In this ‘our view’, Pre-Prep and Prep School teacher Shelley Allen explains the importance of play for all-round development in the Early Years Foundation Stage.
When you enter an Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) classroom, either in the nursery or our reception classroom in the Prep School, you might look around and see that children are ‘just’ playing. But what is really happening here? Why is play such a crucial part of the day for these young people who are only at the beginning of their learning journey?
Beyond its entertainment value, play serves as a versatile tool that fosters cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development in learners of all ages, not just those in early years.
Play engages the brain in ways that traditional teaching methods may not. It stimulates creativity, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking. When children engage in imaginative play, they create scenarios, characters, and narratives, which require them to think abstractly, plan, and make decisions. In our classroom this might take the form of using figures from the small world to tell a story, creating a rescue mission for superheroes, or making a character or puppet on the creative table.
Play is a social activity that encourages interaction, cooperation, and the development of interpersonal skills. Through play, children learn to share, negotiate, and communicate effectively with others. Games and group activities create opportunities for teamwork and collaboration, teaching valuable lessons about compromise and conflict resolution. They discuss and organise turn taking in role play, decide together who will put the next brick on the tower or the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle.
Play provides a safe space for emotional expression and regulation. Children, in particular, use play as a means of exploring and understanding their emotions. Whether engaging in pretend play, storytelling, or board games, they learn to recognise and navigate feelings such as joy, frustration, and empathy. They also build resilience, a key factor in positive mental health later in life. They learn that if the domino tower topples, they can try again.
Physical play, including activities like running, jumping, and climbing, contributes to the development of motor skills and coordination. This physical play not only impacts on physical health but on attention and concentration. You may see us having ‘movement breaks’ throughout the day where we can be found dancing around the room, this also aids in gross motor control, essential in developing stability for writing. Another firm favourite is our daily ‘dough disco.’ To an outsider it may look like we ‘just’ are dancing and playing with modelling dough at the same time. In fact, we are building hand strength and motor control in preparation for writing and learning to follow and imitate sequences.
Cultivating a Lifelong Love for Learning
When learning is presented in the context of play, it becomes a joyful and intrinsically motivated activity. Playful learning experiences create positive associations with education, fostering a love for learning that extends beyond the classroom. Whether it is through games, role play or construction, incorporating play into the learning process makes education an active and enjoyable journey.
From early childhood through adulthood, play serves as a powerful tool for whole person development and it is important that we embrace this. Educators and parents alike should embrace the idea that play is not a distraction from serious learning but an integral part of it. By harnessing the natural desire to play, we can unlock the full potential of learners and create environments that nurture creativity, resilience, and lifelong curiosity and development.