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Eastwood Primary School & Nursery

Nurture. Grow. Achieve

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
Here are some ideas to use with children of different ages.

Ideas for the under-twos

  • Talk to your baby – make eye contact, talk to the baby and then pause to give him or her time to respond. If you exaggerate the movements of your lips, face and eyebrows this will make the conversation easier to follow and will often be copied by your baby. Try letting your baby lead the conversation while you respond to his or her eye movements and facial expressions. Taking part in conversations from an early age lays the foundations for later language development.

  • Most toddlers enjoy stacking things, slotting them in holes and carrying things from place to place. Put together a small collection of tins, boxes, wooden blocks, purses, small bags, wooden clothes pegs, bangles, large wooden curtain rings and a wooden mug tree for them to explore and investigate. Finding out ‘what things do’ encourages young children to be curious and to solve problems for themselves.


Ideas for two- to three-year-olds

  • When unpacking the shopping let your child play ‘shops’ with the tins and packets before you put them away. Help your child to ‘read’ the information on the tins and packets that says what is inside. This helps children to become aware that words and symbols have a meaning.

  • Make some props to go with the action rhymes: ‘Two little dickie birds’, ‘Five little ducks’, ‘Five currant buns’ , ‘Five fat sausages sizzling in the pan’. Use two paper birds attached to your fingers, five plastic ducks, cardboard sausages or pictures cut out of magazines and currant buns made out of playdough. These are all amusing ways of introducing numbers and counting.

  • When out for a walk, or playing in the garden or the park, trying moving in different ways. Say, ‘Let’s pretend we are soldiers’, ‘Let’s pretend we are dinosaurs’, ‘Let’s pretend we are frogs’. These games develop children’s coordination skills and encourage them to be imaginative.


Ideas for four- and five-year-olds

  • Cut some characters out of comics or birthday cards and glue them on to lolly sticks or pieces of strong card to make some stick puppets. Have fun telling stories with the stick puppets. Try using the stick puppets, or your hand, to make shadow puppets. Acting out stories develops children’s language and imagination and helps them to understand the structure of a story.

  • At the end of the year give your child old diaries or calendars to play with. Leaflets and forms which you receive as junk mail also make excellent starting points for role play. Children can develop their mark-making and early writing skills as they develop elaborate games using these ‘props’.

  • Have fun playing with a torch. You can use a torch indoors or out of doors when it is getting dark. If you are playing indoors you can make a dark den by placing a thick cloth or blanket over a table – try adding some shiny things to the den. This encourages children to be curious and to find things out for themselves as well as to explore their feelings about being in the dark.