WHY PLAY IS SO IMPORTANT IN THE EARLY YEARS

Play is crucial to a child’s healthy development, it’s how they learn best, and how they work out who they are, how the world works and where they fit into it.

Play is crucial to a child’s healthy development. According to raisingchildren.net.au, “Play is more than just fun for babies and children. It’s how they learn best, and how they work out who they are, how the world works and where they fit into it.” Much of the literature in this area describes the importance of play as essential for a child’s brain development.

Play helps a child:

  • build confidence
  • feel loved, happy and safe
  • develop social skills, language and communication
  • learn about caring for others and the environment
  • develop physical skills.

According to Early Childhood Australia, “While there is no one definition of play, there are a number of agreed characteristics that describe play. Play can be described as:

  • pleasurable-play is an enjoyable and pleasurable activity. Play sometimes includes frustrations, challenges and fears; however enjoyment is a key feature
  • symbolic-play is often pretend, it has a ‘what if?’ quality. The play has meaning to the player that is often not evident to the educator
  • active-play requires action, either physical, verbal or mental engagement with materials, people, ideas or the environment
  • voluntary-play is freely chosen. However, players can also be invited or prompted to play
  • process oriented-play is a means unto itself and players may not have an end or goal in sight
  • self motivating-play is considered its own reward to the player (Shipley, 2008).”

Play-based learning is described in the National Curriculum Early Years Learning Framework as ‘a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they actively engage with people, objects and representations’ (EYLF, 2009, p. 46).

A preschool based on a Reggio Emilia philosophy values the importance of play in the early years. 

Brain development

It is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain. We know that secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways. 

Young children’s play allows them to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks and create meaning. The intellectual and cognitive benefits of playing have been well documented. Children who engage in quality play experiences are more likely to have well-developed memory skills, language development, and are able to regulate their behaviour, leading to enhanced school adjustment and academic learning (Bodrova & Leong, 2005).

Fostering play-based programs

Physically active play allows children to test and develop all types of motor skills. It promotes significant health and wellbeing benefits. 

One of the greatest benefits of playing is to assist with the development of social competence. Children can build relationships, learn to resolve conflicts, negotiate and regulate their behaviours. In play, children usually have increased feelings of success and optimism as they act as their own agents and make their own choices. Playing is a known stress release; it is often linked to child wellbeing.

Playing is linked to the development of resilience and the beginnings of empathy as children begin to understand other points of view. 

References

Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2005). Uniquely preschool: What research tells us about the ways young children learn. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 44-47.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, being & becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.