The power of learning through play

I’m Cath, one of the My First Five Years content team. Before joining My First Five Years I taught under-fives for 25 years, so my working life has been filled with play. At My First Five Years, we are all about information for parents supported by research, so what does the research tell us about playing with our children? 

I think the first thing to say is that defining play is not simple. A quick Google search for ‘what is play?’ makes this clear. You will find various definitions describing play as children’s work, research, or breaking play down into multiple categories.  


Not all researchers think imaginary play is essential 

If, when you hear the word play, you suddenly fear having to dress up or crawl around the floor pretending to be a dog, then you might be relieved to read this blog post - How to play with your child without having to dress up as a princess. Personally, I have been happy to put on a cloak and be a superhero and have drunk thousands of imaginary cups of tea over the years, but I do draw the line at a princess dress.  

We may assume that our children will get involved in pretend play and there is research suggesting pretend play supports the development of executive function skills.[1] However, some researchers point out that pretend play is less common in some cultures, where children may be more likely to use real objects and be part of adults’ activities, rather than pretending.[2]  

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Doctor and educator Maria Montessori is well known for developing an approach to early years education and childcare based on real experiences. Montessori argued that rather than having toys, children should have smaller versions of real objects. These objects are functional and can be used for their intended purpose. This view suggests childhood as an apprenticeship, so your child’s playful activities can be linked to real tasks.  

What are some simple tips for playing with your child?  

Let them choose and follow their lead 

As a parent you can sometimes feel that you must have all the ideas, but one of the brilliant things about play is that it gives your child the chance to explore and develop their own ideas. As our founder Jennie says, “The less we do, the more they learn.” 

Make comments, and ask questions if you want to know the answer 

It can be tempting to think our role is to check our child’s understanding and give information all the time. However, making comments and asking an occasional question when you are really interested in the answer supports your child to think about what they are doing. Comments can be a fantastic way to add some information, and remember, being quiet is fine too. 

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Involve your child in real-life  

Remember that being with you and being involved in the things you need to do can be brilliant for your child’s learning and enjoyable for them too. What feels like work to you might feel like play to them. You can read more about learning through everyday activities in our blog, Learning from the everyday – five examples of development that can happen within your daily routine.

Notice and respond to your child  

Your child is unique, sometimes they will want you to be involved in their play and sometimes they might want time to explore by themselves. You know them best, so think about whether they are trying to involve you in their play and respond to them accordingly, but also notice if they show you that they are ready to explore by themselves.  

Download our app for ideas that will help you to support your child’s learning and development through everyday activities and play. 

We are so passionate about play at My First Five Years that our founders recently did a whole Instagram Live on this very topic. Here, you’ll get a greater insight into the power of play and more ideas on how you can incorporate play into your everyday lives: