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Observing Play

Purpose of observing play

Observing children’s play offers an important way in which adults can monitor and assess children’s progress. This view is set out in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s document Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage:

Logging children’s use of a particular activity or play scenario helps practitioners monitor how children use their time, their particular interests and any gaps in their experiences, so that practitioners can plan a balanced curriculum that takes note of children’s strengths, interests and needs. (QCA, 2000:24)

Playtime in a primary school offers a context where children’s free play can be observed. Janet May, a teaching assistant from Yelvertoft Primary School, Northampton, describes how she draws on playground observations to inform classroom thinking.

I love being around the children. It’s very interesting for me to see them as a teaching assistant in the classroom, and then as a playtime supervisor outside. I can very often take back a lot of things to the teacher that have happened at playtime. Or maybe something I’ve seen in a child’s character outside that I’m able to discuss with the teacher; and that might explain what’s happening in class. So it’s quite valuable to be in both situations. (Personal communication, May 2006)

Because of their emphasis on the co-construction of knowledge, practitioners in Reggio Emilia (1) adopt a somewhat different approach to observation. Observing children in unstructured or play activities may reveal what a child has already learnt. The suggestion is that in order to be able to plan future activities the adult needs to be a participant observer: taking part in the activity, listening to and discussing the children’s ideas and engaging in self-observation in order to identify possible future paths of learning.

Hyder (2005) argues that children can reveal a great deal through their fantasy and imaginative play, and that listening and watching is a crucial part of gaining access to children’s ideas and feelings. However, we must be wary of the dangers of seeing what we want to see. Children’s play is complex, and we need to be cautious about assuming that, because we have observed the observable (i.e. what the children are doing or saying), we have accessed their thoughts and ideas. We need to be careful that we see what actually happens and not what we expect or want to see. There are always different ways of interpreting situations; these may not be ‘correct’ from a scientific point of view, but if we are not open to what we didn’t expect, if we are not open to different ways in which a topic can be approached, the different connections it is possible to make, the different premises, then it becomes difficult to discover the knowledge-building processes of the children. It is important not to over-predict what will happen.


  1. The Reggio Emilia Approach to preschool education was started by the schools of the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy after World War II. In recent years their philosophical approach to early education has been variously transformed into a curriculum model of excellence.


Hyder, T. (2005) War, Conflict and Play London: Routledge.

QCA (2000) Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage London: QCA/DfEE Publications.


[Information last accessed: 27 July 2017]

This article draws on ‘The role of play in children’s learning. An OpenLearn ( chunk reworked by permission of The Open University copyright © 2016 – made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence v4.0 As such, it is also made available under the same licence agreement.