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‘Tardist’: Time-Travel in an Early Years Learning Space

By Alistair Bryce-Clegg

Author of 'Best Practice in the Early Years'

“Come and see…. come and see”. A small warm hand grabs onto my fingers and I am pulled toward the Role Play Area. This must happen at least ten times a day in some way shape or form!

“I am Doctor Who! This is my Tardist”.

My memories of Doctor Who are hiding behind a cushion being scared out of my wits. I can’t believe that a child of this age even watches it, never mind pretends to be the Doctor!

It occurs to me then that, as practitioners, we have little control over what our children see and hear outside of our setting. We are so careful to make sure that everything we do and say is appropriate for the age of our children. But, once they are out in the big wide world, there is no telling what they will come into contact with.

I now find myself sitting (when I say sitting, my knees are up around my chin) in a cardboard box. There are lots of bits of construction scattered around me. Apparently they are the “buttons that make it work”. The young Doctor tells me that we are “going back in time”, to “look out for monsters”. I think about how complex the idea of going back in time is; indeed, even the concept of time itself. It is impressive that he is able to talk about that.

I also find myself thinking about how real monsters can be to children of this age and how they come in lots of different shapes and sizes. This child is not only enjoying playing this game of Doctor Who, the very same game is helping him to make sense of his world and work through some of the worries (monsters) that might be in his head.

As we hurtle backwards in time and space together I find myself thinking about how my learning space has changed over the last thirty years. If my cardboard ‘Tardist’ could take me back, how different things would have looked.

The Role Play Area back then was only ever linked to our topic. It would be a house in September, a post office in December (for Christmas), a Chinese restaurant in January (for Festivals and Celebrations), a garden centre in March (for Growth) and so on. I loved my Role Play Area. They used to take me hours to set up, but I really enjoyed doing it. My eternal frustration was that the children rarely played what I wanted them to play.


I smile at myself now for even thinking that the children I was working with would be able to play at being travel agents in the ‘Travel Agency’ that I had set up (to link with our topic on journeys). How many children have ever been to a travel agency? So how can we expect them to play it?

At some point in my work with children I began to realise that their engagement with the role play opportunities that I provided them with was minimal at best, especially without an adult. It had never occurred to me that to be able to role play anything you need either a great deal of knowledge about that ‘thing’, or a highly developed imagination. Not many of my children lived, worked, or ate out regularly in a Chinese restaurant, so how did I expect them to play being in one?

For a period I went back to offering the children just a home corner. They knew lots about that! However, what I began to see was the same play repeated over and over again. There was very little opportunity for the children to use or extend their imagination. They just went back to the familiar.

I needed to make a space that could be as unique as the children who were playing in it. That could allow them to play being at home but also being at nursery, the park, a party, Peppa Pig, Doctor Who…. the list goes on.

So, out of this need to create a space that children could interpret in a myriad of different ways, deconstructed role play was born. Lots and lots of open ended materials like boxes, fabric, tubes, pegs, crates, cable reels everything that could be turned into anything.

Photographer: Julien de Salaberry | Source: Unsplash

My Role Play Area ceased to look as neat and tidy as it had when it was the café. It now looked like a very badly organised jumble sale. But the imaginative play was brilliant.

Along with all of the random objects that the children could use I also started to add enhancement boxes linked to the things that adults were teaching and talking about. So, rather than have a Chinese restaurant set up and expect the children to play ‘going to a Chinese restaurant’ (which is a bit bizarre when you think about it), I had an open ended Role Play Area with a box of resources linked to Chinese New Year. The children could use it in any way they wanted in their play, and adults could use it to reenforce their teaching around this important celebration.

I am still in the ‘Tardist’ my right leg is slowly going numb, but I don’t want to move because the young Doctor is engrossed in his play and the language and imagination; he is using is magic! I have been told to keep very still as the monsters are coming. We sit side by side in our box waiting to see what his imagination will make happen next.

While I wait, I am watching two children in our painting area. They have mixed their own paint, using pump dispensers, from a huge range of colours. They are now selecting their own paper to paint on and their own tools to paint with. If the ‘Tardist’ had taken me back to my first painting areas there would have been no sign of children helping themselves! Who would let a child help themselves to paint?!

Photographer: Gautam Arora | Source: Unsplash

As it is autumn at the moment I would definitely have red, yellow, orange and brown paint in a red, yellow, orange and brown pot, with a red, yellow, orange and brown lid. I would have put a brush into each pot and the children would be doing a planned activity, like making leaf prints.

Why only leaf prints? Because it is autumn and I thought that was the law! Whatever the topic was, all of my activities linked to it – whether the children liked it or not. It turns out that no matter how long it took me to prepare the activities, and how well I ‘sold’ them to the children, I rarely got the engagement that I was after.

I have found that if you say to a group of children “you can go into the painting area, mix your own paint, choose your own surface to paint on, choose your own tools and paint what you like” you will get significantly more interest than if you say “hands up who wants to paint a leaf on the paper I give you, in the colours I have chosen for you, with the brush I provide!”

High levels of engagement are your route to successful learning, progress and attainment.


Over time my whole learning space has moved away from being adult directed and activity led, into being skills driven and child led. The learning and progress has never been better.

So as I sit in the ‘Tardist’ with a numb leg (and now needing a wee), if the young Doctor asked me if I would like to travel back to my old learning space or stick with this one there would be no question!

As Early Years practitioners our job is to take each and every child on their own unique learning journey. To do that successfully we need to make sure that the learning spaces we create are just as unique as the children who inhabit them.