Throwing out the Plastic; Constructing an environment which supports the development of high quality creative play

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

In Scottish education, there is a developing focus on practitioner enquiry as an approach to professional learning and also to school improvement. 
The most successful education systems ...invest in developing their teachers as reflective, accomplished and enquiring professionals who have the capacity to engage fully with the complexities of education and to be key actors in shaping and leading educational change. (Donaldson, 2011, p4)
In my own practice, I have found professional enquiry to be an important tool in both deepening my own pedagogical understanding and in driving forward curriculum development in a sustainable and collaborative way.

Throwing out the Plastic

This enquiry explored how we could shape our environment to cultivate creativity and develop the opportunities for free flow play. Tina Bruce (2004) writes, ‘the environment plays a central part in cultivating creativity. But if organised wrongly, it can constrain or even extinguish it.’ 

Children’s toys are usually designed by adults. Frequently they are brightly coloured and made of plastic. How much of the learning has been removed by adults during the development of these resources? 

Before the project, the nursery was brightly coloured with lots of plastic toys. Many of the toys did not inspire creativity and activities were adult led.

Froebelian practice provides children with ‘an environment which allows free access to a rich range of materials that promote open-ended opportunities for play, representation and creativity.’ (The Froebel Trust, 2012)  Where children can modify their environment by using combinations of creative materials, dramatic materials and smaller manipulative objects, the quality of play is high. Teets (1985) Flexibility provides opportunities for autonomy and creative thought. Therefore, it would seem that if we provide open ended resources in a way that offers choice and the ability to self-select, children will extend and develop their play in response.

We introduced a permanent Block Area where block play was valued and respected. Supported sensitively by adults, the quality of block play increased dramatically and we began to see children progressing through the levels  of block play development where we had not seen this before.

We introduced small manipulative objects or loose parts that could be moved about the nursery both inside and out. These offered opportunities for open ended symbolic and dramatic play. Children used jewels, conkers and stones to represent a variety of different objects. Many of these were natural materials.

We developed our indoor and outdoor water areas to increase independence and choice for children by providing them with a range of resources that could be manipulated and interpreted in an infinite variety of ways. Problem solving and investigative inquiry increased noticeably.

Other developments; natural materials, mud kitchen, clay, woodwork, real life experiences, crates and tyres, talking thinking floorbooks, paint making, creation station, playdough, material instead of fixed dressing up clothes, more opportunities for literacy and numeracy through play.

Observing children is key to improving the quality of the environment. How the children played showed which resources work best to free their imaginations and creativity and which contain and stifle them.  A fundamental shift away from toys which leave little room for imagination, towards more natural and open ended resources is reflected in a fundamental shift in the quality of the children’s play. On a daily basis we see many of the features of free flow play (Bruce, 1991). We also see, motivated engaged children, who are deeply involved in their play, high levels of creative problem solving and mature high level socio-dramatic play and children negotiating complex play situations, using language to create texts and developing their skills of collaboration and co-operation.  

So go on, create an environment that supports high quality creative play and throw out the plastic!

Bruce, T., 1991 updated 2011. Learning Through Play. 2nd ed. London: Hodder Education.
Bruce, T., 2004. Cultivating creativity in babies, toddlers and young children. Hodder Education.
Donaldson, G. 2011. Teaching Scotland’s Future; Report of a review of teacher education in Scotland. The Scottish Government, Edinburgh.
Froebel Trust, 2015. Froebel Today. [Online] Available at [Accessed 4 October 2015]
Teets, S., 1985. Modification of play behaviors of preschool children through manipulation of environmental variables. In: J. L. Frost & S. Sunderlin, eds. When Children Play. Wheaton, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, pp. 265-272.

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