Can adults define what meaningful play is?

Project author:

Project summary:

A study which observed a focus group of small children looking at the way children play and their relationships within the setting


Within a nursery setting we use different guidance documents to aid what we do with the children. This includes how a setting should look, what items children can play with and how we observe children. One thing that these documents have in common is the words “meaningful play”. In Realising the Ambition: Being Me it statesIt is important that we provide meaningful and rich contexts and opportunities for children to develop a wide range of skills such as early literacy and numeracy” (Education Scotland, 2020). Within this guidance it states the word meaningful twenty six times, but what does this actually mean. My purpose is to try and understand whether practitioners can define meaningful play.


In my last Froebel CPD course, I learnt so much about his principles and how they can be used in today’s nursery settings. It changed me as a practitioner and the way I work with children. When the chance came to learn more about Froebel and develop my learning further it excited me so much.

During this period, I did not work in a nursery so I decided to work within a nursery I have links to through my own child. The nursery has recently had a visit from the Care Inspectorate and got lower grades then expected, I believe this practitioner inquiry has come at the right time as this will allow us to see where the setting is and then look at how we can develop it.

Frobel learned so much from observations and believed that from these observations that we could understand children’s development and learning. Froebel also believed that play was of central importance and this has to be closely observed by adults. As practitioners we are always watching children for their next steps, interests, developmental milestones and much more and from these we set up activities for the children but are these meaningful interactions or just activities that are set up to tick a box?

For this project I had to decide how I would carry out this research not being based in the setting and also managing my time to give enough of a representation so I could gather enough information to determine whether the adults were creating meaningful play situations.

After a discussion with fellow practitioners, it was decided that children will be observed on a one-to-one basis where their conversations, actions and movements would be recorded. From this we can then look at what the children are getting out of their play. There was a discussion about how long the observations would take. After a mock test it was decided that a child would be observed for two hours at any single time. During this period I will also be gathering the practitioners thoughts on what they think meaningful play is and seeing if they are putting this into practice.


For this research a letter was produced to be handed to the parents of the nursery. The letter outlined what the project involved at the beginning and continued to ask if they would like to be part of the research. From this the parents had to sign to the form and hand the form back to the nursery.

I discussed the project with the head of the setting and gained their consent for me to enter the building and observe the team and children.

Only the children that had parental consent where observed, any findings are shared with the setting. The observations and photos of the participants are kept confidential where children’s names are not used, photos and written observations are kept on a password protected computer.

For myself I had to remain unbiased and not be involved in the children’s play which will be difficult as I have to try not to interact with the children and practitioners.

“Meaningful play is where the children take the lead, they take something and want to embed it into their learning and use language, numeracy and many more areas of curriculum and they transcribe it to real situations in their day-to-day life”

Nic, member of staff


In today’s nurseries many of our guidance documents have the words meaningful play within them. With these documents that all have different variations of these words, for example Play Scotland (2020) say for practitioners that “they need to set up interesting spaces and when the experiences on offer are set in meaningful contexts.” But as a practitioner what does this mean for our practice? In Realising the Ambition: Being me, it states that practitioners notice when to pause, engage and extend my learning and interests, through meaningful conversations and interactions. Is this happening within our settings today? Have practitioners got enough time to have these conversations and do they understand when these conversations are happening within the setting?

When I spoke to practitioners during the inquiry at the setting and shared the Play Scotland quote, I asked them what they thought meaningful play was. They used phrases such as ‘child led play,’ ‘learning though play,’ and having choices. They all said words associated with the quote, but when asked if they could give an explanation, they were hesitant but could give examples of what they could do to help during their practice.

During this project I observed twelve different children for a set period. The children had different abilities, aging from one to five years old. When I observed some of the staff you could see that they had taken an interest in the child and were trying to extend their learning. With these members of staff, you can see that they are starting to implement Froebel’s values at they are working with the children’s parents/carers and trying to extend the children’s learning by asking questions and interacting with them during their play. For example, one practitioner extends child A’s learning when they had a doctor’s kit. The practitioner was asking them questions about the equipment, showing them how to use it and letting them have a go at using the equipment. From this, Child A then told their peers what they had learnt and demonstrated what they had learnt by showing how to use the kit.

For the other practitioners at the setting, they had different approaches as they were asking children to take part in different activities that had been set up during the day. They were asking questions but some of the children didn’t understand the questions that were being asked or the questions were pitched at the wrong age. For example, one of practitioners was asking how many angles a shape has which the child lost interest and walked away from the activity.

I found that the practitioners that take time to improve their practice, self-evaluate themselves and learn about the children in their centre have a deeper understanding of meaningful play and use different techniques based on the children’s play situation.


This research has opened a future development opportunity for practitioners to upskill, guidance to relevant reading and visiting other sites that demonstrate meaningful play for them to improve their practice. When doing this research some of the practitioners could demonstrate how to implement meaningful play but others could not and for the benefit of the children, they care for they need to continue to develop their practice.

This inquiry has also demonstrated that the guidance documents that are produced by statutory bodies do not define the words meaningful play, so practitioners must interpret what this means, which shows that they have different definitions and when they put it into their practice it shows in different ways. We as adults are unable to put meaningful play into practice when we do not have a definition or good example to follow.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Kirsty McFarlane
    Kirsty McFarlane
    25 Mar 2024 at 7:35 pm

    This project was a very interesting and thought provoking read. It has made me reflect on my own practice and whether I really provide meaningful play and learning experiences to the children in my care.

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  2. Dawn Moorehead
    Dawn Moorehead
    25 Mar 2024 at 8:21 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your project. It has given me some food for thought for some professional discussions with my team regarding “meaningful play”.

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  3. Debbie Brown
    Debbie Brown
    26 Mar 2024 at 7:35 pm

    A very inspired read, really got me thinking about my own practice and do I understand the real reason behind meaningful play. Well done on this research project .

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