Book review:

Play-Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education

Play is at the centre of our practice, our philosophies, our National Quality Framework (did you know that ‘play’ is mentioned over 70 times in the Early Years Learning Framework) and our everyday work with children, writes IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Early Childhood Council member Melinda Gambley.

But how well do we really understand the connection between play and learning, and the role of teachers in children’s play? Through an examination of research and practice from Sweden, this book invites us to learn more about play – its history, its importance to early childhood education, and how teacher participation in play can enhance children’s involvement and learning.

While play is often romanticised as something free and innocent, the authors refer to the ‘free’ in free play as ‘illusory freedom’.

Reading this book has given me pause to reflect on my own involvement in children’s play. In my own practice as Teacher and Educational Leader at Clunes Community Preschool in NSW, I’ve seen that, while we all agree that play is important, how we plan for and involve ourselves in children’s play can be contentious, with other early childhood professionals that I meet in my work having wide ranging opinions and philosophies around play.

History and beliefs about play

The authors begin by summarising the history of play and the image of the child. There is a discussion of the role of post-developmental theories in play, and a comparison of the traditional view of play in early childhood settings, that is, that play should be ‘hands-off’ by the adults, with content unimportant, balanced by the more contemporary view that the adults do have a role in pedagogical play.

Interestingly, they talk about the contradictions of play in our communities, and this is evident to me as I move through my own centre, town, and community, and the cities and spaces that I visit. There is the contemporary adult belief that we often hear in our preschools, schools and centres: that play should be spontaneous, child directed, and completely free from adult interference. In apparent opposition to this, we (the adults) intentionally plan and designate spaces specifically for play, for example early childhood centres, playgrounds and theme parks. I begin, through my reading, to reflect on what we say about play and how this is reflected (or not!) in our spaces for play and leisure.

Is ‘free play’ actually free?

While play in Europe, where the research for the book originates, and also here in Australia, is often romanticised as something free and innocent, the authors refer to the ‘free’ in free play as ‘illusory freedom’, that is, bound by the cultural rules of the group to which the child belongs. They give the example of a type of play that we see frequently: where the child takes the role of parent with a doll in the role of the baby. The child’s actions in play will, of course, be shaped by their experiences to date – what they have seen or heard of the adults around them. A child’s play is also influenced by the materials and the spaces available to them (usually provided by the adults). The authors argue that, rather than play being fantastical, purely for escapism, and a ‘break’ from the work of learning, the opposite is actually true – that play allows children to bridge the gap between the concrete and the abstract, allowing them to understand concepts more deeply and develop mastery ofnew skills.

The publication draws on the work of Australian academic Marilyn Fleer, who describes the link between imaginative play and the development of abstract concepts and cognition. The authors expand on this idea:

“Developing children’s conceptual understanding is important to the child’s everyday life, not only to his or her subsequent academic success; it allows children to act and experience the world in more purposive and functional ways. Importantly, Fleer’s work (2011, see also 2010) provides ample ground for understanding how engaging children in imagination and play are critical to such development, and also therefore should remain as foundational to early childhood education practices.”

As teachers then, we have moved from the traditional ‘child as an empty vessel’ approach, to seeing children as active participants, who use play as a technique to develop new skills and knowledge. Which then leads us to question the role of adults – where and how do we fit into the pedagogy of play?

Play-responsive pedagogy

The authors cite research that suggests that ‘guided play’ has benefits to children, especially when more complex concepts are involved. This guided play can consist of either: adults enriching the play environment with props and materials for play, or adults playing along with children, asking questions and modelling problem solving and language. They suggest we no longer need to ask whether the teacher should participate in play, but rather how the teacher participates.

In Chapter 4, they describe some strategies that teachers used as part of a research project, including:

  • asking permission to join the play
  • asking questions about the play
  • taking a role in the play (after observing), and
  • responding to a child’s (verbal or non-verbal) suggestions.

At preschool, we use strategies like this and others, observing children’s play to make a thoughtful offering of materials or ideas to extend the play, modelling the use of language or materials to build children’s repertoire of play and problem solving skills, or listening in to ‘disrupt’ the play and invite the children to think more deeply about an idea. It means that teachers and educators have to know children well, observe closely, and be deeply engaged in the work of teaching and learning.

In Chapters 5 to 9, the authors present and analyse transcripts and case studies of early childhood teachers in Sweden using the strategies and giving us a glimpse into the pedagogy of the teachers in the study.

Tensions and questions

The authors describe some of the tensions that arise for teachers as they work in play-responsive pedagogies, including finding the balance between supporting realistic play (what they call ‘as is’ play) and creative pretend or make-believe play (‘as if’ play). Other questions arise around whether we, as teachers and play-partners, follow the child’s lead or alternatively, challenge children by expanding and extending on their play ideas. How do we walk the line between being play-responsive and taking over, and how can our participation best support children’s learning and development?

If we agree that the goal of early childhood education is to educate young children, that education involves gaining skills or content, and that play is central to children’s learning, then, they conclude, play-responsive teaching must be at the cornerstone of our work as teachers.

This book provides a useful provocation for us in our everyday work with children and invites us to reflect on our own involvement in children’s play. It provides some useful strategies for teachers as we begin to work more intentionally within play-responsive pedagogy, and invites us to reflect on our own practice as play-responsive teachers.

Play-Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education is by Niklas Pramling, Cecilia Wallerstedt, Pernilla Lagerlöf, Camilla Björklund, Anne Kultti, Hanna Palmér, Maria Magnusson, Susanne Thulin, Agneta Jonsson and Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson. Published by Springer Open, it is available at all the usual outlets.

To access a free digital version of this book, email