Play in Early Childhood: The Role of Play in Any Setting

The Importance of Play

Here at The Minster Nursery and Infant School, we believe that children must have adequate access to play opportunities in order to thrive and flourish. In this video, learn more about how play can foster children’s resilience to hardship, and how the complex interactions involved when children play help build their brains.


What is ‘Play’?

‘Play’: Children’s play is any behaviour, activity or process initiated, controlled and structured by children themselves. Play is non-compulsory, driven by intrinsic motivation and undertaken for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. It may take infinite forms but the key characteristics of play are fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility and non-productivity. While play is often considered non-essential, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reaffirms that it is a fundamental and vital dimension of the pleasure of childhood and is an essential component of children’s development.

Play England’s Charter for Children’s Play describes play as: ‘what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons.’


Why Play is so Important

Playing helps to build resilience through developing regulation of emotions, attachment to peers and places, stress response systems, emotional health through pleasure and enjoyment, and physical health. (Play for a Change, Play England)

Research shows that play has many benefits for children, families and the wider community, as well as improving health and quality of life. Recent research suggests that children’s access to good play provision can:

  • Provide an opportunity for children to act/test out and deal with their emotions to develop their self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect
  • improve and maintain their physical and mental health through the stimulation of mind and body
  • allow them to increase their confidence through developing new skills such as making connections, using and applying these in new and familiar scenarios
  • promote their imagination, independence and creativity
  • offer opportunities for children of all abilities and backgrounds to play together to share and build on each other’s ideas collaboratively
  • provide opportunities for developing social communication skills and language, especially for quieter children who can find their voice when following their own interests
  • build resilience and confidence through risk taking and challenge, making connections, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations
  • provide opportunities to learn about their environment and the wider community.

Evidence is also available that outlines wider benefits of play provision for families and communities, suggesting that:

  • parents can feel more secure knowing that their children are happy, safe and enjoying themselves
  • buildings and facilities used by play services are frequently seen as a focal point for communities
  • it offers opportunities for social interaction for the wider community and supports the development of a greater sense of community spirit, promoting social cohesion
  • public outside spaces have an important role in the everyday lives of children and young people, especially as a place for meeting friends
  • parks and other green spaces are popular with adults taking young children out to play and for older children and young people to spend time together.

Play and recreation are essential to children’s health and wellbeing. They promote the development of creativity, imagination, self-confidence, self-efficacy and physical, social, cognitive and emotional strength and skills. They contribute to all aspects of learning. They are also a form of participation in everyday life, and are of intrinsic value to the child, purely in terms of the enjoyment and pleasure they afford.


Children’s right to play is a human right

On 1 February 2013 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted a General Comment that clarifies for governments worldwide the meaning and importance of Article 31 of the Convention on the Right of the Child.

General Comment 17 on Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)

Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recognizes the right of every child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities and free and full participation in cultural and artistic life. However, the Committee on the Rights of the Child is concerned by the poor recognition given by Governments to these rights

Rising urban populations, violence in all its forms, the commercialization of play provision, child labour and increasing educational demands are all affecting children’s opportunity to enjoy their article 31 rights. In general, where investment is made, it is in the provision of structured and organized activities, but equally important is the need to create time and space for children to engage in spontaneous play, recreation and creativity, and to promote societal attitudes that support and encourage such activity. To address these concerns, the Committee has produced a ‘General Comment’ that explains in detail measures governments are urged to take to ensure implementation of the rights in article 31 for all children. The General Comment was adopted by the Committee at its sixty-second session (14 January – 1 February 2013).


Some Barriers to Play

‘To participate freely’: Governments must respect, abstain from interference in, and prevent others from interference in, children’s exercising of article 31 rights.

Children living in poverty: Home environments with little scope for play and recreation, lack of access to facilities, inability to afford the costs of participation, dangerous and neglected neighbourhoods, the necessity to work, and a sense of powerlessness all serve to exclude the poorest children from realizing article 31 rights. Children without parents, or those living or working on the streets are particularly vulnerable.

Staff and parental perceptions of weather can also impact negatively on the availability of outdoor play opportunities. Our experience is that some parents are not happy for their child to be outside in ‘drizzle’ or cold weather.

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!

It is possible that adults’ perception of play is not positive. Play may be seen as an unproductive past-time that does not sit well with the formal government requirements of attainment at different ages.

In our experience, it is not uncommon for parents/carers to complain if children get their clothes messy through play. In fact, some children avoid messy play.


