Play: what’s time got to do with it?

flex + tease

The relationship with time is part of everyday life in early childhood practice but is seldom made explicit. My ‘Slow knowledge and the unhurried child’ research study, funded by the Froebel Trust, seeks to explore what a slow pedagogy might look like where there is room to consider the time, pace and rhythm of early childhood practice (see Clark, 2020).

The study includes interviews with participants from 11 countries and a focus group with early childhood practitioners from Scotland and England:

Thinking about play is central to reconsidering the relationship with time for young children.  Drawing on the characteristics of Froebelian informed play, as described by Tina Bruce, I have chosen three of the twelve characteristics here to begin to make explicit some of the many strands in the relationship between play and time.


              1. Free flow play actively uses direct, first -hand experiences, which draw on the child’s powerful inner drive to struggle, manipulate materials, explore, discover and practise over and over again.

This characteristic acknowledges that children in self-directed play may return repeatedly to the same ideas, stories and tasks they have set themselves to practice. Practitioners who took part in a focus group to discuss the initial findings of my study commented on how even after several months of being at home due to the pandemic some children returned to play they had been absorbed in before lockdown. It raises the question, is such play seen as a problem and ‘time to move on’ or is revisiting play supported and valued?

             3. Play is an active process without an end product. When the play fades, so does its tangibility. It can never again be replayed in exactly the same way. It is of the moment and vanishes when the play episode ends. This aids flexibility of thought and the adaptability central to the intellectual life of the child.

The open-ended nature of play makes it difficult to pin down, which is one of the reasons play can be a challenge to an educational system that emphasises measurement and testing. In drawing attention to these qualities Tina Bruce refers to the relationship with time again here. An open-ended process is by its nature not primarily driven by the clock. How long an episode of play will take cannot necessarily be prescribed in advance. This raises questions about how much flexibility is there to adjust routines around play and what impact do timetables have on young children’s experiences of early childhood education?

           10: Play is about wallowing in ideas, feelings and relationships and the prowess of the physical body. It helps the process of becoming aware of self in relation to others and the universe. It brings unity and interconnectedness.

The choice of the word ‘wallowing’ suggests taking your time. These are not rushed activities dominated by clock time but where immersion is made possible. There is also a sense of enjoyment. Perhaps this is why the word might seem provocative in a professional context. Maybe it is the case in some early childhood environments that the pressures to be seen to perform and to be busy have squeezed out a sense of fun?


There are many layers to explore about the complex relationship between play, time and Froebelian principles. The open-ended nature of play contains a risk for educational systems that focus on obtaining fixed results and strive for certainty. As Gert Biesta describes, we are living in ‘impatient times in which we constantly get the message that instant gratification of our desires is possible and that is good. The call to make education strong, secure, predictable and risk-free is an expression of this impatience’(2013: 3).

Slow practices, of which play is central, run counter to this impatience and value the present moment as well as young children’s relationships with the past and future.

Author: Professor Alison Clark, University of South-Eastern Norway



Bruce, T. 2020. Twelve features characterising a Froebelian approach to childhood play. Froebel Trust. Available at:[ Accessed 23 August 2021].

Biesta, G.J.J.  The beautiful risk of education. London: Paradigm Publishers.

Clark, A., 2020. Towards a listening ECEC system: valuing slow pedagogy and slow knowledge’. In: P. Moss and C. Cameron, ed., Transforming early childhood in england. [online] London: UCL Press. Available at: [Accessed 23 August 2021].