Inclusion and wellbeing

Dr. Stella Louis and Julia Manning-Morton on The Power of Play

Two experts explain why play is a powerful tool for child development, and what you can do to help.
March 21, 2023
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We all know that children love to play. It’s an essential part of what makes childhood…childhood.

But do we really understand how much of an impact it has on lifelong learning?

We brought together Dr. Stella Louis and Julia Manning-Morton to discuss why play is more than just a leisurely activity. Both bring their decades of expertise to the table to emphasise why play is a powerful gateway to learning, and how you can help facilitate your child’s development by understanding and encouraging it.

You can take a quick look at the most important points made in the interview below, or scroll down to the bottom to watch the full hour-long interview.

The big ideas

The 5 key interview takeaways:
  • Play allows children to interpret the world around them and by observing their play, we are able to better understand and support their development.
  • Creating a ‘bridge’ between the center and the home is crucial.
  • Understanding a child’s play is a two-way process of mutual learning.
  • We are too quick to interfere. We should allow children to wallow and develop their skills by letting them explore and find their own solutions.
  • Too high a focus on assessment in the early years can lead to an adult-led, outcome-focused understanding of play. Instead of trying to assess its value, we should instead interpret play through the lens of child development.

Why is play so important?

So, why is play so crucial?

Dr. Louis has been an Early Years educator for decades. She’s an expert in observation and the power of play within the framework of child development.

As Dr. Louis explains, play develops a child’s confidence because through play, the child can acquire new skills, discover feelings, generate ideas, and form connections. 

This is perfectly summed up with a quote from her own book: “Without play, the intellectual growth of infants and young children will be stunted, and learning will be rendered meaningless.”

At the 8:20 minute mark, Julia agrees. As a specialist in children from birth to 3 years old, Julia stresses why play is so crucial for learning development. For her, games, toys and play are vital, as they teach children how to make sense of the world, its rules and complexities.

For both experts, one thing is very clear – play has a key role in a child’s understanding of the world around them. As Dr. Louis says, “Children will make up stories to represent their understanding about experiences.” They also both agree that play sets the groundwork for emotional and intellectual development in later life.

How do we help parents understand the value of play?

It can be a challenge for educators to help parents understand why play is so incredibly valuable.

At the 15-minute mark, Julia notes that sometimes our EY curriculum leads us to only value play when we can identify its specific learning purpose. However, Dr. Louis and Julia explain why and how play is farm more than just that. So, how can we make it so everyone understands the power of play in a child’s development?

Julia dislikes the view that educators are the experts and need to tell parents exactly what to do. Instead, she emphasises the importance of the collaboration between the parents and the educators, and a bridge between the school and the home environment.

“Practice in a [childcare center or preschool] is only as good as the number of times that bridge is crossed in both ways by the parents and [educators],” she goes on to say. By creating this bridge and allowing parents to engage in shared learning with educators, everyone can better understand why children do what they do, the value of play, and how their child’s play is another way to develop their learning and development skills.

Why you should let your child wallow

Dr. Louis’ example of letting a child ‘wallow’ in an activity explains why connection and collaboration between the center and the home is absolutely key to nurturing this shared understanding of child development and behaviour.

“Everything our children do, they do for a reason,” she says. We should let children explore, investigate and experiment. They will then be able to develop competence, control and mastery in what they’re doing. They will also learn that not everything works out or connects, and allowing them to wallow, or work through a problem is important to their development.

While the child is playing and experimenting, caregivers should observe and try to interpret and understand the child's behaviors. Valuable insight can be gained by observing how a child wallows and problem solves.

Around the 28 minute mark, Julia builds on this by stating parents should be ‘outwardly passive but inwardly active.’ We should observe, notice and recognise without interrupting play, she says. It’s crucial to step back and acknowledge when, and if, we need to pause.

It is important for all the adults to communicate with one another to support the child's development in all environments - at home and at school.

Do we interfere too much?

It can seem wrong not to help a struggling child or to allow them to engage in behavior that may appear to be bad. But Julia builds on Dr. Louis’ idea of wallowing by showing that our actions can actually hinder the foundations for lifelong learning.

“If we are serious about helping children develop the dispositions for lifelong learning, it’s not what they learn, but the attitudes and dispositions we can help them to develop in their earliest years that enables them to be lifelong learners,” she says.

This can be as simple as reminding yourself or your educators to just count to ten before stepping in. By observing, pausing, and taking a step back, we allow a child to work through their struggles in play. This gives them a sense of mastery, competency, autonomy and perseverance and confidence.

We should pause and allow children to take their actions and their play in their own direction. If we interfere, we do not let them independently develop the essential skills needed for lifelong learning.

Creating a ‘Yes’ space

But how should you go about letting children play without interference?

Around the 37 minute mark, Julia mentions how the Pikler approach to learning recommends creating ‘Yes’ spaces for young children to help them flourish.

A ‘Yes’ space is a space which minimises risk, where children are free to explore safely without hurting themselves or others. They are free to explore without being told ‘no’. For younger children, this can simply be an enclosed area with pillows.

By doing this, we can make sure we only step in when it’s really needed. A ‘Yes’ space allows children to explore, and gives them the freedom to struggle and overcome that struggle without interference.

At 44 minutes in, Dr. Louis builds on this concept. She notes that we should also be creating these ‘Yes’ spaces for older children too. Instead of creating a physical space, we can create an environment that lets them explore without the fear of being told ‘no’.

We should be creating an environment that encourages and aids development instead of interfering in their exploratory play.

Watch the full interview

In addition to the points above, the full interview goes more into depth on the following subjects:

  • Why schematic or ‘naughty’ behaviour is mislabeled and misunderstood by adults.
  • Why care lies at the core of encouraging free play.
  • How play evolves over the years, and what practitioners need to understand when observing play.
  • Why pushing children towards obtaining outcomes isn’t always the optimal approach.

Watch the full hour-long interview here.

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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.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below how Famly helped Tenderlinks in recording child development, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.