The Importance of Play in Early Years Development


"Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth" (Ginsberg, 2007, p. 182). Play is so important to children's development is that it has been recognised as being of vital importance by the United Nations (1989), as it makes a contribution to the holistic development of children, allowing them to discover the world through experimenting within the various environments to which they are exposed (Bruce, 1996). Ginsberg (2007) makes the observation that all those involved with children's development, learning and education must consider every factor which has the potential to interfere with children realising their full potential, and to work towards ensuring that every child has access to circumstances which allow them opportunities to reap the benefits that are linked with play. The aim of this essay is to investigate the notion of play in the light of learning theories, in order to determine its importance in children's development during their early years.

Definition of Play

It is important to recognise that it is difficult to give a single definition of play (Lillemyr, 2009) and that it is regarded as an all embracing term (Bruce, 1991) which describes a diverse range of behaviours which see children interacting with each other (Dunn, 1993) in order to make sense of, and to enhance their understanding of, the environments in which they find themselves (Bruce, 1996; Wood, 2004). Play can be regarded as the means through which children are able to discover things about the world in order to amend their vision of it (Oko, 1987, p. 44 in Bozena, 2007, p. 80), as well as an avenue through which children can experience joy and/or recreation (Buhler, 1993, p. 91 in Bozena, 2007, p. 80). Play is an opportunity for children to develop a sense of self as a result of solving problems within their environment, which allows them to enhance their cognitive skills in the context of specific cultural environment/environments (Dunn, 1993; Meadows, 1993; Bruce, 1996; Gallahue and Ozman, 1998; Wood, 2004; Robson, 2006). Froebel (cited in Bruce, 2004, p. 132) believes that it provides children with opportunities to utilise their newly accumulated knowledge in different situations which encourages them to adopt flexible attitudes and ways of thinking, as well as providing them with opportunities to practice and understand societal 'norms' and their role in specific environments (Rogoff, 2003). Play also affords children the opportunity to discover the difference between fantasy and reality, safety and risk, order and anarchy and to grasp the concept of potential in themselves for the future (Wood and Attfield, 2005). It is a vital component in children's physical, social, emotional and intellectual development (Elkind, 2008) which allows children to utilise their imagination whilst enhancing their communication skills through engaging in a number of different roles, depending upon their environment and the environment in which any specific interaction is taking place (Eddington, 2004).

Value/Importance for Development

The value and importance of play is the motivation behind recent developments with regard to Early Years education in the form of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) documentation (Department for Education [DfE], 2014). The notion of child centred education is built upon the acknowledgement that every individual child is unique and is entitled to have their needs met through the careful design of activities which allow them to develop commensurate with their ability, as a result of encouraging positive relationships with all around them in order that learners become competent, self-confident and self-reliant people (DfE, 2014). The ability to communicate is critical to children's development - the government stipulate that those responsible for providing children's education must create opportunities for children to acquire language and communication skills through play, such that they are able to express themselves in a variety of different ways (language, gesture) and they are able to accumulate information as a result of reading and listening to others (DfE, 2014). This stipulation is a direct result of the Rose Report (2009), which highlighted the fact that curriculum provision should have explicit reference to the purposes of play and that the activities designed to promote it should be meticulously planned. Rose (2009) also stressed that children needed to engage not only in individual play but also in paired/group activities, so that language development and acquisition could be encouraged whilst simultaneously learning to cooperate with each other (endorsed by Coates & Thomson, 2009) and developing an understanding of the value of good behaviour. It is vital for practitioners to recognise that play is not some form of break from the curriculum; it is an opportunity for children to develop their physical and cognitive abilities for the 21st century (Moyles, 2010) and is an authentic means of implementing the school curriculum (Action Alliance for Children, 2007; Moyles, 2010).

The notion that play enables children to enhance the skills is put forward by Hughes (2006), who contends that there are a large number (up to 16) of different types of play, including movement and discovery which involves the exploration of the environment and the use of language (endorsed by Ginsberg, 2007; Singer et al., 2006; Bateson, 2005). Other scholars such as Manning-Morton and Thorp (2003) and Burghardt (2005) emphasise the multipurpose nature of play in that children are able to use play as a means for learning through practising skills for the future, tackling and solving problems, as well as a means through which they develop their methods of communicating with those around them. A critical factor in any child's development is feeling safe within the boundaries of any environment to which they are exposed; a number of writers (Moore and Russ, 2006; Russ, 2004; Sayeed and Guerin, 2000) allude to the fact that children must feel safe and relaxed in order to play with freedom and that play in itself allows children to relax, which has a beneficial effect on their emotional outlook (Russ, 2004). This 'safety' element can be achieved through practitioners building upon children's experiences within the home environment, which can then lead on to opportunities for progression and extension through challenge (Department for Children, Schools and Families [DCSF], 2009). Critical to the learning process is the careful design of activities which take advantage of children's innate ability to enjoy play and the fact that playing "… engages children's bodies, minds and emotions" (DCSF, 2009, p. 10). Furthermore, through this process children are able to learn the skills associated with successful interaction with others in order to be part of a community, to experience and to manage their feelings/emotions and to develop confidence in themselves and their abilities (DCSF, 2009). Play provides opportunities for children to develop positive attitudes towards learning, in that they are able to develop their interests, be creative and experimental, to be critically thoughtful (Trevlas et al, 2003; Hurvitz, 2003) as well as developing resilience and the ability to work alongside others as a part of the educative process (DCSF, 2009).

