18 The Freedom of Play and Open-Endedness

One of the hallmarks of early childhood education is what is typically referred to as ‘free play’. This concept is often employed as a rhetorical strategy in public debate about the nature, tradition, and future of preschool, and how it allegedly differs from school. Hence, ‘free play’ is generally used as a normative concept, that is, it provides an ideal for how stakeholders want preschool to be, rather than necessarily building on analytical work of empirical data as indicative of what actually characterizes this institution for promoting children’s development and well-being. While matters of how we organize for and promote children’s development in an institution such as preschool is a ‘hot topic’ to which it may be difficult to remain distant, to conduct research, and on this basis provide knowledge about how to design developmental activities in this setting, it is critical to take an analytical stance and ground claims in empirical data generated in this setting (rather than, for example, in laboratory settings).

In his theoretical elaboration of play, van Oers[1] differentiates the notion of ‘free play’ into two concepts: freedom from and freedom to. As he emphasizes, in normative discussions about ‘free play’, children’s right to play free of adult ‘interference’, as it is often labelled – clearly indicating the negative connotations of teacher participation in these kinds of activities – is emphasized, that is, what he refers to as freedom from. However, he further argues, the freedom of play may be differently understood; as the freedom to pursue activities in unforeseeable directions, that is, being responsive to the inherent open-endedness of activities we call play. This latter conceptualization of the freedom of play is what he refers to as freedom to. That children are free to explore and pursue what they engage in without needing to know beforehand where it will lead them, that is, where their play may end up, does not, van Oers emphasizes, preclude teacher participation in these activities. Rather, it remains an open and empirical question whether teachers do so and, if so, what this means to the trajectories of these activities and children’s participation and engagement in them. The latter lies at the very heart of what we intend to study in the present project. The distinction between the freedom to and freedom from of play thus provides a useful heuristic tool for analysis. This issue is further complicated in the present case with the ambition to study teaching in this context, since the latter implies outlining some form of trajectory (i.e., having an intention to make children discern, make sense of and appropriate some form of knowing, take part in some domain of cultural experience), while the former by its very nature is premised to be open-ended.

Rather than singling out play as a particular kind of activity, van Oers[2] argues that “in essence, all activities can be accomplished in playful versions or in more strictly proceduralised versions” . That is, any activity can be, what we above referred to as, communicatively framed and engaged in as if or as is, more or less strictly separated or with ‘permeable dividers’ (for empirical illustrations of such differences in early childhood education, see Johansson & Pramling Samuelsson[3]. Whether framing activities as make-believe (as if) or not (as is), teachers may or may not participate in these. As van Oers [4] concludes, mirroring our reasoning above, “all sociocultural activities are essentially seen as basically interpersonal endeavours in which more people actually or virtually participate. Hence there is in principle no objection to adult participation in play as long as the play format for the children themselves is not destroyed” . How participants – children (and at times, teachers) – communicatively frame, engage in, and negotiate the nature of mutual activities, and what this means to the continuation of these activities and what children are supported in appropriating are therefore important to analyze from these theoretical premises.


Chapter copied from: The freedom of play section in Pramling, N. et al., Play-Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education, International Perspectives on Early Childhood Education and Development 26, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15958-0_7. Shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

  1. van Oers, B. (2014). Cultural-historical perspectives on play: Central ideas. In L. Brooker, M. Blaise, & S. Edwards (Eds.), The Sage handbook of play and learning in early childhood (pp. 56–66). London, UK: Sage.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Johansson, E., & Pramling Samuelsson, I. (2009). To weave together: Play and learning in early childhood education. Journal of Australian Research in Early Childhood Education, 16(1), 33–48.
  4. van Oers, B. (2014). Cultural-historical perspectives on play: Central ideas. In L. Brooker,M. Blaise, & S. Edwards (Eds.), The Sage handbook of play and learning in early childhood(pp. 56–66). London, UK: Sage.


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