Assessment in the Early Years: are we trading play for points? Student’s voice

By Alex Giubertoni, final year student on Early Years Education Foundation Degree 

Since the Froebelian era, play has been at the heart of young children’s learning and understanding in their earliest years. It is a way of taking the minds of young ones and investing them with knowledge and understanding about the world around them and the skills they need to live life. So, when I read the Bold Beginnings report from OFSTED I find myself at a crossroad of thought: are we entering a new era where play matters only to increase children’s social skills but directed teaching and assessment takes the rein of the majority of learning in the Early Years? If so, who is this benefitting? Certainly not the children, who it has been proven gain a more in depth understanding through child-initiated play (Robson, 2015). If we are to move into this newly recommended era of mostly adult lead teaching, we are going against all those pioneers who shaped our Early Years Foundation Stage as we know it. Theorists such as Margaret McMillian, Maria Montessori and more recently, Tina Bruce all endorse the importance of learning through play with no mention of standardised assessments (White, 2015).

In my saying this, assessment in the Early Years is of course, important as the EYFS describes (DfE, 2017). However, as Tickell (2011) found, assessment in the early years is misunderstood and misused by many practitioners and high-power figures. Assessment should be on-going and not be used to remove children from their play – a statement I feel the Bold Beginnings report seems to have missed. In defence, summative assessment plays an important part in some aspects of the Early Years, for example the Progress Check at age two. However, this kind of check is not done by removing a child from their learning, but more so through reviewing the formative assessment which has taken place during play.

In spite of the formative assessment highlighted in the EYFS, Maynard and Chicken discovered in their 2010 study, that many Early Years educators felt the pressure of results and figures and therefore adult led activities and teaching became more important that child-initiated learning and play.

In my professional opinion, assessment in the Early Years is suppressing the opportunities for play provided by educators, schools and settings. With more focus and recommendations than ever before on results from the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, it is no wonder the Early Years educators in the United Kingdom are trading play for points. As a recommendation, I would suggest that the government needs to immerse themselves in the Early Years curriculums such as Reggio Emilia and the Scandinavian Forest School approach in order to appreciate the need for child-innated play, and to see the impacts on children’s Early Years education even without summative assessments in place.

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‘Assessment overload’ – play depravation?

‘’I didn’t have time to play today. I wrote my name, I did some sums, I read my book to the teacher and wrote some sentences with full stops and speech marks. I painted a self-portrait and did lots of other things, but I didn’t have time to play today, or yesterday. Hopefully I will play tomorrow?”

The child’s voice

Assessment in Early Years Education has received considerable attention in recent years. Children in England today are officially assessed five times by the end of their Primary School years (DfE, 2014. Reforming Assessment and accountability for Primary Schools). The information obtained from these assessments is translated into numerical figures and it seems as if the impact of play is lost amongst this culture of labelling. Although many have written about the consequences of some assessment procedures (Bradbury & Roberts-Holmes, 2017; Dubiel, 2016), what current discussions highlight is not a pledge towards the avolition of assessment in early years. The discussion is bringing to the surface the need for clarification and the actual use of assessment in Early Years Education and Care (ECEC).

Open the doors to play

We seem to have developed a ‘scary’ perception of assessment that has formality attached to it and sets out lists of goals to work towards when all that is necessary is to simply let play back in.
The themes drawn from the discussions I have had with practitioners from different backgrounds recently highlighted the absence of spontaneous play during crucial times. I found myself referring to the journals I had written years ago which told stories about the children I worked with. Those accounts of children’s progress ALL had a common thread which I had not identified at the time and this made me realise that we had allowed concepts in that had manipulated the value of play.

‘A dinosaur adventure’ that became real because Alex reminded us that spontaneous play has an impact that cannot be predicted. These photographs show us how Alex took charge of his play and let assessment and play walk alongside each other when he said, “dinosaurs are real”.

The formalised approach to assessment we have been forced to follow would encourage us to relate each part of the experience to the EYFS Framework or any other policy document that is used as a guide for assessment purposes. However, what happened to Alex when he brought play to life, had an impact that cannot be numerically measured. The introduction of scores to measure how children are progressing has influenced practitioners to justify the use of play. Alex’s adventure is evidence of the type of play that has no prescribed agenda. These types of experiences reiterate the importance of allowing spontaneous play count.

The current culture of progress justification has had an impact on how play is perceived by some practitioners and this is how pockets of ‘play depravation‘ have been identified. This is not necessarily because children have been deprived of play, rather because spontaneous play is often not understood and therefore manipulated to fit into the progress ranking agenda.

Play in its natural sense has never gone away, it has been hidden under a numerically measurable agenda. Turning that on its head is the starting point. Do we need numerical scores to justify that children are learning and developing (Gullo, 2005)? Assessment can be carried out whilst children have the freedom to explore the world through play. It is in fact recommended by many that we start learning about each child before we measure where they fit within these ‘ready-made progress scales’. Assessment does have a place in Early Years but, it needs to value strategies that help us as practitioners understand how children are developing. How about we assess children during play to really learn about who they are? Play can allow us to enter a child’s world where assessment can happen authentically. As we let children discover the world, we can witness how they flourish as unique individuals. This happens when children simply play (Nilsson et al, 2018; Martin, 2018).

Observing Alex play with ‘the dinosaur eggs’ he found in his allotment (which were dried out squashes) helped us learn about him. I know more about Alex because I was able to see him totally immersed in his play.

Whilst I write about the power of play
I do wonder what children might say
“Watch me, hear me! Let me be!”
It is through play that you’ll learn about me!”

Alicia Blanco-Bayo


BRADBURY, A & ROBERTS-HOLMES, G. (2017) Creating an Ofsted story: the role of early years assessment data in schools’ narratives of progress. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(7), 943-955.

DfE (2014) Reforming Assessment and accountability for Primary Schools. London: DfE

DUBIEL, J. (2016) Effective Assessment in the Early Years Foundation Stage. SAGE: London

GULLO, D. (2005) Understanding Assessment and Evaluation in Early Childhood Education. 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.

MARTIN, S. (2018) Take a Look. Observation and Portfolio Assessment in Early Childhood (Seventh Edition) Canada: Pearson.

NILSSON, M., FERHOLT, B. & LECUSA, R. (2018) “‘The playing-exploring child’:Reconceptualizing the relationship between play and learning in early childhood education”, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, vol. 19, no. 3,231-245.

OFSTED (2017) Bold Beginnings: A Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.

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