PLAY – that four letter word!

Playing with Kitcamp

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

Fred Rogers.

Picture the scene, the Headteacher walks in and sees busy-ness and ‘fun’ taking place in the classroom, children engaged, talking with each other, laughing or negotiating over an activity and the comment comes “this looks like fun, so good to have a play after the serious business of learning…” Or the light-hearted comment, “it wasn’t like this in my day when we did proper learning!” Or the throwaway observation, “Year 2, that’s when the real learning begins,” implying that what goes before is frivolous and unimportant.

Inside I am screaming, “Aargh, noooo! Don’t you see how engaged they are, how they are curious, exploring, interacting, enjoying, delighting? This engagement is not a fluke, this works!” Instead, I brush off the remark with a calm reply, “this is how we learn here, play IS learning!” But why is play treated as an ‘add-on’, respite, a luxurious extra, a frivolous pastime?

Why is play in children’s lives declining? 

Outdoor play and PE have been squeezed as schools feel the pressure of ‘increasing standards’, curriculum cram and performance data, resulting in more instructional learning and more time spent in school. This, exacerbated by the perception, real or otherwise, of society and our streets being dangerous due to increasing traffic, stranger-danger and bullies, means that children’s opportunities for ‘free’ and boundless play are declining.  As a teacher, I have assumed that play happens at home too, but this is not always so, busy lives, urban living, parents’ jobs, activities, and general busy-ness, all contribute to fewer play opportunities, and so the need for play experiences at school is even more pertinent. 

Defining Play.

To define play may help readjust the value placed on it. Dr. David Whitbread of PEDAL (Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning) says “understanding what play is helps us to understand why learning happens.” Play is so much more than rampaging around a playground or being outdoors. If we define play as a state of mind rather than an activity or behaviour, its worth shines through. Bruner (in Moyles, 1989) clarifies, “The main characteristic of play – child or adult – is not its content, but its mode. Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.” To enter into this state of being, or flow, play needs to have these key elements (Bruce, 2005):  it needs to be active, done for its own sake (intrinsically motivated), open-ended, sustained and spontaneous, first-hand, and freely chosen (in the control of the player)1.  Play characterised by these features leads to children becoming learners, a process that incorporates curiosity, enthusiasm, mental skills and a positive disposition towards learning (Whitebread, 2012).   

Play acts as a “means for children to develop intrinsic interests and competencies, learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control, and follow rules, learn to regulate emotions, make friends and belong with others, as equals, and experience joy.”

Peter Gray, Free to Learn, 2013 

Here are some ideas and research-based findings that reinforce the importance of play.  

  1. Play is vital for healthy cognitive development.  Play, with its repeated sequences of actions, strengthens the connections between neurons in the brain and prunes those connections not used; it is the means by which our brains become more refined (Shonkoff and Phillips, 2000). Looking at individual life histories, Panksepp (Eberle, 2017) observed that optimal cognitive development depends on healthy play experiences in early life. In the words of psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown (2008), “Nothing lights up the brain like play.”
  2. We are designed to play.  Play is the means by which we engage, explore and make sense of the world.  Through play we touch objects, explore and experiment, become intrigued and inspired; we play to discover, and objects trigger our imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive and emotional abilities (Gauntlett et al, 2010). Across species, as animals become more complex, their brains become larger, the time young are cared for by their parents lengthens reflecting increased learning, which is paralleled by increasing playfulness (Bruner, 1972). Further, the nature of learning develops: more complex brains correlate with greater tool use, problem-solving abilities and representational abilities (supporting language and thought). Bruner argues that (children’s) play develops the flexibility of thought to try out different ways of looking at the world, alternative ways to deal with problems and different ways of thinking with no consequences. Pellegrini (2009) suggests that play contexts, in contrast to work, free us to concentrate on the ‘means’ rather than the ‘ends’, to try out behaviours, exaggerate, modify and change sequences over and over again in order to develop our problem-solving abilities.
  3. Play develops social skills.  Play experiences increase social bonds and nourish social learning (Panksepp, 2010). The psychologist Scott Eberle describes the act of play as “tuning our bodily instrument”, play is how we come “to know the world and ourselves better and begin to know and trust playmates and teammates too,” (Eberle, 2017).  
  4. Play develops language and communication skills.  When children play they talk!  Play situations create contexts for language and emotional development while learning to become members of a particular society (Corsaro, 2003).
  5. The absence of play has a profound effect.  In his book Play, Dr. Stuart Brown compares play to oxygen, “… it’s all around us but goes mostly unnoticed and unappreciated until it is missing.” Penksepp’s studies (2010) of animal behaviour found that rats, following a period of ‘isolation’, played with other rats with increased vigour.  Similarly, rats deprived of nurture and playful experiences in their infancy failed to thrive as adults, unable to recognise signals of threat and behaving awkwardly or failing to attract a mate. Based on play histories from 6,000 adults from all walks of life, Brown (2011) found that lack of play was just as important as other factors in predicting criminal behaviour among murderers. Interestingly, a decrease in free play corresponds to increases in mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness and narcissism in young people (Gray, 2013). It follows that a decline in play is a slippery slope to children being ill-prepared for the adult world.   
  6. Play works. Longitudinal studies provide evidence of long-term outcomes for play-based learning. For example, Marcon (2002, in Whitebread 2015) demonstrated that after 6 years of schooling, children who followed an ‘academic’ pre-school model scored significantly lower marks compared with those who attended ‘play-based’ pre-schools. 
  7. Lifelong play! All the positive effects of play for children relate to adults. A whole body of evidence shows that play is a fundamental human characteristic which “supports our unique qualities as creative problem-solvers, as innovators and as a highly adaptive species “(Whitehead, 2015). Dr. Brown (2011) says “(play) offers a sense of engagement and pleasure, takes the player out of a sense of time and place, and the experience of doing it is more important than the outcome.”  Making time for play, in whatever form that appeals to the individual, has a therapeutic effect.

