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Dr Natalie Canning

Profile summary

Professional biography

Natalie is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood at The Open University.  Her background is in playwork and social work, supporting children to explore personal, social and emotional development through play.  She has published within the field of professional development in the early childhood, children’s play, empowerment and creative spaces.  She has taught across a variety of early childhood undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and has edited several books on Early Childhood practice including Young Children’s Play and Creativity: Multiple Voices (2017), Implementing Quality Improvement and Change in the Early Years (2012), Play and Practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage (2011) and Reflective Practice in the Early Years (2010).

Research interests

Natalie's main research is centred on young children's play, especially how children are empowered in play.  Using ethnographic and qualitative methods Natalie uses video as a tool for observation and analysis.  This enables other professionals and parents to view and learn from the data.  Her interest in children’s play preferences is distinctive because it focuses on how child initiated interests can empower children.  Considering children’s decisions and choices when they play through an empowerment lens makes an original contribution to Early Childhood practice and research.

As well as developing a conceptual framework for looking at children’s play through empowerment opportunities, her research supports new ways of thinking about play so that early childhood settings create greater opportunities for child-initiated, social play.  The implications of this has meant that professional practice in thinking and prioritising children's play has been enhanced and sustained through working with the conceptual framework for empowerment alongside curriculum goals.

Teaching interests

Natalie has taught in a variety of institutions before joining the Open University in 2009.  Her main teaching interests support the professional development of early childhood practitioners. She has expertise in work based learning and learning and teaching strategies for mature students supporting self-directed learning and development.  She is chair of the level 1 module ‘Young children’s play and creativity’ and a core member of the Early Childhood team. 

At the heart of her teaching interest is exploring children’s experiences and this is a key theme of the level 1 module ‘Young children’s play and creativity’.  The module considers that play is universal and draws on research and debate to examine play and creative opportunities in a range of contexts. 

Impact and engagement

Natalie has been a key note speaker at National early childhood conferences and involved in the Enriching Mathematics project at Cambridge University which promotes developing mathematical skills through play.  She has supported many early childhood settings in the West Midlands and Devon and Cornwall in developing play policies and promoting play to parents.  Her research has brought together like minded professionals to share their practice and has influenced change within a group of settings in the West Midlands.


Research groups

NameTypeParent Unit
Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology (CREET)CentreFaculty of Education and Language Studies


Are you listening to me? Understanding children's rights through Hungarian pedagogic practice (2022-11)
Canning, Natalie; Teszenyi, Eleonora and Pálfi, Sandor
Journal of Childhood, Education & Society, 3(3) (pp. 218-232)

Implementing an Empowerment Framework: The Significance for Children’s Play Environments and Reflective Practice (2022)
Canning, Natalie
Education Sciences, 12, Article e556(8)

Blurring boundaries: the invasion of home as a safe space for families and children with SEND during COVID-19 lockdown in England (2021)
Canning, Natalie and Robinson, Beryl
European Journal of Special Needs Education, 36(1) (pp. 65-79)

Researching Children’s Curiosity and Imagination Through the Our Story Tablet App (2019-05-20)
Canning, Natalie; Horsley, Karen and Payler, Jane
BERA Research Intelligence(140) (pp. 22-23)

‘Just 5 more minutes!’ Power dynamics in outdoor play (2019-01-02)
Canning, Natalie
International Journal of Play, 8(1) (pp. 11-24)

An innovative methodology for capturing young children’s curiosity, imagination and voices using a free app: Our Story (2017)
Canning, Natalie; Payler, Jane; Horsley, Karen and Gomez, Chris
International Journal of Early Years Education, 25(3) (pp. 292-307)

The influence of the outdoor environment: den-making in three different contexts (2010-12)
Canning, Natalie
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 18(4) (pp. 555-566)

Heutagogy: Spirals of reflection to empower learners in higher education (2010-02)
Canning, Natalie and Callan, Sue
Reflective Practice, 11(1) (pp. 71-82)

Playing with heutagogy: Exploring strategies to empower mature learners in higher education (2010)
Canning, Natalie
Journal of Further and Higher Education, 34(1) (pp. 59-71)

Children's empowerment in play (2007-06)
Canning, Natalie
European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 15(2) (pp. 227-236)

Children's Empowerment in Play (2020-03-27)
Canning, Natalie
ISBN : 978-1-138-32229-5 | Publisher : Routledge | Published : Oxon

