Developing children: Developmental discourses underpinning physical education at three Scottish preschool settings

Nollaig McEvilly, Matthew Attencio, Martine Verheul

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This paper reports on one aspect of a study that investigated the place and meaning of ‘physical education’ to practitioners and children at three preschool settings in Scotland. We employed a poststructural type of discourse analysis to examine the developmental discourses the 14 participating practitioners drew on when talking about ‘physical education’ at preschools, during semi-structured interviews. Three main discourses around the notion of developmentalism were identified during analysis of the adults’ interview data: (1) preschool children learn and develop through play; (2) preschool children should have choices and freedom and (3) sometimes more structured activities are needed. The practitioners were heavily invested in developmental ‘truths’ about how preschool children learn and develop. They were in agreement that play is a vital element of preschool education, and that, consequently, children should be provided with opportunities for exploration and making choices. However, they also talked about sometimes ‘needing’ to restrict children's freedom and provide more adult-led activities. Our findings illustrate the strength of developmental discourses at the three settings. We suggest that preschool practitioners, as well as policy-makers and researchers, should critically reflect on the effects of taken-for-granted developmental discourses and move beyond thinking in terms of binaries such as ‘physical education versus play’ or ‘structure versus freedom’.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSport, Education and Society
Early online date20 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015


  • developmental discourses
  • physical education
  • preschool
  • Scotland
  • Foucault


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