The power of play in the early years

Why do we base our learning on play in the Early Years Foundations Stage (EYFS- Nursery and Reception class) and how does this lead to a solid foundation for learning?

The Early Years curriculum as set out by the UK government’s Development Matters document is centred on play. Children aged from birth to 5 are included in this curriculum guidance and the main emphasis is on teachers providing opportunities for play and observing and assessing what the children are learning from this. 

As an Early Years educator my main role is to facilitate learning in all areas of the curriculum, providing opportunities for children to learn about themselves, the world around them, Literacy, Maths, Communication and Language and Physical Development; all through the medium of play. But how does playing allow children to develop in all of these areas and build a solid foundation for learning in the future?

As Maria Montessori says “Play is the work of the child” and what children are doing in play is reflecting their experiences in the real world and making sense of the world around them. They are able to try new experiences and build confidence in themselves and their abilities before trying new and more challenging experiences. Play is a safe place to develop feelings and express emotions. In play children can understand how to interact with others, how to solve problems and resolve conflicts. The role of the early years teacher is to enable the children to play, to give them the resources, space and freedom to be creative and to be there to help and encourage as needed.

Teachers need to recognise and harness the power of play and use play based learning in the Early Years as the foundation on which we build all future learning. By focusing on both what the children know and what they need to know we can provide opportunities for play which are safe and challenging, helping develop complex skills such as problem solving, self confidence, how to use tools correctly and safely and how to interact with others.

Play is both easy and simple and complex and challenging. In the nursery classroom we build in opportunities to explore new materials, textures, sensory experiences and physical challenges. Moreover, we allow children to make choices, have consistency and routine and the reassurance that we are always there for them.

When teachers role-play with children we have the opportunity to model positive behaviours.  Through the character or other person playing, children can observe how they might deal with a particular problem. This also provides us as teachers with an opportunity to demonstrate values, such as kindness, sharing and respect, which can be expressed through each character we play.

Planning for Play.

power play
Development Matters – formative assessment model.

When we plan for play in the EYFS we start with the child. Every child is unique and on their own journey. We can look at what the child is interested in, what they are good at and where they need to develop their abilities. With these things in mind we can provide play opportunities that are interesting and engaging for the child and which lead to fun and meaningful play which develops skills that they need.

Play allows for hands on experiences, which we know leads to more meaningful learning. For instance, children playing with sand are exploring their sense of touch and exploring the differences in texture and strength between a dry and wet material. They are building more than castles, they are building their muscles by digging and carrying. Their play builds friendships, communication skills, creativity and their imaginations. 

At the British College of Gavá the Early Years team work hard to develop activities and opportunities which allow the children to play and learn. We put play at the centre of our planning and have amazing spaces for the children to use and explore in their play. 

Play builds skills in every area from self confidence to physics and allows children to understand concepts and emotions which are often hard to explain, especially when children are learning in a school setting where the language of instruction may not be their native language.

Children become problem solvers, communicators, explorers and inquirers through playing. In the Early Years we have the unique ability to encourage and help our children develop at this crucial stage and learning through play is our foundation to do this . 

“Children learn as they play. More importantly they learn how to learn”

O. Fred Donaldson

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