The Non-Playful Side of Aistear- The Theory!

Dec 1, 2022 | Education

The Non-Playful Side of Aistear- The Theory!


‘Aistear’; The Irish word for journey (NCCA 2009). Following several years of research, consultation, planning and design between The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), Early Childhood sectors in Ireland and abroad and practitioners throughout the country, Aistear: the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework was introduced to Early Childhood settings in 2009. It is a framework aimed at children from birth to six years of age, a time where “children learn through loving, trusting and respectful relationships, and through discussion, exploration and play.” (NCCA, 2009, p6)

The twelve principles of early learning and development which are divided under the four main themes of Well-being, Identity and Belonging, Communicating and Exploring and Thinking, seek to offer early childhood learning experiences of dispositions, values and attitudes, skills, knowledge, and understanding. Each of the four themes has four aims, divided into six learning goals. The main aim of the publication of Aistear is to offer guidance, suggestions and ideas to adults working within the early childhood setting about children’s learning through partnerships with parents, play, interactions and assessment.

Although Aistear is primarily targeted and used correctly in early childhood settings such as crèche and pre-school, it is also recommended as an emergent curriculum for primary schools; Infant classes. Although it is a quality evidence based framework, it has not been made obligatory; therefore there are many ambiguities regarding its practice in primary schools, with some schools following Aistear Mentor recommendations of one hour per day, while other schools choose not to use it whatsoever.

The Primary Language Curriculum (NCCA, Revised 2019) states their Junior and Senior Curriculum is aligned with principles and methodology of Aistear, highlighting the importance of play in language acquisition and development. However, without strict guidelines regarding the implementation of Aistear in primary schools, it would seem The NCCA, who is responsible for designing both curriculums is actually making recommendations without any accountability by schools to follow. Another initiative, The Government’s ‘Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice’ (2018-2023, p5) highlights the importance of Aistear in the promotion of wellbeing.

The Department of Education’s lack of enforcement of Aistear may suggest a lack of understanding or respect, on their part, about Early Childhood. According to The OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance 2017’, Ireland’s expenditure on early year’s education was only at 0.1% of GDP, which saw them country ranking the lowest of 35 countries. Perhaps their lack of investment reflects a common argument of play versus work; with a growing worldwide emphasise towards target-based learning, play, as a pedagogy has seen a decline. According to Rogers, (2010) “A consensus about the value and benefits of play exists within dominant Western early childhood educational discourse. Yet there appear to be inherent and widespread difficulties, both conceptual and practical, in realising the potential benefits of play.”

In 2016 the Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Skills (DES) took charge of inspecting education for children in early childhood. Under their remit they look for evidence of Aistear and Síolta. They also seek evidence of Aistear in practice in Infant classes of Primary schools; although they have failed to offer adequate training or support or to even make it mandatory; therefore, they can only make recommendations with little substance or commitment for schools to implement.

“Children’s play is not mere sport. It is full of meaning and import.” (F. Froebel 1782-1852)

In terms of child development Early Childhood refers to children from 2 to 6 years of age. Theorist’s categorisations of child development stages vary, with some from three to five, others from 2 to 5 and those that relate to children from aged 2 to 6.

For typical development it is a time of self-regulation, formation of interpersonal relations outside the family, goal-directed partnership form of attachment, behavioural self, an increase of emotional regulation, rigid moral development, gender constancy, curiosity about others’ bodies and increasing peer interactions. In terms of atypical development, it is a period when separation anxiety disorder, oppositional defiance, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism may become more apparent. Play can greatly inform the teacher or parent as observer.

As commonly accepted in terms of child development, Piaget, who focused on cognitive development, points out that children are not able to fully process abstract reasoning or thinking until approximately the age of 11; therefore their world is built upon concretes. He refers to the stage of Early childhood as the ‘Preoperational’ stage. Piaget maintained that play bridges the gap between concrete experiences and abstract notions; that in play the child may use concrete objects in order to represent direct and indirect experiences, under their own control. “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” (Jean Piaget 1896-1980).

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who defines this stage of development as the Phallic/Oedipal stage, argued strongly that the first five years of childhood are crucial to the formation of the adult. This highly criticised psychosexual theory relates to the child adopting values, attitudes and behaviours of another individual or the same gender; usually mother or father. This may be apparent in pretend play, where the child takes on gender specific roles of mammy caring for new baby and daddy fixing the car. “The Child takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.” (Freud, 1856-1939).

Erik H. Erikson, who refers to human development in terms of the ego, identifies the period of early childhood years in relation to initiative versus guilt. He names it ‘the play ages’, a time where children become more interested in responding to the world around them, doing things with the group and being more involved. At this stage, children spend much time in imaginative play, while checking what effect their actions have on other people. According to Erikson, in order for children to feel emotionally satisfied, they must be allowed to explore, to act and to do. He claims it is a time when parents worry about their child’s growing interest/favouritism of other adults such as teacher, fireman, policeman etc., but for the child to successfully move to the next stage of development they must first work through this stage; therefore, role-play is an excellent means of discovery for them. “The point is that children do not wish to be reminded of the principal inequality with the parent of the same sex. They remain identified with this same parent; but look for opportunities where transitory identification seems to promise a field of initiative without too much conflict or guilt.” (Erikson, 1980, p86)

According to Frank (1982) play is a means for children to learn what nobody can teach them. For children, play is itself a whole and complete experience, without requiring an end goal. It is a time for exploration, experimentation, discovery and a mean for children to learn values and meanings of the world in which they live. Early childhood communication is dominated by play, as children are yet to have developed the verbal skills necessary to express themselves; spontaneous play is a means of playing out their experiences, feelings and emotions.

Here we have had a brief introduction to some of the most respected developmental theorists and how their theories relate to play. If we were to gain a greater understanding of child-centred play in education we would need to explore the ideas of people such as Vygotsky, Mahler, Bruner, Rogers, Montessori and Steiner. What is apparent is that play, when nurtured and scaffolded but not controlled by adults, is a highly constructive and necessary part of child development, so let’s create more opportunities for play in our classrooms and homes; regardless of age, gender or curriculum.