The importance of learning through play in the early years

Have you ever sat and thought about how you managed to master a skill? 

Maybe you can juggle or speak the alphabet backwards? Maybe you’re a star baker and can churn out some top-notch fairy cakes at the drop of a hat.

Whatever your skills are, it is likely that you developed their foundations through play in your early years.

Play has been defined by many as a crucial part of human development and even the UN high commission agreed it as a basic right that all children should have access to play!

Play is a universal language, with children seemingly being born to play. Similar behaviours can be seen happening in children across the world and when you see play in action it is easily identifiable. But actually, defining what play is, is a lot trickier!




Play is many things, but there are some defining features of it.

  • It is a joyful experience.
  • It’s freely chosen.
  • It is self-directed. 
  • It is engaging and motivated.
  • It’s spontaneous.
  • It is meaningful.

In this blog, we will be exploring the term ‘Play Based Learning’, which sounds complicated, however, it is simply a child using play as a vehicle to learn. Children will experiment, explore, problem solve and discover through their play and if you observe how they play, you will be able to see and skilfully support them in learning and developing along the way.

At My First Five Years, we are passionate about the power of play and how play can be used to support your child to learn and develop.


Skills children can learn through play

As children play, they are using what they already know to help them to discover things that they don’t. Play gives them opportunities to rehearse, consolidate and extend their learning. 

When children are playing there are a multitude of complex processes that are happening to enable a range of skills to develop. Here are just a few that you might recognise.


Gross Motor Skills – Bodies, arms and legs

Gross Motor Skills are simply physical skills that require whole body movement. They require the large muscles in the body to carry out everyday tasks such as sitting, standing, walking, running, and jumping. Gross Motor Skills build up over time and you can see them develop in young babies as they learn to roll, crawl, and pull themselves to standing. Any sort of play that involves big movements is a great way to promote Gross Motor Development. The outdoors is excellent for promoting this sort of play, as children often need a little bit of space to explore the range of movements they can make.


Fine Motor Skills – Hands and fingers

Fine Motor Skills take a little bit longer to master than Gross motor skills as they require the strength and coordination of the smaller muscles in the body, such as hands, fingers and wrists. Activities that promote this sort of development often require manual dexterity and the development of fine motor skills will eventually support your child on their journey to becoming a writer. Play that supports Fine Motor Skills is usually a little more intricate and starts with babies grabbing and squeezing objects and turns into them developing a more elaborate pincer grasp.


Cognitive Skills – Thinking and processing

Play requires children to think, understand, create, experiment, predict, problem solve, communicate and imagine. All concepts which improve your child’s cognitive skill development.

Playing alongside your child is a quick and simple way to develop their cognitive skills. Through playing together, talking together and thinking together, you are not only giving your child the opportunity to use their cognitive skills, but you are also showing them how you use yours.

Some examples of cognitive play include, beginning to understand concepts such as big and small or more and less, asking questions and predicting outcomes. Toys such as puzzles and sorters can also support cognitive skills.


Speech, Language and Communication Skills – Making sounds and talking

Play is a perfect opportunity for promoting speech as children watch, listen, imitate and explore, which is the perfect recipe for developing language. When playing with a baby we often replicate the simple sounds that they make and this is a great way of supporting their emerging speech, language and communication.

They will soon learn that it is a way to get a response from you, so they will begin to babble more purposefully. As your child gets older and their vocabulary increases, they will begin to replicate the language and behaviours of others through play.

They will learn to express themselves through language and will eventually want to play in a more collaborative way where they will begin to direct their play through their developing speech. The best way you can help develop speech through play, is to spend time engaging in their play and role model language to them.


Social and Emotional Skills – Understanding feelings

Play is a brilliant way to develop social and emotional skills. Children learn by watching others, listening to what is going on and sharing experiences through play. By doing this it allows them time to express themselves, explore their feelings and ideas and understand social norms.

It will also give your child time to experience new feelings such as frustration, anticipation, trust, joy and many more. Play allows your child the time and space to learn skills such as self-discipline , cooperation and the ability to form positive relationships with adults and children. Play that supports the development of these skills can include role play, games and books.

Spending time playing with your child will also help them to learn social and emotional skills as you model to them how to take turns, practice patience and encourage them to try new experiences.


Sensory Development – Senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell)

Children acquire new skills through their senses. It is our senses that allow us to understand the world around us. All types of sensory play are really important to support our brain's development and using the senses can develop healthy neurological connections in the brain and enhance functions such as memory.

Sensory play encourages your child to explore all the other areas of learning we have already discussed, with the added benefit of being very calming and therapeutic for most children. Sensory play can include anything that stimulates the five senses.

For example; Touch could be making mud pies, smell could be using herbs and water as paint, sight could be making patterns out of leaves, hearing could be moving your body to music and taste could be trying some new and unusual fruits and veg.

There are also two other lesser-known senses:

  1. The proprioceptive system
  2. The vestibular system

The vestibular system is known as our balance centre and it is able to receive information about our body's movements. The development of this system is a lot to do with the development of our inner ear and therefore can be stimulated by changes in the position of our head. It is responsible for our balance, posture and movement sensations.

The proprioceptive system is very closely linked and is responsible for sending information to our brain about the position our body is in within the environment. This includes telling us how far away we are from objects, what direction we are facing and it also tells us how much effort is being used to move our body. It allows us to navigate spaces efficiently and also helps us to skilfully manipulate objects.

Just like the other senses, children need to develop each of them to master physical skills. Activities you can do to support the development of the vestibular and proprioceptive system include anything that requires movement and navigation such as outdoor play areas.


Different Environments

Play can happen anywhere and everywhere! It does not have to be in a room full of toys or during ‘playtime’. Play can occur at home, whilst out and about, having lunch, at the supermarket or even in the bath.

