Arts and Early Childhood: The Importance of Play

5 October 2022

Edinburgh City Council Quality Improvement Education Officer, Bex Ewart, reflects on her recent visit to Almere, Netherlands, as part of the Erasmus Creative Europe Project: Arts and Early Childhood, and the importance of play for both adults and young children.

“We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” George Bernard Shaw

I have been lucky enough to be part of the Arts and Early Childhoods project, sharing practice and dialogue with colleagues from the Netherlands, Catalonia and France.  The aim of the project is to explore how arts and creativity can be incorporated into Early Childhood and to begin to form some kind of best practice model.

The dialogue between practitioners has been absolutely fascinating.  We come from the same base but the systems within which we operate are different, and this necessitates a difference in professional identity.

In Almere, we visited a number of inspirational settings, including settings piloting a FLOW programme, where children receive extra support with language development.  Here the children are cared for in groups of 16, from 3-5 years old and the older children go to their elementary school in the afternoon while their younger peers go home.   The initial findings of this are positive and point towards this being a successful model to support children.

The educators who support the children in this programme receive extra training.   Part of this approach involves using a prescribed ‘theme’ where the educators have a centralised set of resources and experiences that are offered to the children for four weeks, with a week for assessment and ‘catch up’ for children who have not reached the expected outcome.  The five week cycle then resumes with a new theme, with new core vocabulary and set experiences.

Reflecting on this visit with a practitioner colleague from Edinburgh, Debbie, we started to explore the idea of practitioner identity.  In Scotland practitioners have a lot of freedom to co-construct the curriculum with their children and families.  We use observations and consultation to capture children’s interests and offer experiences and environments where children can explore their interests in a way that interests and motivates them.  Within this we started to discuss how much of ourselves we put into Early Years practice, and what we thought the key ingredients of high-quality practice might be.   Alongside the more obvious answers to the question, like a knowledge of child development, the curriculum, the children as individuals and learners we started to explore the concept of playfulness and joy.

As we walked to dinner in central Almere, we came across a flight of steps in the mall with a metal slide from the top to the bottom.  Both myself and Debbie looked at each other and shared our delight – what a great idea! We couldn’t wait to try it out.  As it was, it was typically Dutch weather for the time of year and sleet rain, so we decided that we would try it on the way home as we could cope with being soggy for the journey.  Over dinner we started talking about the slide, who would use it, whether adults who were used to the sight of it would still find it fun, and what barriers there might be.

We discussed when we would feel comfortable using the slide if it was in Edinburgh, and what things might affect our decisions.  Both of us felt that there might be some judgement attached to its use.  Would people think we were silly?  That we shouldn’t be using the slide?  Is it only for kids?  Debbie thought that it would depend upon who she was with as to whether she would feel as though she were allowed to use it in Edinburgh.

That got us thinking about joy and fun in practice.  Debbie’s team provide high quality, joyful experiences for the children and families in their care, but what is it about their team that allows them to do that so successfully?  As we talked, Debbie kept coming back to the base that as well as being knowledgeable about Child Development, the curriculum, Realising the Ambition, they also play.   Not just with the children in practice, but they are also playful with each other. Permission to have fun and play comes from their leadership, and is modelled by the Senior in the setting.

All of the fabulous practitioners that I’ve come across in my career have come into childcare because of the joy of working with children.  The most connected moments I’ve seen and experienced have been when the adult enters into the joy of the moment and plays.  As Debbie and I continued our discussion we came to the conclusion that play is a valid and important aspect of practitioner identity.

This then led me to think about some of the study that I’m currently undertaking around professional learning and leadership.  I read an article last week that linked successful Career Long Professional Learning (CLPL) to learning that shifts the practitioner’s own professional identity (Netolicky 2016).  We want our children to experience joy and wonder, so in that case, how do we provide opportunities and support practitioners to experience wonder and joy and give them permission to adopt these as part of their professional identity?  Our national practice guidance stresses the importance of adults allowing children to be them, and to do that, we have to be us; joyful, professional, playful.

Education Scotland. (2020) Realising the Ambition: Being Me; [] Accessed 4.10.2022

Netolicky, D.M. (2016), “Rethinking professional learning for teachers and school leaders”, Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. 1 No. 4, pp. 270-285.