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Early Years Diary: The Importance of Play in the Early Years
Young boy stacks funny animal comic cardboard boxes. Early childhood motor skills.
Photographer: Markus Spiske | Source: Unsplash

In this edition of her Early Years Diary, Anna McCallum considers the importance of play for children’s development, and how different types of play can achieve varying outcomes.

As I have touched on in a previous diary, many people erroneously assume that the role of a nursery practitioner is to simply “play” all day. While there is so much more to what we do than just playing, play is nonetheless a crucial part of what we do as it is the primary way in which children learn.

Children begin to learn through play from birth and this continues throughout their childhood as they learn how to hone their fundamental life skills. By playing they can perfect their ability to socialise, make relationships, problem solve, optimise their language and communication skills, and so much more! I believe this capacity to learn through play can even overlap into adulthood. Just thinking on a personal level I retain information much more easily and find it more engaging by taking part in hands on, interactive, fun activities, as opposed to someone just talking at me in a droll, monotonous voice.

The way I see it there are two types of play in the early years, these being free-play and structured-play, both covering different areas of a child’s development but both equally important. We use both types of play throughout our settings, but play is not only confined to nurseries, solidifying its significance in education.

It is our role to assist children in preparing for the world and lay the foundations for crucial life skills, but we also need to get them ready for ‘big school’. Now when most people think of a nursery they tend to think of children running wild and doing as they please, whereas when thinking of school they may think of children sitting quietly at their desks. In reality neither are correct, and the beginning of primary school is not too dissimilar to a nursery. The daily structure is remarkably alike, they still have free-play and structured-play, and they will not be sitting at their desks all day until they are older. (Note: this is true in my neck of the woods, but I appreciate each region, country and culture may be different).

Free-play is just as it sounds: it is when a child is free to play, taking the lead and directing their play in any which way they please. At first glance free-play is basic and a natural part of being a child, however when dissected even just a little, it is clear how much is involved in just being able to play. In order to successfully play with others a child needs to be able to communicate, listen to responses from their peers, understand them and react appropriately, continue the play, manage their emotions, socialise in an acceptable way, problem solve with others, use their imaginations, and build relationships.

Observing a child’s free play is often used as a form of psychological research and is a highly effective way of gaining information from children. Just think about how we create observations for tracking children’s development by watching what they’re capable of... suddenly play is not quite so simple! The ability to play comes so naturally to children while there is a lot involved. Play should be encouraged in order for children to develop their social skills and create meaningful relationships.

Photographer: Tina Floersch | Source: Unsplash

Structured-play is again just as it sounds: it still seems like playing but it is designed by us to teach the children about something specific. This form of play used with the right levels of creativity can be used to teach children about literally anything! If we can fashion an educational activity that is fun and deliver it in an entertaining way, it will feel like a game for the children and they will be fully engaged in anything you produce using this technique.

A lot of it comes down to staff demeanour; if the staff member is just as involved and excited about the activity as the children are, then I guarantee the children will hang on their every word. By using our tone of voice and facial expressions to captivate the children’s attention we can teach them about anything and everything.

At my setting the children sometimes complete literacy worksheets to develop pencil control and concentration, but of course not all children like sitting at a desk for too long, so even tasks like this can be made more attractive and appealing for them. Singing some phonics songs, making noises of whatever characters might be on the paper, and discussing our favourite colours are all easy ways to engage children in more mundane tasks; just make it feel like a game.

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Whether a child is free-playing with other children or taking part in structured-play with their key worker, they are continuously learning and evolving into functioning members of society. We have the privilege of being able to watch it happen and supporting them in their play, helping them to grow.

So, the next time someone makes the accusation that we “just play all day”, regardless of how untrue and reductive that is, we can nonetheless feel proud knowing what that playing really means.

How do you help your children do their best playing at your setting? Share your ideas and share the conversation using the hashtag #mynurserylife.