Many parents, especially new parents, worry that they are not “doing enough” to facilitate their children’s educational development in the pre-school and nursery years. This is to some extent just part of the worry that engulfs new parents anyway – it is a time full of high emotions, after all. Looking at the UK government’s own guidance for early years education, it could easily pile on the pressure, unless you are one of the few people who find civil service documents a relaxing read. Fearful mums and dads should relax, though. Proper scrutiny of the guidance reveals that it’s all about playtime.
The government has made a commitment to put learning through play at the centre of its Early Years Foundation (ELF) principles, following advice and research from educationalists and other experts.
The principles acknowledge that babies and young children are natural learners, instinctively seeking out and soaking up knowledge about the exciting new world around them. Their interactions with their parents, other adults and other children help them to develop socially and mentally – and play is a vital part of this process.
This is hardly a revelation to parents, of course. There is nothing more natural than playing with your child; the urge to do so is very strong and leads to an immense feeling of fulfillment. Some may feel that the government is running to catch up with what every parent already knows. But it is useful to have play principles enshrined in official educational guidelines – many parents and nursery workers are unsure exactly how to facilitate the best possible play.
For example, although it is generally agreed that free or unstructured play is one of the best ways to stimulate a child’s imagination and social skills, many people are unsure of exactly what this means. They are also worried that they may be participating either too little, or too often. Parenthood can often mean a world of worry, but there is some relief to be had…
The ELF guidelines detail the key ways in which young children learn, and top of the list is “playing.” So far, so unremarkable. But interestingly, when you look at the next 10 points, there is nothing that could not be said to be part of play. “Playing” is at the top of the list for a reason – it incorporates every other aspect of learning for young children. Nursery age children are the luckiest people on earth; all play and no work forms the basis of their whole life!
According to ELF, play is “an important centre of learning for young children” because it “allows children to find out about things, try out and practise ideas and skills, take risks, explore their feelings, learn from mistakes, be in control and think imaginatively.” The guidelines go on to cite “being with other people” as a key part of child learning, which includes social play with other children and activities undertaken with adult supervision. They promote the importance of “being active” – a key part of play for young children. Indeed many parents would like to know exactly how one is supposed to stop their offspring from being active, considering their incredible reserves of energy!
The guidelines state that early years education should involve “exploring new things and experiences” – an inevitable part of play, especially when play involves role-play and traditional toys such as arts and crafts, building blocks and climbing frames. Such “hands-on activities” help children to absorb new information about the world and process this information themselves, helping their brains develop – along with their understanding of their environment.
The importance of role-play in children’s play activities is further emphasised with the ELF guidelines’ reference to “talking to themselves” – they note that “children use out-loud thinking to clarify their thoughts, regulate their activities, take on imaginative roles and rehearse their skills.” All of these can take the form of games involving dressing up and role-play; whether that be cowboys and Indians, pirates or any other option. But it is also through talking to others – parents, teachers or play supervisors – that ideas and understanding develops.
The guidelines point out that children have an innate desire to share their ideas and experiences even before they are capable of speech, initially using sounds, gestures and other forms of body language. Once they can talk, they will be forever communicating their experiences and their thoughts about them – it is through conversations with others that these thoughts develop. Play involving characters and scenarios is an incredibly rich source of this kind of interaction – and the ELF principles go on to stress that role-play through dressing up is just one form that such play can take – traditional toys such as model farms, castles and dolls houses also create a fascinating new world for children to control.
Puzzles and constructional games are another area in which traditional toys have been strong, and this meets another of the guidelines – the arena of “meeting physical and mental challenges.” Building blocks and simple model kits allow children to develop problem-solving skills and teach them to persevere. The reward comes when, through their own efforts, they can enjoy the finished product.
The final, and perhaps the strongest, endorsement of play as the central area of early years learning comes at the end of the ELF guidelines, where it baldly states that above all, it is important for youngsters to have fun.
“There is no place for dull, repetitive activities,” the guidelines insist. “Laughter, fun, and enjoyment, sometimes being whimsical and nonsensical, are the best contexts for learning” – good news for children and parents alike!
The ELF guidelines may look intimidating with their sheer volume, but parents anxious to do the best for their children should not fear. As we can see, the guidelines are not some terrifyingly prescriptive set of rules to be memorized and obeyed – but rather some common sense descriptions of activities and experiences that all occur naturally within traditional forms of play. What is required of parents is not fearful adherence, but the facilitation of play – and parents have a natural desire to ensure that their children have a safe play environment and a range of stimulating toys anyway.