How to promote play. 

 So, how can you promote “play” in a culture where assessment and performance rule and Reading, Writing and Mathematics are the measures of attainment and valued more highly than play?  Here are a few ideas to bear in mind as you plan play into your curriculum.  

  1. Change how you and your setting think about play.  Listen to the research, arm yourself with the experts’ findings of skills and attributes that develop through promoting ‘play’ experiences.
  2. Look at case studiesBe clever with your curriculum. In fact, many schools are, thankfully, looking to extend ‘continuous provision’ into Year 1 and beyond (see St John’s C of E School in Bradford).  How can teachers of older children inject play into the curriculum?  Early Years’ Teachers unexpectedly finding themselves teaching Key Stage 2 have been surprised by how naturally and successfully Early Years’ Teaching play-based methods can be adapted for older children. Perhaps you could experiment with a ‘bottom-up’ approach, with the older years reflecting the ‘play-based’ approach of the younger classes for a day, or more.   
  3. Be reflective. Look at what you’re already doing, when do you see play as a state of being in your setting? Add in more of this and identify which topics lend themselves to play, e.g. investigating speed and chemical reactions, angles through snooker or skateboarding, history through role-play scenarios with props and settings.   
  4. Know your players. What is on offer in your environment must motivate and appeal to each ‘player’.  What one child sees as a pleasure, another might perceive as a chore. The key is to know each child, their interests, abilities, and needs and to provide sufficient thrill and challenge for ‘high-level engagement’. Early Years’ expert, Alistair Bryce-Clegg summarises this as Thrill-Will-Skill, “without thrill there is no will to take part, and without the how will children successfully acquire the skill?” Be in tune with the individuals and provide an element of choice. 
  5. Make time for play. Dr. Stuart Brown notes that play is not required every second of the day to enjoy its benefits, play is a catalyst. “A little bit of play can go a long way toward boosting our productivity and happiness.” (Brown, 2011). In fact, not all learning has to be play. Children also learn from daily routines and events, stories, pictures, talk with adults and peers, being told answers to questions, by demonstration but we must make sure that we have enough of the play catalyst.   
  6. Know yourself.  As an adult, take time to play too, think about your past memories of play and seek to recreate play in your own life.  

Is play a “four-letter word”?

I believe it is given lip-service and practitioners see its value but it’s seen as incompatible with driving up academic standards and we under-appreciate its long-term benefits. In her Kitcamp blog “The Right to Play”, Lyndsey-Lee Dunwoody asks incredulously ‘how has something instinctive (play) become a right we have to knowingly make time for?’  I wonder “how has something so natural, and so clearly proven to work, been relegated”.

Play must not be seen as another activity to cram in, it is the lynchpin, the process by which children learn, are engaged, motivated and thrive! As access to early education is extended to more 2- and 3-year olds in the UK2, there is the opportunity to match the style of education to the needs of the child, to use research to inform practice.  The relentless march for improvement, performance, and data has formalised education for younger and younger children. This corresponds to worrying increases in mental health problems, rising hurdles for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and plummeting teacher morale. As we strive to climb up the PISA academic performance charts are we sliding down the happiness ratings? Learning mustn’t be reduced to sitting still and learning quietly; now is the time to listen to the research, and to put the joy back into learning.  Perhaps play is the answer… 


  1. The Future of Play Report, p10.
  2. Childcare: “30 hours” of free childcare – eligibility, access codes and charges (England). 
  • Bruner, J S (1972)  The nature and uses of immaturity, American Journal of Psychology, 27, 687-708. 
  • Bruce, T (2005) Play, the universe and everything! in Moyles, J, ed. The Excellence of Play, 2nd edition, Open University Press.
  • Brown, S (2008) Play is more than just fun, TED Talk. 
  • Brown, S and Vaughan, C (2011) Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul, Avery.   
  • Corsaro, W A (2003) Were friends right?: Inside kidsculture, Joseph Henry Press. 
  • Erberle, S. J (2017) Jaak Panksepp, Archaeologist of the Mind, The Need to Play 
  • Gauntlett, Ackerman, Whitebread, Wolbers and Weckstrom (2010) The Future of Play: Defining the role and value of play in the 21st century, LEGO Play Institute.  See, The Future of Play Report.
  • Gray, P (2013)  Free to Learn, Basic Books. 
  • Moyles, J (1989) Just Playing: The role and status of play in early childhood education, Oxford University Press. 
  • Panksepp, J (2010) Science of the brain as a gateway to understanding play.  American Journal of Play. 
  • Pellegrini, A D (2009)  The role of play in human development. Oxford University Press.  
  • Shonkoff J P and Phillips D A (2000) From Neurons to Neighbourhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development.  National Academy Press.   
  • Whitebread, D. (2012).  The Importance of Play: A Report on the Value of Childrens Play with Policy Recommendations.  Toy Industries of Europe.   
  • Whitebread, D. (2015). Childhood in crisis: the loss of play. Cambridge Primary Review Trust blog.


Share this post
  , , , , , , ,