Children’s empowerment in play

Two of the central aims of Early Childhood Outdoors are to connect people and organisations who are working to provide strong outdoor experiences for young children and to dig into what it means to provide education through play outdoors.  Dr. Natalie Canning’s research on Children’s Empowerment in Play fits perfectly with these aims, so I’m enthusiastic to put her in touch with readers who might want to participate in the next stage of her research!

Natalie is Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood the at The Open University, with a research interest centred on young children’s play, especially how children are empowered in play.  Whilst she is recruiting settings to further test the observational Empowerment Framework she has developed, this is also a fantastic professional development opportunity for practitioners to be involved in practice-based research in their own settings.  Involvement is sure to open your eyes to the complex subtleties of children’s interactions in their social play, and impress you with just how much is going on in everyday, freely directed play – and to further develop your ability (and commitment) to champion play outdoors!

A longer article about the Empowerment Framework observational tool is available as a free PDF download (Occasional Paper number 14) from TACTYC, and Natalie has recently published a book based on her research called Children’s Empowerment in Play: Participation, Voice and Ownership (Routledge 2020) as part of the TACTYC series of research informed professional development for the early years.

Natalie has also published a very interesting paper on power dynamics in outdoor play, called ‘Just 5 more minutes!‘, in the International Journal of Play (2019, Vol 8, No. 1, 11-24).  A subscription or library access is needed, so I’ll be inviting Natalie to share her findings about this in a future post for the ECO blog.

Some details about getting involved are given at the end of Natalie’s article – I do hope you will want to find out more!

Children’s empowerment in play by Natalie Canning

My research is based on looking for indicators of empowerment in children’s play.  This is important because empowerment is an enabling process that nurtures self-belief, competence and confidence.  Children who regularly encounter empowering experiences believe in their own capability and will engage with a positive attitude resulting in positive outcomes.  Play is a platform where empowerment can be experienced by children. In social play, my research focuses on ways in which children use their relationships with others through participation, expression of voice and their environment to influence the situations they are involved in.  They may do this by using a resource in a particular way to encourage other children to copy or join in; they may persuade other children to change their play to meet their own agenda; or be creative in their environment.  These choices contribute to an empowering experience.

The super-themes (Participation, Voice, Ownership) are interdependent, with the potential to be present in children’s play simultaneously.  Although it does not matter if one, two or all of the super-themes are identifiable, at least one is needed for a child to be viewed as having an empowering experience.  In the clearest examples of children’s empowerment, all three super-themes are present during play. Sub-themes of Motivation, Coordination, Imagination, Problem Solving and Empathy categorise recurring instances and actions in children’s play which support the development of the super-themes.

The empowerment framework can be used as a practical resource for observing play.  To avoid the framework becoming a subjective ‘tick list’ of what children appear to be doing in their play, a series of questions prompt educators to really consider what is happening; to put themselves in the children’s position and provide a detailed narrative of their play. For example:


  • Where is the child positioning themselves within the play?
  • How are they negotiating with others?
  • How are they taking part?
  • What choices and decisions are they making to be involved in the play?


  • How is the child showing their familiarity with the play environment?
  • How are they embracing play?
  • What are their vested interests in the play?
  • What are the commonalities between the children?
  • How are they in control?
  • How are they working together with other children?


  • How is the child expressing their voice?
  • How are they showing their preferences?
  • What are the circumstances when the child is being listened to by his/her peers?

There are also key questions for the sub-themes and behavioural indicators of empowerment, which supports educators in making decisions about how to think and describe what is happening in children’s play.

A common practice in England is to observe children in planned activities and look for indicators that suggest learning and development. The empowerment framework moves away from this so that indicators of empowerment are contextualised and provide a rich description of experiences that inform learning and development.

My research involved video recording children’s play, interviews with practitioners and parents including showing them the video footage to gain their views, and talking with children to ask them about their play preferences.

One practitioner who took part in trying out the empowerment framework reflected:

‘Filming play meant that I didn’t have to think on my feet and try and write down everything he was doing.  It all happened too quickly for that and I think that is why it is easy to dismiss play as a non-event and why people think children aren’t doing anything when they play.  Being able to review the video and then make my observation through the question prompts made me think deeper than the superficial ‘he did this, he did that.’ 

Doing observations in this way has meant reorganising our team a bit.  I would have normally supported the structured activity that happened after outdoor play, but we agreed that I could review the video and Kate would take responsibility for the activity so it re-distributed our jobs. This meant that I could write up the observation whilst it was still fresh in my mind and I didn’t have to leave it until the end of the day when I was tired and didn’t want to face a load of paperwork’.

The empowerment framework provides a way in which children’s actions and reactions in play can be analysed at a slower pace and can be revisited.  The video can be shared with parents and other professionals; it can be a valuable asset in showing children’s progress. It gives parents an insight into what and who children play with and also enables them to see connections between play at home.

Recognising children’s experiences in play and that they support a process of empowerment can contribute to a new way for you to plan and reflect upon pedagogic practice.  Settings that have used the empowerment framework are reviewing how staff are utilised at different points during the daily routine so video observations can be reviewed and reflected upon.  A picture of empowerment for each child is then developed over time.

The next stage of the research involves Early Childhood settings using the empowerment framework as a basis for their observations of children’s play.  Ideally this will consist of videoing short extracts of play (around 2 minutes is ideal as any longer becomes time consuming to interpret).  If videoing is not possible, then written observation of what the children are doing and then using the framework questions as prompts can also work.

Participants will be asked to review the play by looking at the framework and deciding on which theme (Participation, Ownership, Voice) stands out, then to think about the sub-themes (motivation, coordination, problem solving, imagination, empathy) and try to answer the prompt questions based on your review of the play.  If you have videoed, try to do the review fairly soon afterwards so it is fresh in your mind.  It will be challenging to use the framework for a lot of children at the same time initially so focus on one or two to start with and see how easy you find it before adding in more children.

The initial commitment is for 4 weeks with a video call at the beginning and end and ongoing support if needed through the month.  As well as using the framework for observation, I will also be asking for your reflections on the logistics of using it as well as the benefits/challenges you have found.

If you or your setting is interested in being part of this ongoing research, I would love to hear from you!  Please get in touch via email at and we can chat about the next steps.  You can find out much more about this research in my book Children’s empowerment in play, published by Routledge (2020).

All images are (C) Natalie Canning.  Images must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.

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