Learning and Development

Why play is essential to early childhood development

  • Why play is essential to early childhood development

It’s so vital that our love for it is written into our very DNA, says Alistair Bryce-Clegg…

As children, play is our favourite state of being and we find as many ways as we possibly can to do it. It dominates our lives and we get a huge amount from it.

I don’t believe that adults enjoy playing any less than they did when they were children, it’s often just that lots of aspects of adult life get in the way and our opportunities to play are reduced.

Having said that, we all know someone with a more playful disposition that manages to make even the most mundane of tasks fun – maybe we all need to be a little bit more like that in our everyday lives?

Why do we play?

There’s a good reason why children all over the world crave play so much. It’s in our DNA; it’s how we learn about the world we live in. It’s how we learn to fit in and become part of that world.

Play is a safe place to test out life. We can start and end the play whenever we want because even when we’re playing with others, play is a partnership, an unspoken agreement between players – if you don’t want to play then you don’t have to.

Play is crucial to our social development. It helps us to become familiar with our own preferences and feelings as well as the tricky process of learning to recognise the emotional state of others.

The more opportunities we have for play and interaction, the more exposed we are to how other children play and the better we get at interpreting other people.

If there’s a lack of play opportunities for children, they don’t get enough time to observe, practise and rehearse the subtleties of this ‘social signalling’ which make us effective and appropriate communicators.

Problem solving

Play is one of the only places where children are actively able to mix the realms of fantasy and reality either as a solo experience or alongside others. It can be real or fantasy.

Either way, they have opportunities to revisit, rehearse, try and succeed, try and fail, be the ‘goodie’, be the ‘baddie’, be a dog, a hippopotamus or a lesser-spotted-purple-slime-slurper from outer space!

They can literally be anything they want, because they are in control. This is the element of play that keeps them safe. It allows them to practise, imagine and rehearse problems and possibilities before they happen.

Play is a great place to test out your thoughts. Lots of opportunities to engage and interact will equip children not with the solutions to every problem and situation they will come up against, but the strategies for solving problems in the future and a wealth of experience to draw upon.

Managing emotions

During the early years, the play opportunities that we give children not only help them to manage their emotions, they actually shape pathways in the brain – research has shown that play stimulates the brain nerve growth in the part of the brain where emotions and decisions are processed.

These create the ‘blueprint’ for future emotional responses and behaviours, enabling children to develop emotional recognition and control and supporting the development of their higher order thinking such as planning, decision making, problem-solving and impulse control.

This means our young children will be better able to think before they act. They will have improved concentration and more effective interactions with their peers and adults.

Play is great for stress control. We know all too well that when a child doesn’t have a safe emotional base from which to understand and experience the world, their social, emotional and cognitive development becomes adversely affected.

Playing out a problem can give it perspective. Just being part of some absorbing or interactive play for pleasure can really lift a child’s mood and have a positive effect on their mental wellbeing.

So, play is essential for sorting out how the world makes you and others feel and making decisions about what you need to do next.

Infinite variety

Play can take on many different forms depending on what it’s needed for and who (if anyone) you are playing with. All forms of play are equally as valuable as each other and children need as much of it as possible.

As adults we must create lots of opportunities for children to engage in uninterrupted play as part of their day. Their play might need to be quiet and contemplative, loud and physical or somewhere in between (all in the space of 10 minutes!).

Make play possible

As a father of three boys (now not so little at 20, 18 and 16) I really appreciate the importance and the power of play.

That play can mean different things to different children and that as adults we need to ensure we create spaces that allow children maximum opportunities to play in whichever way they need to.

Sometimes that play will be enhanced by our presence where we can engage, guide, support and teach. But often, play needs to be left, to be observed – given space to evolve, grow and take on a life of its own.

A good way to understand play, in all of its complexities, is to observe it in its many different forms as often as you possibly can.

But, crucially for adults and children, the most important message is to carry on playing, in whatever form that play takes. Not only is it essential for our physical and mental wellbeing, it’s free and, best of all, fun!

A precious gift

The word ‘play’ has only got four letters, but it has infinite meanings and interpretations!

  • Play often comes spontaneously from the child. Sometimes the best thing we can do is leave them to it and let them play out what’s important to them at that moment. It may not make sense to us, but that’s not important as long as it does to them.
  • Sometimes the child will invite you to be a co-player. Usually in this type of relationship the play is shared with ideas swapping between the players.
  • Sometimes you’ll have the chance to create a play opportunity by providing a resource, experience or provocation that encourages children to either follow your lead or take what you’ve given them and reinterpret it.
  • Whatever form the play might take, enjoy it, make time for it and value it. It is the most precious gift that we can give to children (and ourselves!). Playing with other children not only reinforces social interactions but gives the children involved the opportunity to learn about the thoughts, reactions and strategies of others, which will in turn enhance their own!

Alistair Bryce-Clegg is an early years consultant. His latest book, 365 Days of Play, is like a Pinterest board of ideas that aims to inspire and motivate early years practitioners all year through.