How can be play be so powerful in the classroom?

‘Just played.’ The answer often given by a 4 year old to the question ‘What have you done at school today?’ – and one which delights the practitioner.  

Play is at the heart of an Early Years education.  In the DFE document, The Statutory Framework for Early Years Foundation Stage, it outlines the necessity for Play: ‘Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, relate to others, set their own goals and solve problems. Children learn by leading their own play, and by taking part in play which is guided by adults.’  The way an adult perceives the children’s responses to a play task will often result in the youngsters developing a completely different set of ideas, rules and role play.  

So what is play in Early Years like?

There are many theorists, namely Vygotsky or Piaget with their own thoughts of what play is, but observing it first hand realises how much can be gained and learnt through these experiences. For many youngsters play is natural, relaxed and impulsive – but for those who struggle, adults can play a pivotal role in guiding them, providing them with time and space to enable their play.

Play stimulates a huge range of responses from the individual; creative, physical, mathematical, linguistic – the list is endless. 

During water play in my classroom, the pupils began by filling up lots of containers; jugs, bottles and spoons which led to them to use language about capacity. As the play developed they noticed that the jewels at the bottom of the tray were all different shapes and colours. We searched for circular, diamond, oval, heart, and rectangular ones. A comment was made about the jewel being the same colour as her mummy wore, which further developed the play by finding out about the names of precious stones and wanting to make their own jewellery pieces.  

Playing outdoors is good for mental health. It also gives children the opportunity to learn about our natural world, weather, and appreciate the environment we live in, all whilst finding new species of creature and examine habitats. One afternoon, the children went outside to find a selection of resources including planks of wood,  tubes, off cuts of wood, piping, bricks.  Nothing was explained by the adults about what they were or how they got there.  First it was used to create an obstacle course involving balancing, risk taking and physical skills.  Later on in the week, the resources had been turned into a range of houses, back gardens, hot tubs and roads –  all drawing on the experiences and understanding the pupils already had.  The level of motivation was high and everyone concentrated on the role they were contributing to the task. 

Group play offers children the chance to turn take, cooperate, negotiate, take on board each other’s ideas and suggest new ones – all developing their social interaction with others.  They can learn from each other by watching and copying, and the adult can develop questions to encourage them to think deeper about what they are investigating. We all want our children to be able to construct clear and accurate sentences, use a wide variety of vocabulary and to construct their own reasons for things.  

Often play begins as a solitary activity, with very young children opting to explore and find out things by themselves.  As they become more confident, they begin to observe others in their play and begin to work alongside them. By the end of Reception and into Key Stage 1, role play activities are heavily based on discussion amongst the children, applying new vocabulary they have learnt and asking and answering questions of one another in order to keep the play developing.  

The connection between play and learning provides an opportunity to challenge them in their thoughts and inquisitive nature and helps in developing confidence and natural leadership, giving the child a sense of belonging and a feeling of being valued.  Their involvement in chosen tasks demonstrates their continued involvement, a persistence to have a go and heightened motivation and concentration. 

So when a little one comes home and says ‘I just played’’………


DFE –  Statutory Framework for Early Years Education
Alastair Bryce-Clegg –  365 days of play.

Mrs Farrar
Class Teacher Reception