School of Language, Literacy & Early Childhood Education
Dr Sinéad McNally
Dr Sinéad McNally, Assistant Professor in the Psychology of Early Childhood, School of Language, Literacy & Early Childhood Education

Research conducted by Dr Sinéad McNally, DCU’s Institute of Education and Christina O’Keeffe : 40% of teachers surveyed concerned about how play and play based lessons will be affected by restrictions

40% of teachers who took part in a survey conducted by researchers at DCU are concerned about how play and played based lessons will be impacted by measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus in schools.

The research conducted by Dr Sinéad McNally, DCU’s Institute of Education and Christina O’Keeffe aimed to identify teachers’ attitudes to play throughout the initial school closures, attitudes to play more generally in education, and intentions to incorporate play in their teaching during return to schooling.

Play is an integral component of early childhood education across many countries including Ireland and is recognised as critical in supporting children’s development, wellbeing and learning.

In the pandemic, play in education is especially important as it is recognised as a critical process in supporting children’s resilience during crises, helping children to manage emotions and promoting children’s resilience and wellbeing in the face of adversity and challenge.

Overall, developmental experts identify play as one of the most important ways in which we can support children during this pandemic, reduce stress and build resilience in the face of anxiety and uncertainty.

Schools in Ireland, which closed in early March are now due to reopen this week with a series of new measures in place, including placing children in pods/hubs, social distancing, individual pens/colours and learning materials, additional cleaning sanitisation of books and surfaces and the wearing of personal protection equipment (PPE) by teachers in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Participants in the study showed a strong commitment to using play-based strategies in early childhood classrooms when schools reopen.

However, teachers highlighted the potential adverse impact on play-based activities/classes, owing to new regulations in schools to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and highlighted a need for explicit guidance and support for teachers in order to deliver play-based teaching strategies.

Key Findings

Over 309 primary school teachers, who are currently teaching or have previously taught in early childhood classrooms took part.

Teachers’ responses revealed very strong investment regarding the value of play as part of their remote teaching during the pandemic as well as the fundamental role of play as a valued pedagogy going forward in their classroom practice upon school reopening.

Teachers believed play was an especially important pedagogical tool in supporting young children’s social and emotional development, learning and transition back to school.

82% of teachers recommended play strategies to parents during remote teaching and homeschooling. 87% of teachers indicated that play would have a significant role in their approaches to supporting children’s transition to school upon reopening.

Almost all teachers (99%) intended to use play as a pedagogical strategy upon school reopening. 40% were concerned about capacity in school to ensure play-time was facilitated.

Teachers who took part in the survey voiced concerns such as,

I’m worried that we won’t be allowed to play with current restrictions and I don’t have the time to be washing all the toys daily. I’m worried I can’t facilitate play as I have in the past because of restrictions. (Mainstream Class Teacher – Junior Infants and Senior Infants)

I am unsure as to how play will be carried out when pupils return to school in September. Even if infants aren't required to socially distance, will the teacher be able to get 'stuck-in' with the children and to what extent can resources for play be shared? (Mainstream Class Teacher – Junior Infants and Senior Infants)

The fear is that the use of play will be impacted depending on government guidelines into the sharing of resources within schools. It’s uncharted territory for us all. And time will tell. (Special Education Teacher – taught across all classes and ages including early childhood)

Dr Sinéad McNally, Assistant Professor in the Psychology of Early Childhood said,

“We know that play is one of the most essential ways in which we can support young children in a time of crisis.

We also know that teachers have a critical role in supporting young children’s play in the early childhood classroom.

It is therefore very positive that almost all teachers in our study plan to implement play-based teaching to support young children starting in primary school or returning to primary school this September.

However, teachers voiced clear concerns about capacity for implementing play-based teaching strategies in light of restrictions.

As schools reopen and the educational landscape changes during the pandemic, it is important that supporting children’s play is a central part of discussions around delivery of early childhood education in the pandemic.”

Commenting on the research findings, Christina O’Keefe said,

“Play is what children do best and our study shows a deep understanding of the importance of play among early childhood teachers in Ireland.

The overwhelming majority of teachers in our study recommended the use of play as part of home-schooling during the pandemic.

In commenting on the return to the classroom, teachers not only highlighted the role of play in supporting children’s learning but also its importance in offering social and emotional support to children during such adverse and challenging circumstances.”

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Christina O’Keeffe and Dr Sinéad McNally. 2020. “Perspectives of Early Childhood Teachers in Ireland on the Role of Play During the Pandemic.” Link here