Different environments provide children with different opportunities to learn and develop and time spent in these different environments gives your child new and different curiosities to explore.


Indoor play

Indoor play provides children with the safe and familiar and offers them the opportunity to perfect a range of skills. Research suggests that indoors children tend to be better able to explore new skills and concentrate for longer periods in spaces that are quiet and calming. 

The indoor environment allows the child to practise skills associated with arts and crafts, puzzles, stories, games such as creativity and critical thinking.


Outdoor play

The outdoors offers children a completely different and unique experience to being indoors. The outdoor world is open and has an ever-changing landscape with differing weathers and temperatures also altering its state.

Children also benefit physically from being exposed to the sun and fresh air as it contributes to overall physical development, improved immune system and both stronger bones and muscles. It also stimulates all of the senses with new sights, sounds and smells. Some children need more encouragement than others to spend time outdoors, but with the right clothing, children often find it much more accessible.

Then there are more formal childcare and learning spaces that can provide children with a new, social and varied environment.


Nursery/Other Childcare provision

Nurseries, Childminders and preschools operate in the UK by adhering to the curriculum and guidance of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

This curriculum acknowledges that learning and development should be underpinned by play. Childcare provision is required to have both indoor and outdoor spaces, but spaces do vary from setting to setting. Children who attend these settings will have access to different areas of provision and resources, both indoor and outdoor where children may be allowed to choose what they engage in throughout the day, this is often alongside structured play opportunities provided by adults.

Some of the benefits of play within these settings include access to a wide and varied range of resources and having the time and space to choose how and where they want to play. Children also benefit from spending time with other children and can learn many of the areas of learning from each other during free play.

Playgroups and baby groups are also a great way to spend time with other children and learn the social elements of play. It is always worth getting an idea of the differences in childcare provision by going to visit several in your local area.

  • Play in School

School, just like other childcare provision, must adhere to the EYFS until they reach the age of five. School provision in the Early Years, is much like that of a nursery. But you may find that it has more of a school like feel to it, with more of a structured routine throughout the day.

You may find that there is less ‘freestyle’ play and more structured adult led play opportunities. The benefit of this is that children will be more prepared about what it will be like when they start year one.

However, best practice in the foundation stage is spending lots of time playing and exploring, with many schools adopting a more play-based approach in the foundation stage. Just like any other childcare provision, it is always worth going to have a look to get a feel for what it is like.


Play at different stages:

Below we will explore what play looks like during different stages of your child’s first five years.


Play-based learning advice for young babies

These early days of play are mostly about bonding with your little one and not necessarily about lots of toys. In fact, singing, playing peek-a-boo and reading to your baby are brilliant ways to play with your newborn.

These opportunities allow your child to begin to understand relationships, bonding, attachment and speech and language. You can also support your baby’s curiosity to hold and grab with wooden objects like spoons or teething rings. By engaging in these early play experiences, they will begin to associate play with love and fun.


Play-based learning advice for older babies

As your child becomes more curious and aware, they will begin to be more engaged and interactive in play type behaviours. They will start to focus on perfecting those gross motor skills by rolling, crawling, sitting, pulling themselves up and maybe even taking steps. Because of this concentration on gross motor skills, they will use their whole bodies to interact and make sense of the world.

They will also involve all of their senses in this exploration, often exploring new objects with their mouths and enjoying sensory experiences that involve hearing and seeing new things.


Play-based learning advice for toddlers

You may notice that whilst your child continues to enjoy all of the above experiences, they will begin to play in a more intricate way and will begin to spend more time engrossed in their play.

Their curiosity and need to explore will continue to be at an all time high and you will probably notice your toddler spending more time playing with a box a new toy came in, over the new toy. Whilst this is frustrating as a parent, boxes are a brilliant way to build children’s creativity and imagination.

You may also notice that children immerse themselves in play and will do activities over and over. This might seem to us that they are not getting anywhere and there is no outcome to their play.

An example of this might be; you want your child to make a castle out of bricks. But instead, they make a tower and proceed to knock it down over and over again. Whilst this might seem frustrating to us, it is an important process in play called schematic play. This is where children learn by repeating an action, idea or concept and it actually helps children to consolidate their learning.

So try not to get too hung up on the outcome of their play, but instead celebrate the processes they go through whilst engaging in play. As they progress, they will begin to bring more language to their play and may even begin exercising those more refined gross motor skills by running, jumping and climbing.

You might find that your child loves being outside at this age as it gives them the perfect opportunity to practise all of these emerging skills. Children at this age will begin to take part in more risky play behaviours whilst they explore boundaries and the limitations of their movements.

It is important with risky play to allow them some space to take risks in a safe way, as it gives them the opportunity to think creatively, critically and problem solve.


Play-based learning advice for preschoolers

Children will continue to take part in all the play we have already discussed. But they will also be beginning to immerse themselves more deeply in play, practising more difficult concepts.

For example, they might begin to explore more scientific and mathematical concepts during their play and their imagination will begin to shine through. You may also notice that your child might like to take part in rough and tumble type play. This will allow them to understand more about their physical body, their strength, develop resilience, confidence and understand social conduct.

Children at this age will begin to be able to do more difficult puzzles and understand instructions for taking part in games. You may also notice that at times they would rather play on their own or with children their own age.


Concluding thoughts

Play is an amazing way for your child to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Children are all on completely different paths and their journey of learning and developing is completely unique to them.

By watching your child play, you will be able to understand more about how wonderfully one of a kind they are and appreciate just how amazing it is to be discovering things for the first time.

Therefore, we think play-based learning is the most appropriate way for little people to develop within our six streams of learning.