The need for play and its impact on children’s development

Providing access to play in the early years can have a significant positive impact on a child’s development. Some may mistake play as just ‘a bit of fun’, not realising the benefits it provides to a child’s learning and development.  Let’s explore the need for play and why it plays such a fundamental role in children’s development.

The connection between play and development

Play is the work of children. Without play, children will be starved of the opportunity to develop a wide range of skills and understanding. No matter the gender or ethnicity, children learn best through fun, engaging, and interactive play.

Through play, children can gain a much better understanding of how things work. It also helps them develop their problem-solving and social interactions with peers. Through these experiences, children’s cognitive, social, and physical abilities can all be improved.

But what counts as play? Anything from painting a picture, playing games with peers, or curiosity about something new can count as play. Providing a child can explore and discover, while testing their limits and remaining engaged, will benefit their development. When activities are enjoyable and amusing, children are more engaged, which will contribute better to their learning.

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Why play is important

Children learn and develop through play. Without the opportunities to play from an early age, both mental and emotional development can be hindered. Despite the importance, the opportunities for play have gradually declined.

There are several reasons why play is important, including the benefits in development that can aid a child later in life.

Skills development

Through play, children are provided with the opportunity to learn and develop skills. The skills children develop through play can benefit their learning and studies, alongside work and relationships later in life.

Some of the skills that can be learnt or developed through play include:

  • Social skills and interaction
  • Language and communication skills
  • Decision-making
  • Confidence in themselves and their abilities
  • Independence and self-sufficient
  • Problem-solving and intuition
  • Emotional skills, such as fairness and empathy

Physical health

In addition to cognitive, emotional, and social skills, play also provides a great source of physical activity. Not only does this provide a great way for kids to stay healthy, but it also helps to improve their stamina, agility, and coordination. Running, skipping, and jumping are all great ways to develop physical health during the early years.

Gives time to relax and unwind

Another benefit of play is that it allows children to relax or better cope with their feelings. Children will inevitably encounter stressful situations. Encouraging play can help children to work through such times, better express their emotions and learn to deal with them.

Research has established a strong connection between the decrease in unstructured play and the effect on children’s mental health. Providing opportunities for play also helps children to relax their minds and reduce stress, including during the school day.

Develop social interactions

Through playing together, children can develop their social skills. By interacting and engaging with others, children can develop their social skills. It also helps provide them with a better understanding of social rules and expectations.

Process emotions

Children will experience a wide range of emotions during play, including negative feelings. Whether losing a game or experiencing disappointment, children can better understand and process these emotions. Processing feelings can also help develop confidence and self-esteem.

Overcoming fears

Fear is an emotion every child will experience at some time or another. Whether afraid of making a mistake or uncertain about trying something new, play provides a perfect opportunity to help overcome such fears. Overcoming such fears early provides long-term benefits.

Develops cognition

Encouraging unstructured play early helps develop and improve a child’s cognitive processing. Through unstructured play, a child’s mind is free to explore. When children are given such freedom, their brain positively develops due to the strengthening of neural connections used for thinking.

Long-term future success

Many of the experiences and skills a child learns through play in the early years provide long-term development opportunities. The learning, intelligence, health, and social skills developed early on contribute to a child’s long-term development.

The play that children partake in during their early years acts as a building block for their future growth. From the skills and experiences gained through play, a child’s future prospects can also improve. Numeracy, literacy, and social skills can all benefit, aiding future learning and work.

Children can also develop better control and much better regulate their behaviours through play. Understanding how to control their behaviour and emotions can improve future learning success, social interactions, and emotional well-being.

Free play and the impact on development

Free (or unstructured) play can have a significant influence on how a child learns and develops through play. Every child learns differently and at different rates. Free play gives children the freedom and choice to play however they want, and at their own pace or ability.

Free play is unstructured, allowing children to engage in activities that will interest them. Natural curiosity, enthusiasm, and a desire to discover, all drive spontaneous play. This allows children to experiment, discover, and learn about themselves and the world on their terms.

Whether a child chooses to play with others or by themselves, when and how they play are all part of free play. While adult-guided play shouldn’t be ignored, the majority of learning and development will happen as a result of unstructured play.

How playground spaces affect play and learning

Early years learning is at its most effective when unstructured. Giving children the freedom to play on their own terms and explore what interests them is crucial for better learning.

Playground spaces can provide an unstructured and open environment allowing the freedom, space, and time for a child to learn on their terms. Playground design and the equipment present can all affect play.

To encourage free play in playground spaces, consider including some of these design or equipment features:

  • Encourage physical activity, through climbing features, balancing equipment, obstacle course, and slides.
  • Make a playground space natural, or incorporate nature for encouraging all types of play
  • Provide areas for both individual and peer/group play
  • Incorporate colourful game spaces that will attract and engage children
  • Include spaces for children to use their imagination, such as through role play
  • Use water, sand, and other natural ingredients for developing sensory abilities

A playground space that incorporates a wide range of play features to accommodate the different play types (such as sensory, social, reflective, and imaginative play) provides the most benefit. Incorporating different features or zones in your playground design can achieve this.

A playground space should also allow and encourage play for those with disabilities. Find out more about designing playgrounds with special needs in mind. A playground space should also provide an element of risk and challenge to stretch a child and create excitement in their play.

Encouraging play in children during their early years can have a life-long impact on a child’s development. Providing the opportunities, spaces, and resources to allow children to play freely can help develop a range of skills and mental cognition to aid in later life beyond school. Children have a need for play to impact development.

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