If you work in early years education in the UK, the chances are you already have a grasp on the importance of learning through play.
In this country, we’re lucky enough to have play enshrined in the early years curriculum, the EYFS, and practitioners are taught lots about its value.
But sadly, many people still see learning as something that only happens in more directed activities, while play is a frivolous activity that, while fun, doesn’t really help a child learn.
That’s why we wanted to go over the research and the reasons why young children learn best through play. This guide should be helpful if you want to better understand your fundamental instincts behind the power of play, or to help you explain that power to those who simply don’t see the connection.
While there is by no means an academic consensus on what learning is, it is important for the time being that we make a distinction between two separate, but equally vital aspects of learning:
Blimey, children have got a lot to learn.
We already know that the first eight years of a child’s life is the most important time in their development. In the early years learning is happening at a speed that won’t be equalled again, as children race to build those vital connections in their brains that help them to understand the world around them.
As it lays out in the EYFS, children learn best when they are in a safe, rich, enabling environment, with responsive, positive adults who have a good understanding of the uniqueness in every child.
But what exactly are we trying to teach them?
In these early years, it is important that children build their content knowledge. That they learn…stuff. But far more important is that they discover how to connect this understanding to the real-world around them, test ideas, apply their knowledge to different situations and develop the skills to live in the world.
And this deeper level of learning, that’s where learning through play comes in.
One of the biggest debates in early years education will always be about the role that adults have to…play.
Under the umbrella of play, you have everything from completely free play, through adult-guided play and even adult-directed games.
The line between these is grey, and people will disagree about what ‘counts’ as play. But it is important that a child has agency in what they’re doing – they need to have control and make creative choices.
We won’t delve into the advantages and disadvantages of direct instruction here, but it’s certainly not what would be traditionally thought of as play.
We all know play when we see it, but at the same time it can be kind of tricky to define.
It’s often described as the work of children, and we know that all sorts of different young mammals engage in play, which in itself is a strong argument for the developmental benefits of play.
Think back to your own childhood. What did it feel like to play? For me, I associate it with the freedom to explore, with doing something for its own sake rather than as a means to an end. I had choice and control, and was really engaged in whatever was going on.
Theorists have long talked about the different types of play, from physical play and pretend play, to social play, object play, and language play. What is continuous through all of them is that the child has control, or agency over what they’re doing.
Time to delve into exactly why that matters.
“If we were asked to mention one supreme psychological need of the young child, the answer would have to be ‘play’ – the opportunity for free play in all its various forms. Play is the child’s means of living and of understanding life.”
- Susan Isaacs, The Educational Value of a Nursery School
When children are making up a game, moving toys around, creating new worlds in their head – they are not just engaging in meaningless fun (as if fun was ever meaningless anyway!).
They are taking in the world around them, understanding it by starting to put the things they experience into categories in their head – and exploring them.
From a young baby exploring their body movement as they start to crawl and grab things, to toddlers exploring movement, gravity and size in a sandbox, right up to preschoolers learning about emotions and broadening their imagination as they create pretend worlds with their friends – play opens up a child’s mind to the world around them.
This helps children to learn more than just unconnected facts. It gives them that deeper learning we talked about earlier and allows them to apply their ideas to the real world.
In the most basic sense, play is valuable simply because children are motivated by it.
We know from research that we are most likely to learn when we are motivated, and in happy, well-nourished, safe populations of children, play thrives. In fact, they spend between 3-20% of all their time and energy doing it.
But you don’t need studies to know that. You can see in your daily life that children who are happy, healthy, and have confidence are naturally motivated to explore their world through play.
What this means is that you have engaged learners, who take something valuable from every experience, rather than bored children taking direct instruction while looking longingly out the window at the world of play just out of their reach.
“A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action.”
- Leo Vygotsky
We’ve mentioned already that choice and freedom are key components of play. But this is also part of why learning through play is so powerful.
Play can help children to become more self-aware and build their confidence – both crucial skills we all need to be lifelong learners. That fact that they’ve been the key decision-makers also means they get much more satisfaction from what they’ve done, which in turn contributes to a richer learning experience.
This isn’t to diminish the role of others in play. When children see adults or their friends playing too, it can help them to grow in confidence. Adults can help to scaffold language and provide opportunities in the environment that invoke curiosity and exploration.
It’s a team effort, but the child gains a lot from taking the lead.
It goes without saying, but being able to build relationships and work together is a pretty key skill in our society.
Play can be solitary, but especially with older children it is often social, and becomes a natural way for children to connect, develop communication, practice turn-taking and much more.
It also provides opportunities to learn from one other. From birth, children are learning an awful lot by copying what they see in order to make sense of it. Seeing a friend explore a new idea, or something unfamiliar in their play can be a great entry point to new experiences for children of all ages.
What’s more, collaborative play teaches children those key how-to-learn skills that make them lifelong learners, developing an understanding of what you can achieve by working together.
For children, play is a safe space. They can try things out without fear of failure, solve problems through trial and error, and use their imaginations to come up with new solutions. By doing so, they expand what is possible for them.
Imagine that a child is putting up a den, and the sheet keeps falling off. By trying different angles, they might learn about balance and weight. They can try seeing if items like clips will help to keep it in place. Through trial and error, they’ll get greater satisfaction when they succeed, and learn a lot from their failures along the way.
Repeating skills over and over is also a key part of physical development, something that happens a lot in physical play. In pretend play, children are testing theoretical worlds and starting to think about and experiment with what might happen in the future.
Most importantly, they learn not to be afraid of trying things out and failing, which is another key skill in acquiring the skill to be lifelong learners.
When you observe children in play, you’ll find they’re often deeply immersed in what might seem to you like a simple task, persisting even in the face of distractions.
This kind of ‘switched-on’ brain function has been shown to increase brain activation related to decision-making and agency as well as memory and retrieval processes that help to support learning.
This is why self-directed play is so important – because the best learning takes place when the child is immersed in what they’re doing and making discoveries for themselves.
In this 2013 study, researchers split preschoolers into two groups.
One group were told a bunch of facts about triangles. Three sides, not always of equal size – usual triangular stuff.
The second were given a goal to discover ‘the secret of the shapes’, working together with the researchers in guided play.
Guess what happened? Not only were the latter group better at recognising more irregular triangles, they held onto that information much better when they were tested a week later.
Play is an opportunity for children to openly explore what they’ve seen in the world, to grasp the real meaning of something, to understand connections and relationships.
When they stack a tower, they’re learning about gravity, balance, and movement. Drawing and making their own marks teaches them about communication, symbols and representation. Imaginary worlds help them to understand the emotions and the thoughts of others, and theorise about the future. Risky play on a balance beam teaches them about their own boundaries, and how their bodies move. The possibilities of play are endless.
US children’s show favourite Mr Rogers famously said that “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” Even more than that, play in the early years can be the learning and the practice all rolled up into one.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.