Play and Learning Theory

The most important point about play is that it is active in nature. This active pursuit of knowledge was stressed by Piaget, who emphasised children's ability to construct their own knowledge as individuals (Moore, 2000) through exploring their environment (Phillips and Soltis, 1998) in order to make sense of it (Wyse, 2004). Having scientifically studied children (May, 2013), Piaget put forward the notion that children develop in distinctive stages - sensorimotor (birth to 2 years), preoperational (2 to 6 years), concrete operational (7 to adolescence) and formal operational (adolescence to adulthood) - and that play becomes more complex as learners mature (for example, sensorimotor/practice play, preoperational/symbolic, pretend and fantasy play [Krause et al., 2003]). He also stated that as children came upon new experiences and knowledge, they added them to their existing knowledge base (assimilation) prior to being able to employ this new knowledge (accommodation), thus enhancing their cognitive abilities (Curtis and O'Hagen, 2003). Piaget (1973) believed that children were only able to gain a true understanding of knowledge as a result of this process of discovery, which enables them to be innovative and flexible as opposed to learning in a mechanistic way.

These constructivist principles were shared by Vygotsky, although his emphasis was on social and collective learning as opposed to learning as an individual. It was his belief that interaction with others was a key element in enabling children to learn (Buchan, 2013, Daly et al., 2004), and that learning was a social process. Vygotsky contended that the development of children's communication and language skills relied upon their being allowed to experience the world around them in the company of others in a social context, which lead learners to an understanding of how to behave and how to control themselves in specific contexts (John-Steiner et al., 2010). This social aspect of learning is borne out by observations of children who imitate the actions of others without understanding, until such time as they are able to initiate actions for themselves [which is indicative of their level of comprehension] (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky took this notion of learning from others a stage further when he stated that there was a difference between what children are able to do alone and what they can achieve with the help of more experienced others, labelling this difference the 'Zone of Proximal Development' [ZPD] (Pound, 2005). He firmly believed that every interactive process in which learners engage, irrespective of the environment in which it takes place, provides them with opportunities to develop their language and thinking skills (Whitehead, 2010). Furthermore, Vygotsky (1978) commented that play was the best and most effective means of preschool development as it enabled children to develop their skills through interaction.

Play and Current Early Years Practice

As highlighted above, the current provision as laid out within the EYFS (DfE, 2014) documentation places the child at the centre of the learning process with a specific emphasis on play, which encourages the development of communication, language and literacy skills. There are three prime areas of learning (communication and language, physical development, personal, social and emotional development) and four specific areas which supplement the prime areas (literacy, mathematics, understanding the world and expressive arts and design). It is the responsibility of individual practitioners, and indeed settings in general, to consider the individual needs and stage of development for each individual in their care. Activities within classrooms must be planned to ensure equality of access for all, irrespective of their background or ability and they should be designed to engage learners in purposeful play which is both child initiated and adult led. The balance between these two types of play is of extreme importance. Children can learn by leading their own play and allowing their needs and interests to guide their activities. However, whilst responding to individual children in a positive and warm manner, it is critical that there is a gradual movement towards activities which are more adult led, in order to prepare them for more formal learning as they enter Year 1 (DfE, 2014). Play should provide children with opportunities to explore and express their feelings, to develop relationships with others, to make decisions, choices and errors whilst being respected and valued as individuals; they need to be encouraged to develop self-discipline whilst retaining their ability to be imaginative and creative in solving problems (Bruce, 1987 cited in Early Years Interboard Panel, n.d., p. 7)


Play is central to the development of children in their early years. It provides a platform through which children are able to learn about themselves and the world around them through interacting with it. It allows children to have fun while they are learning, and to engage with those around them as a part of the process of learning, which not only deepens their knowledge base but also provides them with life skills such as the ability to communicate and work effectively with others. Play has been recognised as a central element within the education system which allows children to blossom through interacting with and learning from those around them. It is "… essential for children's development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems, and to relate to others" (DfE, 2014, p. 9).


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