included in a community with other children,” says NTNU researcher Maja R. Olsson.

However, things are different in primary school.

“Sometimes it seems like play has to change when children start school, but children’s perception of what play is and what play isn’t doesn’t seem to change. At least not right away,” says Olsson.

The researcher says that what actually changes are the framework conditions surrounding play.

Schools have a lower adult-to-child ratio, more children, and increased expectations regarding learning outcomes. This reduces the time and space available for play.

“Some schools may spend less time on play because they have to prioritize teaching that is measurable. Perhaps it is necessary to cut down on some of all the other things schools think they should and have to do during a busy school day in order to make room for play and playful environments for children,” says Olsson.

Play is sometimes designated as an individual lesson on the Year 1 timetable. Olsson’s research, and previous research in the field, shows that problems can arise when adults plan and decide the content of play. An adult agenda in play can remove children’s perception that the activity is actually play.

Year 1 boy: “I don’t think that it’s play.”

Researcher: “Why not?”

Year 1 boy: “Because we have to play.”

Olsson observed that one way space was made for play during the school day was in so-called ‘station work’, where groups of children rotated between different ‘stations’ every 15 minutes. One of these stations might be the ‘play station’. There, the teacher had chosen what the group would play with (Lego, for example), who they would play with (the other children in their group), where they would play (for example on the table, not on the floor) and how long they would play for.

The researcher approaches a girl who is not with her group at the ‘play station’.

Researcher: “Why don’t you want to play with the others?”

Year 1 girl: “There is no point. We will have to stop soon anyway.”

Several pupils liked this activity, but they didn’t define it as play because it didn’t allow for freedom.

Less control – more free play

At school, the children experienced limited opportunities for play. Despite this, Olsson discovered that children made their own free play opportunities by defying the limiting rules set by the teacher and the school.

For example, the researcher observed pupils hiding what they had built with Lego during their lessons so that they could play with their constructions properly at the after-school programme.

“Free play is important for children’s wellbeing. I associate wellbeing with having fun, feeling safe, being able to decide over your own everyday life and being included in a community with other children,” says Olsson.

The pupils emphasised that play belonged to children and their culture as children. Their play environment existed ‘alongside’ the school’s social control, and could also be a reaction to the adult-led culture they found themselves in.

What function should play have in school?

The current curriculum states that play should have a role in children’s wellbeing and development, and should also be a method for working with creativity and learning.

“The culture-building function of free play quickly becomes ‘invisible’ for adults and is therefore not afforded a place in schools. For children, the goal of playing is simply playing for its own sake, but free play is also known to reduce stress and foster a sense of belonging and community,” says Olsson.

Teacher-led play with too many guidelines and regulations thus hinders children’s experience of freedom.

Aisha and Peter are sitting together at the Lego table. Aisha puts on a strict voice and says: “Peter, you’re always making noise. And now you’re making noise with your Lego. Please stop with that noisy behaviour!” Aisha laughs. Peter slams the building blocks hard on the table and shouts “Noisily noise!” They both laugh.

The researcher observed that free play strengthened the classroom environment and the relationships between individual pupils. This was evident when Olsson observed a game that the children called ‘baby tigers’. This role play made room for different types of children, because the children could participate on their own terms. They could be a tiger, an animal keeper or a shopkeeper. A wild or a gentle tiger. A strict or a friendly keeper. A mother or a little brother.

“The children highlight the freedom to choose what and how they play, interacting with other children in what they call ‘proper’ play. It is this play that creates and develops the relationships among the children,” says Olsson.

The researcher thinks that the importance of free play for the classroom environment should receive greater attention in school.

“Maybe we should focus even more on the importance of relationships among children and how we can best facilitate their development,” says Olsson.

Tips for teachers

Freedom of choice, resistance and community are words that Olsson uses to describe the function and role of free play at school. She points out that free play is a way of creating a common classroom environment, and that pupils learn how to participate in the community through play.

When playing, they create their own culture based on how they perceive the norms and rules of school culture. Free play also has a function in the process of adapting to the school system.

“My best piece of advice for teachers is that they need to be curious about children’s play and make themselves available so they can be invited into it, on the children’s and play’s terms, and get to know the children in a different way,” she said.

“In addition, the teaching team needs to talk about what is going on in play and how they can safeguard and promote it in school,” says Olsson.

Olsson points out that for children to make friends and enjoy school, it is important for them to be given time and space for free play. This applies throughout their time at school, not just at the start.

“Several teachers I have talked to say that the transition from Year 1 to Year 2 can be difficult for many children, because there is less time for play and other unstructured activity. Even though the ‘transitional year’ is over, it doesn’t mean that children no longer have a need for, and enjoy and benefit from, having time to play in their everyday school life,” says Olsson.

About the study

Olsson’s study is based on findings from a qualitative study in which pupils talk about what is important to them at school, what they remember from kindergarten, and what their view of play is. The pupils attend a medium-sized school in a Norwegian town.

She has conducted observations and conversations with the pupils in their normal daily school life and routine, and conducted more formal group interviews with 17 of the 60 pupils. By combining observations, informal conversations and interviews, Olsson has explored the children’s various expressions of play.

The research has been carried out in connection with Olsson’s doctoral project on child perspectives of play in the transition from kindergarten to primary school.

Source: Olsson, M. R. (2023). “I don’t think that it’s play. Because we have to play.” Norwegian six-year-old children’s understandings of play when they start in primary school. International Journal of Play. vol. 12(3).