The Serious Business of Play

As adults, we don’t often get immersed in endless play in the way that children do. It’s clear how important it is to children from their seriousness and joy in playing, And when our call for them to come in for lunch is met with groans of ‘Oh no, we haven’t finished playing yet!’

All play and no work…?

You will no doubt have come across this misconception that learning and play are separate activities. Some people even feel that play is something we should ‘let’ children do just to keep them occupied, that it’s a lesser form of learning than academic study, it’s just messing around and of little value.

However, as early childhood theorist Lev Vygotsky said, ‘A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play’. In fact, we would go so far as to say that play is not an option. It’s every child’s right to access a diverse range of play activities that support their development during their childhood, and this is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Why play makes such a difference to children

Children inherently know that play helps reduce their stress levels, helps them express their thoughts and ideas, helps them understand what the world means and how they fit in, and reinforces their social and cultural identities.

In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence to show how vital play is, because it helps children to:

  • make sense of complex concepts such as measuring patterns, shapes and numbers (maths)
  • practice putting words and sentences together (language & literacy)
  • find out how to behave as individuals and in groups (social & behavioural)
  • explore, test out and develop new ideas of their own (science)
  • achieve mastery of new skills that lead to greater independence (social & physical)
  • develop an understanding of symbols (language & literacy)
  • exercise their imaginations and problem-solving abilities (creativity)
  • learn how to make connections between old and new knowledge (cognitive)
  • learn how to learn better.

In short, play is a fundamental part of children’s development, and we strongly believe that an effective pedagogy is a playful pedagogy!


Ways to play

As we see every day, children are naturally playful and will use different types of play to fulfil their purpose. Child psychologist Jean Piaget, was one of the first to define the different types of play for the different ages and stages of children’s lives.

He observed in infants a tendancy towards ‘practice play’ with objects, where they test out how things work in the real world. This was followed by ‘symbolic play’ from as early as the first year, as children developed pretend and make-believe games to help make sense of their emotions, communications and social contexts. This was followed by the emergence of ‘games with rules’ by the years 4-5.

Nowadays, we tend to talk about the five main types of play that are linked to developmental functions or focuses that children have, including

  • physical play
  • play with objects
  • symbolic play
  • pretence / socio-dramatic play
  • games with rules

Within each of these are many different ways to play, whether it is a solitary approach, collaborative, interactive, reflective, immersive, and so on, not to mention the different ways in which adults can help to scaffold those approaches.

At Earlyarts, we have been thinking of ways to help professionals observe their children more closely to see if they have preferred ways to play. This is interesting because, once we have a more detailed understanding of the choices our our children make, we can identify:

a) whether there are obstacles to children’s play that can be removed, and

b) how to encourage children to extend their play strategies so they can express themselves better, master physical skills, interact more easily with peers, and so on.


How to harness the Power of Play in your setting

There are so many different ways to play. The challenge for us as educators is to know when and how best to step in and play alongside, scaffold and challenge or just observe and evaluate progress. Even more of a challenge when free-flow play is your only chance to sit down with a coffee!

The good news is that Earlyarts have made a fantastic online training course called the Power of Play. It shows a number of key techniques that will help educators know when and how to enhance children’s creative play.

In the Power of Play, you will learn:

  • The difference between various play styles
  • How different play styles enhance different areas of learning and development
  • How to observe which are your children’s preferred play styles
  • How to identify if children need encouragement in other types of play
  • What to do if you spot obstacles to play in the setting

You will also be able to downloadable our new Play Styles Observation template. This is designed to help you observe your children’s preferred play styles, and analyse which areas or styles are strongly evident, and which ones might need more encouragement.

Find out about the Power of Play course

Image Credits: Graham Marsden, Ruth Churchill Dower