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The Development Of Play

During early childhood, children's play becomes increasingly complex, involving high levels of the organisation and requiring increasingly sophisticated social, physical and cognitive skills. Although all children engage in different play types, some are more prevalent at different ages.

Infants and toddlers engage in exploratory and social play (such as 'peek-a-boo'). Exploration is a time of gathering information and discovering the properties and attributes of an object, situation or idea. Toddlers develop 'functional play' involving the repetition of particular physical actions and early pretend play.

With the development of imagination, older children engage in constructive play, pretend play and language play. They demonstrate increasing problem-solving skills, language, and collaboration and show increased attention to processes, structures, and outcomes.

They are highly intentional in their activity and can better combine and use materials in more complex ways. Sociodramatic play, involving cooperation and the coordination of play between two or more children, usually begins when children are 4 or 5 years old, and is cognitively demanding as children simultaneously hold in mind what they have negotiated for their role and character, the other children's characters and what has been agreed as the plot, as well as what different objects represent.

Does Play Lead To Effective Learning?

Research into the effectiveness of play for supporting children's learning is complex, given contrasting definitions and conceptualisations of play and its different types, the overlap between play types, and outside influences on a play such as an environment or structuring and involvement of adults.

In addition, play is a complex activity with many integrated dimensions that potentially impact children's outcomes, making it difficult to separate play from influencing learning.

For example, play may include particular adult interactions or engage children in specific content. These features of children's play may be responsible for learning gains rather than play itself.

The current research does not make it possible to determine whether the play is crucial to development, whether it is merely one way to promote development alongside others which may work as well or even better, or whether the play is a byproduct of other capacities that are the actual source of children's learning and development, such as social intelligence or language skill. Many studies of the impact of play on learning have methodological weaknesses, and there is a lack of replication of findings between studies with small and relatively homogeneous samples. Some of the research findings directly conflict and lead to opposing practice recommendations.

However, much research concludes that play is a powerful learning model central to children. Play integrates children's experiences, knowledge, and representations to help them create meaning and sense and understand the world.

For example, pretending requires children to think of things that are not present, a skill required in many learning and life situations. The impact of the play is multifaceted, supporting cognitive, emotional, social and physical development, including:

  • Benefits for well-being include higher self-efficacy, higher expectations for success, intrinsic motivation, and positive attitudes towards the early childhood setting or school.
  • Academic/cognitive benefits: play supports exploratory skills and discovery, the use of abstract thought and symbols, communication and oral language skills, verbal intelligence, imagination and creativity, and reading, writing and mathematics. Play also encourages important learning dispositions, engagement and participation and the integration of different cognitive processes. Play develops self-regulatory executive function skills (such as controlling attention, suppressing impulses, flexibly redirecting thought and behaviour, and holding and using the information in working memory), metacognitive skills and problem-solving.
  • Social and emotional benefits include social skills such as making friends, empathy, expressing emotion, and conflict resolution. Play can also build resilience.
  • Physical benefits include developing large and small body muscles and motor skills, while the physicality of play is associated with improved cognitive function, behavioural and cognitive control, and academic achievement.

Is One Kind Of Play Pedagogy More Clearly Linked To Positive Outcomes?

Both free play and more guided and directed approaches foster achievement. In general, research focusing on developmental outcomes finds free play significant, whereas research on academic outcomes finds guided and teacher-directed play more effective.

However, some research comparing play-based approaches finds no significant difference in children's learning through free play, guided play and teacher-directed play.

Free play has been found to support several more general learning outcomes. It supports:

  • socioemotional development, particularly self-regulation and social skills
  • creativity and imagination
  • problem-solving and persistence
  • engagement in literacy activities (where literacy materials are embedded in play scenarios and environments)
  • general cognitive development (through activities such as planning, problem-solving and comprehension)

Free play may be less useful for learning content, developing key concepts, or supporting children to focus on important dimensions of new learning. In addition, free play can vary in quality, lack challenge and limit learning opportunities.

The research suggests that free play, while still important for a range of less measurable outcomes, is best complemented by high quality scaffolded and guided play in which teachers are involved.

