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"Learn through play" says PACEY survey

The overriding message from PACEY's childcare sector survey is that pre-school children should be allowed to learn and develop life skills through play rather than formal, structured learning. 

The survey, which was completed by 2,442 childcare professionals nationally, and conducted in February 2015, aimed to provide a snapshot of the state of the sector and to identify the main challenges childcare providers are facing for the future. As PACEY’s largest and most comprehensive ever survey to date, it involved registered childminders, nannies, nursery workers and managers across all nine regional areas in England.

When asked what one thing they would change about the childcare system to improve the experience of children, the top-ranking issue was allowing children more opportunities to learn through play.

For over 50% of respondents, a desire to reduce the emphasis on structured learning and reintroduce a more natural and open approach to childcare through play ranked higher than concerns about Ofsted ratings, child-to-carer ratios, or funding.

Some of the comments we received from childcare providers include:

“Let children be children”

“Take the focus away from getting children ready for school and instead believe in their natural curiosity”


“Prepare children to be life ready, not just school ready”

Liz Bayram, Chief Executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said:

“The fact that childcare professionals rank the importance of learning through play above all other issues, including funding of childcare, demonstrates the strength of feeling among practitioners across England.

Baseline assessment, whereby children are tested on their communication and literacy skills on starting school,  is the latest in a series of moves towards the ‘schoolification’ of the early years.

It is clear most childcare professionals are very concerned that the focus has gone too far; that adult-led activities focussed on supporting specific learning goals for very young  children – no matter how playful – is no substitute for free flow, child-led fun!

PACEY supports childcare professionals to deliver the very highest standards of care and learning for the children they care for and we recognise that high quality relies on putting what’s best for children at its heart. PACEY believes that only through play can children develop the skills they need to be resilient and confident; and the creativity and curiosity they need for the future. And that demands small staff to child ratios and qualified, motivated and well rewarded professionals confident to let young children develop in their own unique way.

The right to play is written into the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child as a fundamental, universal right; and yet in this country we have historically scored poorly in UNICEF’s surveys on children’s sense of well-being compared to other European countries – something which has been attributed by childcare experts to be in part due to a lack of opportunities to play. 

The message we are getting loud and clear from our members is that a conscious move is now needed away from assessments and form-filling, and a return to a more child-led play-based approach for pre-school children.”

The survey results add weight to a growing evidence base about the importance of play, not only for the wellbeing of children, but also for the future success of the business world. We know that business leaders have identified creativity as the most crucial factor for success in business and CBI’s John Cridland said in March this year that “enthusiasm, creativity and passion” was what employers are looking for rather than qualifications.

PACEY members will be coming together with leading childcare experts on Saturday 16 May for their spring conference with The Power of Play as the central theme. The conference will complement National Children’s Day on Sunday, where the importance of play will also be championed.