The Importance of Play in the Early Years

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‘Play’ is sometimes contrasted with ‘work’ and thought of as a type of activity which is essentially unimportant or lacking in any serious purpose. However, as this post intends to demonstrate, this view is mistaken. In the context of the Early Years (from birth to age 5) play is the most important way in which children develop and learn. The value of play is increasingly being recognised ( by researchers and educators) as the evidence mounts about its role in intellectual development, emotional well-being and social skills.

A child’s brain develops more rapidly in the first 5 years of life than it ever does again, essentially establishing its “ability” to learn new information in the future. So during the early years, as children’s brains grow dramatically. As they move rapidly from one developmental stage to the next, play must remain central to their growth and development. Play is the primary means by which they should build cognitive skills and begin to make sense of the world, as this type of learning is for ‘keeps’!

Children are born natural learners, highly motivated to play. When children have time to play, their play grows in complexity and becomes more cognitively and socially demanding. The Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum recognises the importance of play and there is ample opportunity for child-centred, play-based learning to take the central role. Through this type of play children:

  • Develop communication and language skills
  • Develop fine and gross motor skills
  • Explore materials and discover their properties
  • Use their knowledge of materials to play imaginatively
  • Express their emotions and reveal their inner feelings
  • Develop emotional balance and well-being
  • Develop a sense of who they are, their value and that of others
  • Learn social skills of sharing, turn-taking and negotiation
  • Solve problems, moving from needing support to independence
  • Practise, develop and master skills across all aspects of development and learning

Providing high quality planned experiences for children’s play is an important way for adults to support children’s learning that is both enjoyable and challenging. When children play, they are learning at the highest level. Play can extend certain areas of their learning – for example, developing language skills by promoting talk between children or introducing new vocabulary that they use and act out in their play. One example of a recent planned play experience for Reception children in the EYFS was setting up a health centre in a classroom. Children enjoy finding out about stethoscopes and X rays, role-playing different jobs, diagnosing a sore throat and even bandaging a pretend broken arm. Such a playful approach to learning builds on children’s interests and responds to their ideas for play and also allows scope for structured activities to teach specific skills and knowledge. As they interact with other children within the roleplay area they also learn negotiating, turn taking and problem-solving skills. Their social and emotional skills are developed through these interactions too.

As you can see from the example above play is a complex activity. One in which the child is often practising and developing many important life skills, as well as developing academically.

As O.Fred Donaldson said “Children learn as they play. Most importantly in play children learn how to learn.”

Karen Fraser – Early Years Leader

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