Research indicates that guided discovery approaches are more effective than free or unassisted play to support specific learning outcomes. Guided play is found to

  • better support science learning, and language, literacy and mathematics outcomes
  • improve vocabulary and support greater engagement in social interactions
  • foster literacy and mathematics skills and general learning of content
  • support higher levels of creative and flexible exploration and more effective problem-solving
  • improve self-regulation skills such as inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility

Teacher-directed play in the form of carefully designed and challenging activities that include free choice, practical and intrinsically motivating tasks, and peer interactions is consistently associated with positive outcomes. Research reports that teacher-directed play:

  • supports literacy skills, mathematics and general academic learning  
  • improves children's mathematical learning gains (with greater gains for children learning through card and board games than children experiencing more formal training)
  • increases children's affect and engagement through the addition of a play component to learning experiences

Overall, child-centred and playful learning approaches are more likely to foster academic improvements that are sustained than traditional, formal approaches.

Still, some research finds that children are more likely to learn content in teacher-led contexts.

Therefore, it is important to consider the information and skills to be learned when determining the most effective approach for learning through play.

Play Is The Way- Tips And Advice For Those New To Play Pedagogy.


We know that relationships are important, and building good relationships with our young people is vital. So make sure you spend lots of time away from the security of the teaching table and get on the floor with the children, playing and interacting alongside them. Please get to know them, their likes, interests and their personalities.

It can be not easy at first to let go of your planning and plan based on your children's interests, skills and needs. However, through interactions and observations, you will understand your children's stage of development.

Play opportunities allow you to support those still developing early literacy and numeracy skills and also challenge and extend the skills of others.

Plan for opportunities to develop fine and gross motor skills. Set up provocations and areas to promote literacy, maths and numeracy, sing and read stories and rhymes to help develop phonological awareness and foundational literacy skills.

Then, give children time to build on these foundations before launching into a phonics and reading program.

Cpd And Networking

Visit other settings, speak with other teachers and nursery colleagues, attend CPD courses, scroll through Twitter, or create a Pinterest or Instagram page for ideas. There are so many experienced and passionate people out there! Being able to visit other settings, borrow ideas and discuss key issues with other teachers continues to be the most beneficial for me.

It can take a while to shift your pedagogical thinking but remember to have fun, ask questions and take your time building up your environment, including your children, in the planning and development of the space.


Tips For Teaching Your Child Using Play-Based Learning

Eliminate Distractions

Turn off all electronics that could be a potential distraction to your child. It includes the TV, tablets and yes, even your phone. It may seem like a no-brainer, but you want their mind to be able to fully focus on being creative, using their imagination and exploring their environment – not distracted by the colours, movements and sounds coming from a device.

Don't Overschedule

Children need large chunks of free time to play every day. Even infants who may not be mobile yet need the opportunity to explore their world (even if it's just playing with their toes!). We know life can get busy with errands and activities, but there must be enough "down" time where your child is free to play without any set time limit or structure.

Engage, But Follow Their Lead

Some of the greatest learning will come from your interactions with your child as you play together. However, let your child lead the way – it can be tempting to try and control the direction of the play, but letting your child direct allows for greater exploration, self-regulation and causal understanding.

Choose The Right Toys

Not all toys are made equal. However, having toys that occupy your child and turn their play into educational experiences is fundamental to play-based learning.

Repeat, Elaborate And Question

While playing with your child, imitate their sounds or actions to reinforce their vocabulary and cognitive skills. Older children ask open-ended questions based on what they are doing related to words, numbers, colours, shapes, etc.

Encourage, Encourage, Encourage!

While engaged in play, keep up the energy and positivity. Saying things like "nice job, you put all the balls in the seat!" or giving them a hug or high five helps boost their confidence and encourages them to keep playing and learning.

Make It Fun And Creative

Create a fun play space for your kids that offers different areas of learning (this could be an art table, a book nook or a magnetic board) and choose vibrant and multi-functional toys.


Play is an important part of life. It's necessary for developing new skills and keeping our brains healthy. For children, play is essential for learning and growing. In this post, we've looked at the different types of play and how they benefit development. We hope you'll find these insights helpful as you work to create a playful environment for your little ones. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Play Builds Imagination and Creativity. During play, kids stretch their imaginations. 
  • Play Fosters Cognitive Growth. 
  • Play Delivers Emotional and Behavioural Benefits. 
  • Play Improves Literacy. 
  • Play Encourages Greater Independence. 
  • Play Promotes Physical Fitness.

Play is Learning to develop physical skills to use objects, climb, run, dance, and create things. In addition, we develop cognitive skills to figure out how things work, see similarities in objects that we use for pretend problem-solving situations and organise the activity.

