What’s the right way to teach and care for children in the early years?

It’s always evolving, with new approaches derived from theory and practice. Keeping up with new developments is something we really care about at all three University of Birmingham’s nurseries.

A key element is an all-staff training day every year. The team brings in an expert, and the day is dedicated to best practice, learning new skills, or exploring a different approach.

Greg Bottrill

Last week, the nurseries welcomed author and trainer Greg Bottrill for a full day of workshopping and discussion. Greg is the author of ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’, a much-praised book which focuses on bring ‘the magic of children’ back into the Early Years through play.

Luckily for us, he also found time for a quick chat about his approach.

I’ve heard your book ‘Can I Go and Play Now?’ described as ‘the EYFS bible’. Could you briefly tell us what it’s about? Where did the title come from?

It’s very flattering to hear accolades like that, and I think it’s been described as such because it has struck a chord with readers who are looking for inspiration, reassurance or for re-ignition.

Early Education is in a very challenging landscape currently with the incessant pressure for ‘readiness’ and political posturing that has eroded the child and replaced it with accountability. I think practitioners in many settings feel incredibly disillusioned, so in a way I hope that ‘Can I Go And Play Now?’ speaks what they feel about children.

It’s always heartwarming to come across settings who are putting children first, and are led by passionate leaders who are surrounded by a team who buys into the vision of what children can truly be.

The title comes from what children say when they disconnect from adult-led activity – I used to hear it lots in my early days, when I used to feel like I had to control the ‘doing-ness’ of the day. It just felt like a natural title because it’s literally the voice of children!

I think also it works as a title for adults. Many Early Years educators know the value of play but are constricted by schools in particular, so it could equally be their voice too.

You talk a lot about ‘continuous provision’. For parents and other people who don’t work within education, what does that mean?

For me, it’s the landscape of learning. It’s what we are providing for children to exist in day in day out. We are architects of the setting – very simply, it’s what we have for children to interact with: water, sand, malleable materials, creative areas, woodworking, role play, construction, small world, Lego etc.

The most important aspect of continuous provision is that, if it is carefully considered in the light of how children play and need to play, then it is what gives them the freedom to explore. Continuous provision should gift children the autonomy and the potential collaboration that they need to engage in play.

I am a huge advocate of open-ended continuous provisio,n which is based around the idea of adults not overly setting up areas but instead giving children a choice of resources and stimuli.

The Adult World often has a preconception that learning only happens with a teacher. It doesn’t – it is richer and more immersive with other children in solidarity with one another. It’s where children can not only learn about the world but about themselves too, what they are capable of and how they can become socially mindful. The adult role is then to observe, interact and become a co-player within the setting. They let go of control and enter into play, sprinkling skills as they go….

Children exploring at the Maples Day Nursery

Tell us about the different kinds of play.

Play is incredibly complex. It is its own worst enemy in a way!

The Adult World always wants to analyse and understand in light of a curriculum, yet play often lies outside understanding because it belongs to children. It’s why it isn’t valued by the Adult World, because its complexity makes it opaque. It often gets shut down in favour of worksheets and control and incessant group work because these things are easier to grade and monitor. And yet play is so, so, so rich and once the Adult World begins to look through a different lens then it can begin to see just how empowering and brilliant play truly is.

Play can go in any direction. It is infinite in its possibilities, so I tend to see it as expecting the unexpected. Loosely there are four types of play: playing with ideas, playing with others, playing with words and playing with objects. You’ll know when you see them because the one thing they all have in common is joy.

How does play sit alongside your ‘3 Ms’?

The 3Ms came about because there is a curriculum. I am deeply passionate about play but also about emotional connection to experience. I wanted to find a way that I could meet the demands of the Adult World whilst enabling children to engage in play and its freedom.

The 3Ms are Making Conversation, Mark Making and Mathematics – these are the things that the Adult World demand from children.

Of course there is a debate to be had about appropriateness of writing and ‘formal learning’ but I I’m not in a position to affect the policy makers. What I can do is affect how I go about achieving it.

The 3Ms are skills driven, and work on the cusp of each individual child’s understanding and development. It uses play as a tool. I think it’s why the book has resonated with practitioners because it demonstrates that demand can be met through joy and an alternative to control and power over children.

What’s your background, Greg?

I have a mixed background you might say! I came to work in education late in life, but I think my history gave me a richness that I could draw on. I’ve had various roles in the past, but the flow has led me to today where I hope I can continue to inspire and encourage.

I have ambitions to bring about change in policy but who knows? I will try the hardest I can because I believe that children deserve far, far better than what our education system considers to be acceptable. The moment any government thinks that testing children at 4.5 years old tells me everything I need to know about it.

Play is politics – how we value children reflects the state of any society. Unfortunately, England’s education system is becoming more and more about business and CEOs than it is children. So in a way it’s not about the past or background, it’s about the future: we have to keep hope because from hope comes faith and from faith comes love – if  we love and connect to children, advocating them, being their voice in solidarity then at some point, one day, change will come because love is unstoppable once it takes hold.

Curiosity in action - Birmingham Day Nurseries

You recently spent a training day with our nursery staff. What’s a day with you like? How did the training go?

You’d need to ask them!

I had a great time! The feedback was very positive, and it was great to see practitioners who were eager to develop their understanding, as it was to see the setting at first hand and all the efforts that had gone into the realisation of the vision.

I’d like to think that when I share my thoughts and experiences that I inspire people, challenge them and also reassure them that it’s a journey and that learning about oneself and children never truly ends.

It’s a great privilege to see so many places that are committing to play, that want children at the centre. I learn just as much in a way because visiting settings opens my eyes further to different opinions and practice.

Early Years is going to bounce back, and I hope that whenever I finish speaking people leave feeling that they are part of something bigger, a network of ‘playlines’ stretching round the globe. Every time we enable play we are making a statement for all children around the world, and that can be a very powerful way to think of yourself as an educator.

Child playing with sand at the Maples Day Nursery

Anything else you’d like to share?

Education is a co-adventure.

Enable play, enable children. Keep playing and playing hard. Advocate the right of children to play. Sing the song of children’s magic wherever you can and to whoever will listen.

We may think that we are ‘just’ early years workers but we aren’t – we are changing the world in small ways perhaps but change is far better than none. Play is critical – let’s now allow it to become a lost word.


Thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts with us, Greg.

To find out more, visit Greg’s website. 

Can I Go and Play Now? is available now from all good bookshops.Can I Go and Play Now by Greg Bottrill