Play for a Change: key messages

Play for a Change has revealed a resonance between the academic research on the benefits of play for children’s health and well-being and the broad aims stated in current policies for children and young people. However, policies and practice do not reflect this resonance because of their instrumental (instrumentalism means only seeing the value of an activity if it ticks boxes and directly contributes to exam results) understanding of play and the nature of childhood. These key messages distil the findings of the review.

  1. The well-being of children in England: A 2007 Unicef report on the well-being of children in 21 of the world’s richest countries ranked the UK bottom. This sends a strong message that we need to think again about children’s experiences of childhood. There are many statistics and many moral panics about the lives of children in England. Policy-makers need to heed the fact that, when children and young people themselves are asked about what is important in their own lives, playing and friends are consistently at the top of the list.
  2. Play, development and well-being: We are now beginning to understand the interrelationship between genes, the brain, the body, behaviour and the physical and social environment. This has enabled a deeper understanding of how play contributes to children’s physical and emotional well-being and to their development. Contrary to the dominant belief that it is a way of learning specific motor, cognitive or social skills, play has an impact on the architectural foundations of development such as gene expression and physical and chemical development of the brain. In turn, these foundations influence the child’s ability to adapt to, survive, thrive in and shape their social and physical environments. Children’s development and well-being cannot be understood as separate from their environment.
  3. Play and resilience: Play can help build resilience – the capacity for children to thrive despite adversity and stress in their lives. Emotions have a key role in playing and play makes a major contribution to developing emotion regulation, building strong attachments and peer friendships, engendering positive feelings, and enabling children to cope with stressful situations through developing creative approaches and problem solving skills.
  4. Play and social policy: The role of play in building children’s resilience and in their health and well-being chimes with the emphasis on building resilience in social policy. The evidence is compelling. However, there is a need to move away from an instrumental view of play that Play for a Change has found in much policy and practice, and towards a recognition that the benefits of play accrue from its characteristics of unpredictability, spontaneity, goallessness and personal control, rather than directly from its content. If policy-makers accept the evidence for the significance of play for children’s well-being and development, then play provision should be judged on whether it enables children to play rather than on more instrumental outcomes. Because of the interrelationship with the environment there is no guarantee that playing will deliver on the five Every Child Matters outcomes; we can, however, be confident that these outcomes are more likely to be realised if children can play.
  5. Time and space for play: The pleasure and enjoyment that children gain from playing leads them to seek out time and space to play. The prevailing understanding of childhood and play has led to an increase in adult control of children’s use of time and space which in turn constrains the ways in which children can exploit the opportunities that local environments offer for playing. Where children can range independently, their environment becomes a field of ‘free action’ in which they can follow their own desires and create situations of wonder and uncertainty (Kytta 2004). An appreciation of the relationship between the nature of play and an environmental field of free action is crucial in designing play friendly neighbourhoods. This calls for partnership and cross-departmental working at local and national level.
  6. The children’s workforce: Evidence from the brain sciences shows that benefits accrue in part from the very characteristics of playing that adults often find uncomfortable and so seek to suppress. This raises questions, for example, about the effectiveness of anti-discriminatory practices, approaches to challenging behaviour, and if, when and how to direct or intervene in play. The evidence from ethnographic studies of children’s play provides an excellent foundation for building an understanding of play through the eyes of children themselves. Given the significance of play in the lives of children, both from their own accounts and from the brain sciences, it would seem that it should, as a minimum, be part of the common core of knowledge that every adult needs when working with children.
  7. Gathering the evidence from practice: The rich source of research about play, drawn from a range of academic disciplines, provides evidence of the need to ensure that children can play. However, this review has shown that there is a dearth of academically rigorous research into how best to make sure that children are able to play, either in the general environment or in children’s spaces. Much of the literature on practice aims to show instrumental (remember, this is about using play to meet adults’ goals and intentions) outcomes for play provision, whether that be motor, cognitive, social or emotional skills, physical activity or crime reduction. There is a need to gather the evidence on what works best in providing for play for its own sake.

Play and the Wider Curriculum

Here, at The Minster Nursery and Infant School, we follow the National Curriculum and seek to ensure that every child acquires the skills and knowledge they need in order to make the most of the learning opportunities ahead of them. We also recognise that, in order to develop the best learning skills possible, our children will need to have had the best opportunities to develop into socially competent, articulate and emotionally intelligent learners who are able to maximise all the opportunities that come their way.

We know that these needs fluctuate between classes and between year groups. Children’s progress in all areas is monitored by teachers, both individually and they reflect on their class’s needs and in teams as we reflect together on the needs across a year group or across the school. We are able to adjust resourcing according to need promptly to maintain the correct balance between the discreet teaching of skills for a specific outcome and the learning that arises organically from play in well thought-out learning environments.

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