Play, Learning and Development (2022-04-09)
Canning, Natalie and Rekers, Angela
In: Waters-Davies, Jane ed. Introduction to Play (pp. 55-67)
ISBN : 978-1-5297-4356-2 | Publisher : Sage | Published : London

‘Can you shout a little louder?’ Listening and hearing children’s voices through play (2019)
Canning, Natalie
In: Patterson, Catherine and Kocher, Laurie eds. Pedagogies for Children's Perspectives. Thinking about Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education (pp. 33-46)
ISBN : 9781138577466 | Publisher : Routledge | Published : Oxon

Exploring the concept of quality play (2011-11-20)
Canning, Natalie
In: Reed, Michael and Canning, Natalie eds. Implementing Quality Improvement and Change in the Early Years (pp. 75-91)
ISBN : 978-0-85702-169-4 | Publisher : Sage Publications Ltd | Published : London, UK

Play in the early years foundation stage (2010)
Canning, Natalie
In: Reed, Michael and Canning, Natalie eds. Reflective Practice in the Early Years
ISBN : 9781848601628 | Publisher : Sage | Published : London

Empowering communities through inspirational leadership (2009)
Canning, Natalie
In: Robins, Alison and Callan, Sue eds. Managing Early Years Settings: Supporting and Leading Teams (pp. 26-44)
ISBN : 9781847873200 | Publisher : Sage | Published : London

Implementing Quality Improvement and Change in the Early Years (2011-11-20)
Reed, Michael and Canning, Natalie eds.
ISBN : 9780857021687 | Publisher : Sage Publications Ltd. | Published : London

Play and Practice in the Early Years Foundation Stage (2011-11)
Canning, Natalie ed.
ISBN : 9781848609969 | Publisher : Sage | Published : London

Reflective Practice in the Early Years (2010)
Reed, Michael and Canning, Natalie eds.
ISBN : 9781848601628 | Publisher : Sage | Published : London

Children’s imagination and curiosity: Facilitating and documenting through technology (2016)
Canning, Natalie; Payler, Jane and Horsley, Karen
In : 26th EECERA (European Early Childhood Education Research Association) Conference, 2016 (31 Aug - 03 Sep 2016, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland)

Developing through play: A multi-media professional development package (2009-09)
Arreckx, F.; Bates, S.; Canning, N. and Oates, J.
In : British Psychological Society (BPS) Developmental Psychology Section Conference (9-11 Sep 2009, Nottingham Trent University)

A picture of early years practice relating to diversity in policy and curriculum practice in the four nations of the United Kingdom (2009)
Canning, Natalie and Reed, Michael
In : 19th EECERA Annual Conference: Diversities in early childhood education (26-29 Aug 2009, Strasbourg, France)

Reusable learning objects: a multimedia professional development package (2008-10)
Oates, J.; Canning, N.; Arreckx, F. and Bates, S.
In : CETL, PBPL Annual Conference: Assessment, Experience and Reflection (15-16 Oct 2008, The Open Universtiy, Milton Keynes)

Playing with heutagogy: exploring strategies to empower mature learniers in higher education (2008-04)
Canning, Natalie
In : Learning and Teaching (2 Apr 2008, University College, Plymouth St Marks & St John)

Children's empowerment in play (2007-08)
Canning, Natalie
In : 17th EECERA Annual Conference: Exploring Vygotsky's ideas: Crossing Borders (29 Aug - 1 Sep 2007, Prague)

Empowering children in play (2007-05)
Canning, Natalie
In : The Integrated Children's Agenda (22 May 2007, University of Worcester)

Social play and the implications for children's identity (2003-03)
Canning, Natalie
In : "Playwork Developments" Bob Hughes Conference (Mar 2007, Blencathra, Cumbria)

Children's Empowerment in Play (2016)
Canning, Natalie
PhD thesis The Open University

When two worlds come together: Young children’s language, literacy and numeracy development through creative, inclusive, theatre methods (2022-07-05)
Canning, Natalie and Gomez, Chris
The Open University, Milton Keynes.

Evaluation of Hackney Learning Trust's Reading Programmes (2020-06)
Hempel-Jorgensen, Amelia; Swann, Joan; Plowright-Pepper, Linda; Cremin, Teresa; Safford, Kimberly; Mittelmeier, Jenna and Canning, Natalie
The Open University, Milton Keynes.

The significance of children’s play and empowerment: An observational tool. (2020-02-01)
Canning, Natalie
Occassional Paper 14, TACTYC