Play improves children and young people's cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Through play, children learn about the world and themselves. They also learn skills for study, work and relationships, such as confidence.

Play is integral to the academic environment. It ensures that the school setting attends to children's social and emotional development and cognitive development. Play and unscheduled time that allow for peer interactions are important components of social-emotional learning.

Through the phenomenon of play, children develop and learn as they participate in activities in every classroom area. Play affords children to improve their language, social, physical, maths, science, and thinking skills. In addition, the development and enhancement of these skills promote their self-esteem.

Play is a natural and important part of humans and animals alike. Unfortunately, many people think of play as simply something fun to do, but much more than that. Play is essential for learning and development.

This article will explore what play is and why it's so important for children and adults. We'll also look at some of the benefits of playing regularly. So, if you're looking for ways to boost your productivity or want to have some fun, keep reading!


What Is Play?

Play is multifaceted, complex and dynamic, eluding easy definition. However, it is usually felt to be a universal activity and children are often portrayed as having an inherent desire and capacity to play.

The play has been defined as an activity that is:

  • characterised by engagement and engagement, with high levels of involvement, engrossment and intrinsic motivation
  • imaginative, creative, and non-literal
  • voluntary or freely chosen, personally directed (often child-initiated) and free from externally imposed rules
  • fluid and active but also guided by mental rules and high levels of metacognition and metacommunication (communication about communication), which give it structure
  • process-driven rather than product-driven, with no extrinsic goals

Play can take different forms, with common categories that overlap within a given play episode. These include exploratory play with objects, physical play, pretend, fantasy or dramatic play, games and puzzles and other play involving explicit rules, constructive play (including artistic and musical play), language play (play with words and other features of language such as rhyme) and outdoor play.

Play can also be categorised about the relative amount of power and control afforded to the players:

  • Free or 'pure-play: Children have all the control, and adults are passive observers
  • Guided play: Teacher-child collaboration, with the child's interests foregrounded
  • Playful teaching: The teacher is in charge

These three kinds of play are associated with different outcomes. Therefore, they are relevant to teachers in determining the kinds of play, or combinations of play, to offer within the school and early childhood settings.

What Is Free Play?

Free play is child-initiated and child-directed. Children choose their activities and focus, enabling unconstrained freedom of expression and open-ended interactions with their environment. Play is initiated, sustained and developed by children, free of adult influence. However, it focuses on children's ideas, content, and already familiar and known language. Some researchers question the extent to which free play is truly free, as children's choices about what, how, where and with whom to play may be influenced by the play environment and its associated rules and boundaries (which are controlled by adults), and the choices of others about what to play. Gender, ethnicity, social class and disability may also affect their participation patterns.

What Is Guided Play?

Guided play (also called 'scaffolded play' or 'mutually directed' play) is child-centred and goal-directed. Guided play invites children's active engagement, free exploration and direction of play and has clear learning goals so that play behaviours are limited in useful ways, and distraction is reduced. Children's initiatives, reflections, choices, and creativity are important as a context for teachers to extend children's knowledge, understanding and skills. Teachers can naturally integrate learning outcomes with children's play and new and unfamiliar content and ideas. Teachers are sensitive and responsive to children's interests and interactions while focusing on learning goals through deliberate, purposeful, and intentional teaching strategies. These might include commenting on discoveries, offering feedback, demonstrating the use of equipment, reinforcing specific vocabulary or helping the child explore new strategies for problem-solving within the context of the activities that children are constructing.

Teachers also initiate and co-construct play with children. For example, they might design a learning activity that incorporates a child's specific interest or choose themes and contexts for dramatic play based on children's interests or significant events and links to specific learning objectives. Teachers and children collaboratively design the context of the play, including the theme and its resources, and then children develop their play within the rules and actions of that context.

What Is Teacher-Directed Play?

Teacher-directed play involves teacher-determined activities, outcomes and modes of engagement. Teachers use a playful, engaging manner to develop children's academic skills and knowledge, focusing on playful learning processes, fun and enjoyment, and the use and development of children's creativity to invite children's active engagement. However, unlike free and guided play, teachers retain tight control over what occurs, outlining specific rules of play for children to follow, specifying how children are expected to engage in the activities, and generally structuring activities within a given time frame specific learning outcomes.

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