Why play is essential for healthy development
For young children, play is their work. As babies and young children explore their world they are naturally drawn to learning through playing and being playful. While they are playing children use their bodies, minds and emotions to build up the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. Play, indoors and out of doors, is essential for children's healthy development and while children are playing they are learning at their highest level.
In their play children take control of their own learning by making choices, following their own interests, asking questions and practising their skills. Through playing with others they learn how to manage their feelings and become confident about themselves and their abilities.
This is why a playful approach to learning is so important in early years settings and the early stages of primary school. Children who have these opportunities to become independent learners are better equipped to master more formal approaches to reading, writing and maths as they get older as they will have had many different practical experiences to base their understanding on.
For young children it is their attitude to learning and their views of themselves as active learners which are as important as the knowledge and skills they have. Play can help children to build up many useful attitudes and approaches which will make them lifelong learners. These include:
being willing to explore, experiment and try things out
making choices and taking decisions
finding solutions to problems as they arise
concentrating, sticking to a task and rising to challenges
managing their own behaviour and that of others
playing cooperatively with others, including adults
understanding the feelings and views of other people.
It is easy to see how useful these attitudes and skills are, not just for learning, but for life.
Getting ready for school
In any early years setting children will be involved in many different types of play during the course of a typical day. These will include:
Completely free, unstructured play, where children play without adult interruption. This enables the children to develop and follow their own ideas while the adult observes what is happening and only intervenes if there is a potential health and safety risk, or a behaviour problem.
Child-initiated play where the child takes the lead and the adult follows the child's ideas and supports the play by providing suitable resources. The adult interacts sensitively to extend children's thinking, being careful not to take over and direct the activity.
Adult-guided, playful experiential activities where the adult comes up with the idea for an activity and the children join in.
Research into how young children learn has shown that children benefit most when they have opportunities to experience a balance of each of these types of play and playful activities. The key message is that when children are playing, far from ‘wasting their time', they are in fact ‘getting ready for school' in the most appropriate and successful way.
Help your child get the most from their play
Ideas for the under-twos
Ideas for two- to three-year-olds
Ideas for four- and five-year-olds