Play's progress? Locating play in the educationalisation of early childhood education in Aotearoa New Zealand

Stover, Susan Larie (Sue)
Begg, Andy
McLachlan, Claire
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Anchored in the democratic and humanistic traditions of the Progressive Educators, and before that, to the infant schools, nurseries and kindergartens of Western Europe, ‘learning through play’ is an enduring but enigmatic thread in the history of early childhood education (e.c.e.). Championed by New Zealand’s playcentre movement, ‘free play’ was widely seen as the best way for children to learn; during four decades after World War II, systems developed for children’s education through play.

Within a feminist oral history methodology, the study’s original data was collected in interviews with 23 historic leaders of e.c.e. who were asked to remember play, free play, and learning through play. Their collective experiences cover over 60 years of ‘the everyday’ recalled in kindergarten, te kohanga reo, playcentre, childcare settings, as well as in academic and political contexts. Their stories indicate major shifts in understanding about how children grow, learn, and develop; shifts in how and why they play. In particular there were shifts in how adults (especially teachers) can choose to influence play and learning. Through thematic analysis and use of the etymological and hermeneutic tools of the bricoleur-as-researcher (Kincheloe, 2001, 2005), three ‘grand projects’ for early childhood education are identified; each ‘grand project’ reflecting a different purpose. The first ‘grand project’ started around 1948 with the appointment of a preschool advisor within the Department of Education (Alcorn, 1999), and the formation of what became the New Zealand Playcentre Federation (Stover, 1998b) whose leaders helped define what ‘free play’ should look like and was intended to achieve. Starting from 1975, a second ‘grand project’ was focused on creating a unity of purpose amongst the diversity of ‘pre-school’ organisations. This enabled an educational sector for the early years to be created within government, as well as alliances between broad social reform agendas and the neoliberal policy objectives (May, 2001, Te One, 2003, Scrivens, 2002). In this formative era, the voices from Maori communities and of feminists were particularly strong. Also important was the articulation of a curriculum ‘myth’ (Beeby, 1986) which enabled the e.c.e. sector to proceed at a policy level with multiple agendas: the education of children under five years old, workforce policy and cultural imperatives (Early Childhood Care and Education Working Group, 1988). From the mid 1990s, a grand ‘education’ project is identified which has been marked by the professionalisation of the sector, the foregrounding of compliance requirements and the rapid expansion of the sector itself. So what has happened to the ideas that children learn through play? and especially that they learn through ‘free play’? In this study, the ‘container’ construct of ‘educationalisation’ (Depaepe, Herman, Surmont, van Gorp, & Simon, 2008) is used to track ‘free play’ in its shaping of the classroom ‘grammar’ of both historic and contemporary early childhood settings; that is, the organisation of space, resources and equipment. Playcentre is recognised as pivotal in this process. Further, memories of those interviewed suggest a fundamental change in how children are seen and what is appropriate for them, for their parents and teachers. Using de Certeau’s ‘logic of practice’ (1984) to consider play’s ‘progress’ across the three ‘grand projects’, it is proposed that the systems for ‘learning through play’ and ‘free play’ have served as a technology that enabled a colonising process. This process is the movement from a bricolage (‘make do’) approach to rearing very young children through to the creation of professional services for their education and care. The effect of tracing the historic thread of play in early childhood is to foreground children’s experience within the complexity both of sector policy, and within the choices made by parents during their children’s early years.

Early childhood education - history , Free play , Educational history - New Zealand
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