The Child

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

August 4, 2022

Two experts explain why play is a powerful tool for child development, and what you can do to help.

Two experts explain why play is a powerful tool for child development, and what you can do to help.
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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?

More often than not, play is seen as a leisurely activity by the world outside the walls of our setting. That’s why, for our most recent Famly Sessions event, we brought together Dr Stella Louis and Julia Manning-Morton. As two experts in child development, they discuss why this simply isn’t the case.

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 help their development.
  • Creating a ‘bridge’ between the setting 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 before we interfere in their play or learning process.
  • 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.
  • The struggle of COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of letting children play without assessment.

Why is play so important?

So why is play so crucial?

Stella 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 Stella explains, play develops a child’s confidence. They discover feelings, ideas and relationships in a range of ways. During play, children kickstart their own learning by doing, practice newly acquired skills and strengthen their learning.

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 takes the same approach. As a specialist in children from birth to 3 years old, Julia stresses why play is so crucial for learning development. For her, it’s a way for children to bring all parts of their experience of the world together so they can understand them.

Julia and Stella agree that play represents how a child sees the world. “Children will make up stories to represent their understanding about experiences”, says Stella. Games 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. It also 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 practitioners 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 learning purpose – and play is far more than just that. So how can we change this approach?

Julia dislikes the view that educators are the experts and need to tell parents exactly what to do. She believes that creating a bridge of shared understanding between the setting and the home is absolutely key.

“Practice in a setting is only as good as the number of times that bridge is crossed in both ways by the parents and practitioners,” she goes on to say. By creating this bridge and allowing parents to engage in shared learning with practitioners, everyone can better understand why children do what they do.

Why you should let your child wallow

Stella’s example of letting a child ‘wallow’ in an activity explains why a bridge between the home and setting is absolutely key to nurturing this shared understanding of child development and behaviour.

“Everything our children do, they do for a reason,” she says. It’s your role as a parent or chief observer to understand and interpret this reason, and to communicate this with practitioners.

We often use adult-led logic to understand play, and mislabel actions as ‘naughty’. Instead, we should let children explore, investigate and experiment. They will then be able to develop competence, control and mastery in what they’re doing.

If parents work alongside practitioners to understand a child’s behaviour while they wallow, they will both gain an invaluable insight into the child’s behaviour and learning journey.

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.

Do we interfere too much?

It can seem wrong not to help a struggling child or to allow them to engage in ‘naughty’ behaviour. But Julia builds on Stella’s 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 of your practitioners 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.

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, Stella 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.

COVID-19 as a catalyst for change

It would be fair to say Julia feels a little uneasy about the future of play in UK settings. With a more adult-led approach to learning, the focus is on attaining outcomes. This compromises Early Years principles and does not give EY the voice it really needs.

There is an enormous amount of pressure to prepare children for Primary and controversial assessments like the baseline assessment become the primary focus.

That being said, we may be en-route for change. Reflecting on COVID-19, Julia believes the pandemic has given some children much-needed ‘breathing space’. It has allowed them to play and learn freely without the need for assessment or objectives.

This could be the silver lining we so desperately need in these difficult times.

Julia thinks that lockdown may cause current attitudes towards play to shift. The pandemic has forced children to engage in free play at home, and this has reinforced the crucial link between homes and settings that children need in order to flourish.

Both experts hope that attitudes shift towards acknowledging the fundamental value of play. It plays a monumental role in a child’s framework for learning, and this should be at the forefront of what we do in the Early Years.

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.

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

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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“Famly’s strengthening our parent partnerships as staff can quickly note down meaningful observations and then come back to them later ensuring they can stay focused on the children." - Vicky-Leigh, Manager, Tenderlinks Nursery

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

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

Sign up now

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

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