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Importance of Play

The Importance of Play

Play has a vital role in children's education. It is often dismissed as frivolous fun and parents are keen to see 'education' rather than 'play' at nursery. In practice, however, the two are interlinked:

  • Role play, for example, encourages a child's imagination to grow and blossom. Through imaginative play simple everyday objects can become the most exciting toys
  • It can boost creativity, helping children to socialise and make friendships
  • It helps to build social skills, teaching children about sharing, turn taking and being patient. It helps them to understand the people around them and to integrate them into society
  • Outdoor play can build physical skills, helping children to learn to run, jump and climb safely, boosting their fitness and helping to develop their fine motor skills
  • Helps to develop an understanding of their environment and surroundings, the difference between inside and outside, natural and man made environments
  • It can encourage them to think for themselves, interpret situations and make decisions
  • Most importantly of all, it provides a space for children to have fun!
The warm, caring relationships that are fostered in nursery settings provide a secure base for a child's future development. Practitioners are trained to help children to become 'school ready' and ease the transition into school. However, early years education is not about formal schooling; it is a distinct and separate phase which is guided by the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum. (Adams et al, 2004, p.12).

On a trail

The Benefits of Free Play

'Free Play' is described by Play England (Executive Summary p.xi) as:

“… children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it and when to stop and try something else. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult imposed curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved, the child takes the lead and the adults respond to cues from the child.”

Free play in early childhood is an essential part of a child's development and learning, helping them to gain social, conceptual and creative skills, as well as increasing their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. The benefits are widely considered to continue into later life, contributing to increased social responsibility and the ability to make a contribution through employment.

Learning about snails

Although child-led, adults play a crucial role in providing suitable environments and a range of familiar/new/man-made/natural materials to support children's exploration in play. They can also support learning through play, whether acting as a non-participant, a play partner or a 'talk partner'. Knowing when to stand back is an important skill, to enable children to solve problems creatively, negotiate solutions to social conflict and to learn by making mistakes. Observation also plays a key role in providing important information about:

  • Children’s interests, helping to choose the best resources to support and extend children’s play
  • What children do in their play
  • How long they persist in play
  • The patterns that emerge in their play
  • Partners who share their play
  • The child’s affective disposition and social and linguistic skills
Playing with play dough

Benefits of Free Play

When children have time to play, their play grows in complexity. They naturally begin to:

  • Explore materials, discover their properties and use their knowledge of materials to play imaginatively
  • Express their emotions and reveal their inner feelings, come to terms with traumatic experiences, maintain emotional balance, physical and mental health and well being, struggle with issues such as birth and death, good and evil, power and powerlessness
  • Develop a sense of who they are, their value and that of others
  • Learn social skills of sharing, turn taking and negotiation, deal with conflict
  • Learn to negotiate and solve problems, moving from support to independence
  • Develop communication and language skills
  • Repeat patterns that reflect their prevailing interests and concerns
  • Use symbols as forms of representation – the use of symbols is crucial in the development from learning through the senses to the development of abstract thought
  • Practise, develop and master skills across all aspects of development and learning
  • Become actively engaged in their own learning.
  • (Play England)

Setting up camp outdoors

Outdoor Play

Children today have fewer opportunities for outdoor play than their predecessors. In play children seek out risks and through these they develop their self esteem and confidence. They need physically challenging experiences, but opportunities are often reduced by adult caution and fear.

Playing with skittles

What is Free Flow Play

Free flow play allows children to move freely between different environments, giving them greater independence. The play environment is indirectly structured, with materials and resources laid out to be inviting and accessible, and provide opportunities for direct teaching and encouragement.

Children are able to learn through first hand experiences and progress or develop at their own pace. They may choose to spend the morning outside participating in stimulating activities, creating their own imaginative play environments or sitting at a table modelling play dough. Free flow play caters for all learning styles.

All our nursery settings are in ground floor locations, offering children richer learning and development opportunities. The benefits of outdoor play are widely recognised and children who prefer to be outside have the freedom to run around and expel energy. Weather is no longer seen as a limiting factor, but rather an opportunity for more learning opportunities.

Warm weather provides an opportunity to introduce 'safety in the sun', teaching about shade, hats and sun cream. Cold or wet weather provides an opportunity to introduce the concept of dressing warmly and using waterproof clothing, teaching them how to put on their hats and coats, helping to develop fine motor skills. Playing in the rain, snow, wind and sun all provide invaluable opportunities for learning about weather and the changing seasons.

Putting on waterproof clothing


The Early Years Foundation Stage. Effective Practice: Play and Exploration (2007).
Accessed 24 October 2017.

Early Learning HQ. The Importance of Free-Flow Play.
Accessed 24 October 2017.

Early Years Careers. The Benefits of Free Flow Play. Why free flow helps children’s development. (8 January 2016).
Accessed 24 October 2017.

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