Theory and practice

Constructive play: what is it and how do I encourage it?

9 tips to support constructive play in early childhood
Children playing with bricks
February 3, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Good news for the little ones - it's time to get building!
  • Constructive play (or construction play, if you prefer) is all about building, shaping, and manipulating things to create something new. It brings together so many skills and helps children develop a whole host of new ones.
  • Read on to discover what constructive play is, where it comes from, and why it's so key to children's learning. You'll also find some hot tips on what you can do to improve constructive play in your setting.

What is constructive play in the early years?

At its simplest, when a child engages in constructive play is when children use different materials to create or build something. Also known as construction play, it's often organised and focused on a goal.

The idea was formalised by the child development expert Jean Piaget, who worked extensively on understanding how children learn. Piaget believed that children learn by exploring the interaction between their ideas and the real world, and experimenting with how those puzzle pieces fit together.

According to Piaget, children have already been through a stage of what's called functional play before they're ready to construct. This means they've felt materials, understood different sizes, had some experience of what prevents them falling and otherwise explored them with their various senses.

Now, these materials really can be anything, for example:

  • Sand
  • Water
  • Construction blocks
  • LEGO
  • play dough
  • Wood.

The key is that the children are making something, intentionally, and creatively. They are being curious and approach that curiosity with hands-on inquiry. They are moving from a functional understanding to a clear idea of the properties of what they're dealing with.

infant eating wooden alphabet block

The benefits of constructive play for Early Years children

Constructive play is an incredibly powerful learning tool. It's much more than a motor-skill exercise of balancing blocks — in early childhood, construction play fires on all cylinders of child development.

Constructive play helps children with:

  • Maths – Exploring counting, shapes, sizes, symmetry in their construction
  • Science – Seeing cause and effect, gravity, and balance in action, and building problem solving skills
  • Understanding the world – Exploring the attributes of different objects and natural materials, and playing with how one object can represent another.
  • Creativity – Taking an idea, and seeing it through in real life. Designing their own play and choosing different materials.
  • Develops imagination – Small world play allows them to build characters and universes into their play.
  • Physical development – Construction play develops children's gross and fine motor skills.
  • Curiosity – Exploring materials with inquiry and interest.
  • Language – Teachers can scaffold with complex and intricate vocabulary.
  • Cooperation and social skills – As children build together they learn how to work together.
  • Self-esteem – Building confidence as they control their own environment.

Perhaps most importantly, constructive play is an open-ended form of free play. Children get the chance to relate their own ideas to the real world, which is a critical expression of creativity, problem solving and experimentation.

Plus, constructive play is second nature for children. Studies suggest that when given various free play choices, children will choose constructive play more than 50% of the time.

boy builds with lego on ground

9 tips to encourage constructive play in early childhood education

So that's all well and good, but what use is all this theory if you can't do anything about it? What use is understanding the value in constructive play if your practitioners don't have any clear-cut ideas to help them encourage it? Fear not, this next section is for you.

1. Give children plenty of good-quality opportunities for constructive play

While it's very impressive if you can get your children to build things out of thin air, if you're going to get serious about constructive play you're going to need some resources.

The trick here is to keep it as open-ended as possible. That means using resources that are not designed to be built in a specific way, but those that can be interpreted by the children and used in many different ways. As we explore in another article, simple natural materials like blocks are often the best pick.

A few materials you can include in your provision:

  • Wood of different sizes and shapes
  • Sticks and stones and other natural materials
  • Water
  • Sand and tools
  • Car tires or wagon wheels
  • Moving blocks
  • Recycled materials like cardboard boxes
  • Train tracks
  • LEGO or Duplo blocks
  • Cogs and wheels

Be aware of developmental stages when you plan your continuous provision for constructive play. It might be that you could introduce a larger variety of unusual elements in older children's play, for example, in order to help encourage Fantasy Play – the next stage in Piaget's developmental journey.

child builds structure with lego

2. Celebrate the value of construction play by itself

Some early educators may see constructive play as a mere bridge towards fantasy play, or as a 'stepping stone' toward something else. But as Dr Francis Wardle points out in this brilliant article, constructive play should be encouraged and supported as is valuable all by itself, regardless of a child's age or developmental stage.

This is because it comes very naturally to children, meaning it lets children just be children - something we should encourage for as long as possible.

3. Lead children with constructive play examples

As we found out in our interview with the team from The Curiosity Approach, getting down on a child's level is important for so many things. But not least, getting down and playing can help you to model play for children, and encourage your less confident learners to get involved. Children engage with things they see you're engaged in too.

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4. Encourage children to try construction play everywhere

Because constructive play is so key to a child's development, it shouldn't just be restricted to your inside provision. Children need to play with the relationship between their ideas and the real world in all sorts of different environments.

For example, taking constructive play outdoors provides a whole new range of challenges for children. These challenges might be things like:

Does the wind or the wet influence their structures and how they manipulate materials?Does play dough go softer in the sun?How can they make larger structures that they can test their own balance on?Can they get really messy out here in a way they can't inside?

child bends down in woods to grab stick

‍5. Find the link between construction play and role play

Children from four and up will start to naturally mix fantasy play and constructive play together, and you can encourage this by adding more fantastical elements to your constructive play area.

Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you don't push children towards building something specific at the expense of fantasy play. Indulge their fantasies, and ask them about the swimming pool they've just built on top of their spaceship.

Remember, they are testing their increasingly complex ideas out in the real world, and you should be the one to encourage this, not question it.

6. Try some risky constructive play

We've talked about the importance of risky play in the early years before, as it helps children to learn about risks while experiencing some really important emotions.

So what better place to introduce some risk than in your constructive play? After all, what could be better construction than using real tools to build woodwork structures or for building towers?

If you want to start off easy, consider buying some wood glue and helping children to glue together their creations (and teach them the important skill of patience along the way). Once you're ready, start with some small, heavily supervised sessions using drills, saws and other more ‘grown-up' tools.‍

7. Prepare for the tear-down and clean-up process

Understanding the short-term nature of children's block buildings is part of the learning experience with constructive play.

While some of their more permanent woodworking creations might be fully take-homeable, it's unlikely that their tower blocks, sandcastles, or carefully constructed obstacle courses are going to last the night.

To begin with, this may be difficult for children to deal with, but it's an important lesson to learn. You can take pictures for those children finding it most difficult, but it's also about preparing children for the temporary nature of what they're doing. After all, that's half the fun!

child builds lego towers

8. Scaffold and support with language

Constructive play is a great vehicle for language development in the early years through the meaningful interactions you can have with your hyper-engaged children.

Help to support their language by asking open-ended questions, and extending the language they're using by adding extra vocabulary to their descriptions.

Another good idea is to try out signs in front of the constructive play area. You can have ‘long', ‘medium' and ‘short', wooden blocks, different shapes and colours and so on.

9. Follow children's impulses and mix it up

Like any area of your continuous provision, it's very important that you mix up your constructive play area regularly.

As children build worlds and expand their understanding, they might bring in things from other areas of the nursery. To find out what else you can add, simply ask them!

“What else would you like to add to your airport/jungle/exact replica of the planet Mars, Jane?”

Once you've got these ideas, start searching! Second-hand sellers, charity shops, and even the natural environment can provide plenty of inspiration for open-ended resources to add to your setting.

The big ideas

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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.

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