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The power of representation through play

In this blog, Dr. Sharon Colilles explores the importance of representation in the Early Years and how this can be achieved through play.

Posted on Thursday 30th November 2023

The Power of Representation through Play

In this blog, ‘The power of representation through play’, Dr. Sharon Colilles explores how representation shapes inclusive and anti-discriminatory learning environments.

Representation Matters

Teaching practices may differ from one setting to another. Ensuring that children can ‘see’ themselves in educational resources is key for creating an inclusive and anti-discriminatory learning environment. Young children possess a strong awareness of their own unique identity. They are acutely sensitive to their surroundings where they rapidly acquire understanding of the people, places, and routines in their lives.

In peer interactions children prove time and again that they are competent and capable of participating in sensitive discussions. They can demonstrate empathy and understanding of the perspectives of others. These moral judgments are usually based on their funds of knowledge developed within significant relationships in home, localities, and communities. The ability to adapt teaching practices to support the ‘unique individual child’ (Colilles, 2020) encourages children to share their knowledge. In so doing, it ensures the growth of meaningful learning experiences. The early years environment is an essential component in supporting children’s learning and development, particularly development of a strong sense of identity.

Representation through Play

Breaking down barriers to participation

Inclusive and anti-discriminatory approaches concern breaking down barriers. This means that all children feel included in the process of learning. It involves the development of relationships of trust (Conkabyir, 2020) between the educator and the child. Creating a sense of belonging and participation is about reflecting on and responding to sensitive and sometimes nuanced issues that impact on all children.

Inclusive practices need to respond to the rich conversations that children will be engaged in whilst re-enacting their ‘lived’ experiences. These may be shared from their home environment. This is where resources or learning areas such as the home corner can offer opportunities that nurture and value the contributions of all children. Correspondingly, socio-dramatic play provides a space for rich dialogic conversations between children. They can explore perspectives surrounding similarity and difference to self and others. Clark’s research validates my views surrounding a need for a ‘shift’ in teaching practice to illuminate new and ethical ways of challenging the unmeasurable when it comes to development of inclusive and anti-discriminatory practice.

Practice that tunes into young children’s views and experiences can draw attention to the difficult to measure and bring other kinds of knowledge into focus.

Clark, 2020:137

I therefore signal the need for practitioners to reflect on practices to ensure that children are not inadvertently disadvantaged.

Representation through play

Questioning pedagogy

  • Do decisions ensure that each child has time, space, and materials to [fully] participate?
  • Does practice include ‘All’ voices or are some privileged over others?
  • Is the culture of the ‘classroom’ similar to (or does it mirror) what children have already experienced before in wider society?
  • How do decisions, participation, and communicative practices invite children, their families, and friends to become active participants within the ‘school’ community?

The centrality of play

The centrality of play cannot be underestimated in participatory approaches with young children, as it provides a lens into children’s many ways of thinking about and understanding their world. An environment where the centrality of play is embedded provides affordances for children to become deeply involved in ideas they already know. Ideas that are usually drawn from externally encountered and internalised experiences. These are then combined in new ways of knowing so that their understanding deepens. It is well documented that children will share new meanings in their play with peers and practitioners. Areas such as role play or home corners therefore have the potential for giving children control and power in learning activities that facilitate developing construction of an ethnic identity. Essentially, the power of play forefronts children’s capacities to demonstrate what they can do when they are in control of their learning.

Home corner Environments

Culturally appropriate resources (CAR)

Inclusive and enabling environments should ideally create contexts in which children are encouraged to reconnect with what they know and understand by introducing ‘culturally appropriate resources’ (Colilles, 2020) into programmes of learning. These types of resources facilitate exploration, enable participation and connection with home-setting cultures . They support children’s reconstruction of knowledge about their developing identities. This also provides opportunities for children to build upon and interpret ideas about themselves and others in shared narratives.

So, creating environments to support children’s developing identity might mean incorporating approaches that invite children to share their home experiences. This could mean exploring what types of cultural practices children engage in at home.  Examples may include, celebrations or re-enacting rituals and routines, and then mirroring these cultural experiences into learning experiences in the setting. Observation and listening to children’s perceptions in their play repertoires will be key here. Conversations with parents/carers can also develop in-depth knowledge and understanding about the children you are working with.

Igniting children’s curiosity about their own identity and the identity of others should be actively encouraged because children will be having these conversations amongst themselves outside of the adult gaze anyway. Shared narratives amongst adults and children can extend children’s existing ideas. Their perceptions will deepen about the cultures and identities of themselves and other children. This is particularly important when working with children from diverse backgrounds. Shared stories surrounding perceptions of a ‘raced’ identity’ help us all to understand the many ways in which children relate to, connect, and describe ethnicity, identity, and culture.

Affirming ethnicity and culture might mean:

  • Positioning artifacts and familiar items into the role play area/home corner to facilitate play and discussion.
  • Offering resources in a variety of ways for children to explore and engage with a positive sense of ethnic self, belonging and understanding.
  • Ensuring resources are familiar, reflect and connect children to their home, culture, their family, and community life.
  • Incorporating multilingual activities (stories, songs, books, costumes versus fabrics).

Do resources:

  • Enable children to think about their ethnic origin and culture?
  • Enable expression of a positive sense of self, belonging and wellbeing?
  • Foster exploration of familial language, values, and beliefs?

Working in partnership with parents

Of course developing knowledge about the children you work with will take time. Practitioners (key person approaches) can develop their knowledge in planned training experiences. One of the best way to develop knowledge about the diverse backgrounds of the children should begin with conversations with parents/carers or family members. Creating opportunities for transforming children’s learning experiences within provision should be achieved in collaboration with the significant people who know the children best.

Does working in partnership with children/parents/carers:

  • Offer parents/carers opportunities to share suggestions that may transform routines.
  • Support learning about children’s funds of knowledge linked to routines.
  • Invite families to share traditional foods and recipes that are prepared and eaten at home.
  • Explore how/what foods are cooked at home and with children that can be replicated in role play areas.

Next steps might involve reflection on and adaptation of existing spaces and resources. This is so all children are supported in this important aspect of learning.

Family Meal Times

Questions for self-reflection:

  • Are materials for play and learning interesting for and reflective of the learners you work with?
  • Does the environment for learning incorporate resources that are respectful of family, social, and cultural practices, and traditions?


Play can be a useful ‘vehicle’ for connecting with the ideas that children may choose to share. It breaks down barriers to participation, and ensures equity in teaching and learning is provided. Essentially practice that gives due regard and responds to the perspectives of all children, their parents and families, positions democracy at the heart of participation and practice (Pascal and Bertram, 2012).

Affording time and opportunities for deep exploration (in play) is highly beneficial for all young children. More importantly, when children see themselves in educational experiences then learning can truly begin!

Sharon Colilles

Many thanks to Dr Sharon Colilles for writing this blog for us.

Sharon is Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Bath Spa University. She is a Trustee on Froebel Trust Council, Vice Chair on the Executive for Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network (ECSDN) and an associate trainer for Early Education. She has a diverse career background. Initially, she worked for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), then owned a private day nursery. More recently, Sharon has worked as project assistant for the development of Birth to Five Matters non-statutory guidance. Recent work has been in the role of advisory panel member for the new Children’s gallery at the National History Museum.

Sharon’s doctoral research is research is centred around play and how play-based pedagogical approaches facilitate children’s understanding about their mixed-ethnic identity. She also has a deep interest in work that develops anti-oppressive practice.