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The importance of play for wellbeing and learning at all ages

Play is vital for the wellbeing of children of all ages and has significant cognitive, physical, social, and emotional benefits. Play is linked to higher motivation, self-esteem and confidence. It provides a context for children to practise communication skills, imagination and creativity. Imagination is particularly important in learning as it underpins creative problem-solving and enables children to synthesise and apply knowledge.

There are several kinds of play, and each makes an important contribution to children’s learning and development.

Physical play includes jumping, climbing and bike-riding. It also includes activities like colouring, sewing and cutting. Physical play supports:

  • the development of large and small muscles
  • motor skills
  • academic progress
  • social competence
  • physical health and wellbeing

Play with objects involves hands-on, practical, sensory and emotional activity with materials such blocks, found objects and toys. It includes activities like building models and imagining scenarios. Play with objects promotes:

  • exploratory skills and discovery
  •  thinking and learning by switching on the underpinning neural connections in the brain
  • imagination and creativity
  • decision making and problem solving

Symbolic play involves symbols and the representational systems that make meaning such as language, music, drawing and numbers. Symbolic play encourages:

  • the use of abstract thought
  • the use of symbols which is essential for reading, writing and maths

Pretend play involves extending children’s thinking from the ‘here and now’ to imaginary situations. It uses decontextualised language, which means discussing people, places and things not immediately present. Pretend play develops:

  •  abstract thinking and learning
  • creativity and imagination
  • language and communication skills

Games with rules include chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching, sports, board games and computer games. This kind of play develops self-regulation and executive function skills such as:

  • controlling attention
  • suppressing impulses
  • flexibly redirecting thought and behaviour
  • working memory, or being able to rememeber and use information

How to support play

There are different categories of play:

  • Free play is independent and entirely directed by a child or group of children.
  • Guided play involves adults joining in and acting indirectly to guide the play. It retains the child-directed nature of play but adds in gentle adult support to extend the learning opportunities of the play. For example, as children try to build a bridge from Lego which keeps collapsing, an adult could support the problem-solving process by asking children what they have already tried, and what they might try next. This kind of support might enable children to engage in longer periods of play and exploration.

You can support your children’s play in a number of ways.

  • Make sure your child has time for unstructured play, enough time to get engrossed in their play and investigations. Trust children to be capable and creative enough to find and create interests and activities. Offer attention, encouragement and praise without being overly directive of their play.
  • Find interesting play materials. Look out for ordinary, everyday, open-ended materials that can be used in various ways and easily transformed with a child’s imagination to suit their interests, skills and ideas. You probably have lots of different things you can use around the house such as wooden spoons and saucepans, found objects like shells, pebbles and leaves, upcycled objects such as tiles, buttons and ribbons, as well as staples such as papers, blocks and figurines. Very simple materials are best for stimulating imaginative and sophisticated play.
  • Extend your child’s play ideas. For example, you might extend paper plane making by suggesting children experiment with different adherents such as tape, glue or staples to discover the impact on flight. Assume a role in children’s play (for example, be the patient while the child plays doctor) to elaborate and extend on activities and language or introduce new tools and materials.
  • Provoke children to plan or reflect on their play actions. For example, if a child says they are building a bridge, ask questions such as ‘Can you tell me why you need a bridge here?’ and ‘What blocks will you need?’, ‘How will you arrange them?’ Ask ‘how is it going?’, ‘what do you need to do next?’, or ‘how else might you do it?’

Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our ECE webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our ECE research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

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