Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

Caging the Wild Animal

Caging the Wild Animal

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

In a recent online discussion, several early educators expressed frustration that their licencing bodies were not only insisting that their spaces be organised around centers or ‘learning stations’ but also that they should be clearly labelled as such: the ‘science station’, the ‘drama station’ etc. Confusion was expressed over where the word ‘play’ fitted into this idea.

These educators were exclusively American and although some other parts of the world organise spaces in this way too it is much more common to find this type of set up in the U.S.A. than in some other contexts. It is also fair to say that this idea is defined in a much harder way in the U.S. than possibly elsewhere and that American early educators face some real struggles when it comes to the idea of play-based learning as well. These two points may be connected.

By ‘harder way’ I mean that these organised stations are not necessarily seen as mere starting points from which children can begin and then move taking their play with them. No, they frame expectations on what sort of thing these educators, and more importantly the licencing people, expect to see happening in those spaces.

Some participants in the discussion said that they label their stations in terms of the sorts of play they expect them to generate yet many more said that they are ether distancing themselves from labelling them as ‘play’ or are being actively discouraged from doing so.

A purpose behind all play

In a 2015 paper in the Journal of Play, Megham Lynch explored the thoughts of classroom organisation with American kindergarten teachers and found that, “Some teachers stated they needed to label activities to give them an academic tone, instead of a playful one. Rather than calling areas in the classroom ‘play centers,’ these teachers encouraged others to call the spaces ‘developmental centers’ or ‘work centers,’ or to describe play as ‘active learning.’” (:355).

She goes on to say that some have also received instructions from ‘the system’ to avoid having any form of free play in their classes. This was, they had been told, because, “… there needs to be a purpose behind all play activities.” (:358). Clearly, that purpose has to be learning and to be seen to be learning. 

We may be getting to the nub of the confusion here – it turns out that these stations have nothing to do with ‘play’.

The underlaying problem seems to be either a significant misunderstanding on the place of play in a learning context, or a deep suspicion of it – or possibly both.

In a system dominated by Piagetian ways of thinking about education (of which the U.S.A. is one) this should probably not come as a surprise. In a very simplistic form, Piaget, and many subsequent psychology-dominated theorists after him, have tended to see learning as taking place in essentially a straight line with the learner passing through various stages before finally arriving at a defined educational goal or outcome.

Piaget and the Wild Animal

For years, many of our educational systems, especially at the primary or elementary school level, have been dominated by this type of thinking and in recent decades this idea has begun to influence early education too. It shapes the way our learning outcomes are formed, the way curriculum is written and assessed, how our educators are trained and subsequently how our spaces are organised to support the system. None of this bodes well for play.

I’ll make a broad claim here: ‘play’ simply does not fit in an environment based largely on Piagetian lines and attempting to organise our spaces by restricting particular types of play, or learning, into a predesignated ‘corner’, ‘area’ or ‘station’ is like putting a wild animal in a cage and thinking that’s helpful. It’s not – it’s restrictive and it’s unnatural.

Some might claim that organising our space into ‘stations’ like this provides some structure or starting point for play yet that is really to miss the main point which is that this idea is an attempt to control what is happening or is about to happen in a way that fits a predetermined outcome and timescale. It is less to do with learning, more to do with teaching and nothing at all to do with play.


This might be close to explaining why in some other educational systems, like those of the Nordic countries for example, the straight-line dominance of Piagetian thinking doesn’t really exist. It is partly because they recognise that learning in the early years rarely works in nice, neat, predictable straight lines.

It may also explain the suspicion behind play and a play-based approach to early learning.  

Using such an approach requires an acceptance that once the wild animal of play has been released, it needs its freedom to roam and be itself to be fully effective. The most important requirement for that is time and patience.

In other words, defining the ‘Science Centre’ as such implies that there will be ‘science’ going on and what licencing people seem to be looking for is evidence of this predetermined way of seeing a space organised ‘for learning’ (which can be controlled) and not ‘play’ (which cannot).

It’s a trap. Don’t fall into it.

This is nothing less than a display of mistrust over the power of play and the effect it has on our children. If we trusted them and the possibilities in play more, we would soon see that such ‘stations’ are hindering their learning not enhancing it. Far from caging the wild animal we should be setting it free.

Marc Armitage


photo: this is an image of a friend of mines younger daughter kindly reproduced with their permission. 


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Matt Tapscott says:
Wonderful! Spot on!
My mantra, "Trust children to succeed" (brain development proves it), "Provide the environment in which they can" (child centered - not "cages")
But, that does not mean absolute chaos (accept to the non-believers!), it means observation, reflection and trust from the caregiver/teacher/parent.