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The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Education

By Sinead Hamill

“Do you want to build a snowman?” Anna sings to Elsa in the hit movie Frozen. The poor girl desperately wants to play with her sister, who stays locked behind a closed door for fear she’ll hurt someone with her icy touch. Anna is left devastated without her sister to play with, and why? Because play is a natural part of a child’s development and to deny them of this is quite simply a crime against nature.


This is particularly true in the first eight years, known as ‘The Formative Years’, when the brain is growing at a rapid rate. During this time, things are new and exciting for children. They are self-motivated and freely choose to engage in playful activities which allow them to explore, discover and challenge themselves.


The benefits of play should not be underestimated. Just as adults are recommended to work in an area they love, play is a child’s work. There are many types of play, each offering opportunities and potential for learning:

  • Solitary Play – Children explore, discover and learn to process their thoughts.


  • Parallel Play – Children play alongside each other without actually interacting. They 

      begin to observe and imitate each other. They are learning to occupy the same space and 

      are picking up new ideas from watching each other.


  • Social Play – From around three years on, children are learning social skills; how to get 

      along successfully with others and to co-operate. They make self-discoveries and 

      establish themselves within a group. Their creative skills are called into being. Language 

      and communication skills develop, as they learn to communicate their needs and ideas

      to others. This type of play is preparing children for the adult world as they learn to  

      share, negotiate, problem solve and contribute to the group. Social play helps children

      to develop moral reasoning and values.


  • Co- operative Play - Around the late pre-school period, children express an interest in 

      games with rules. They are learning to be a part of a society and establish their preferred 

      position within a group.


  • Physical Play – Fine and gross motor skills are developed. Engaging in exercise and physical activity helps to keep children strong and healthy. Social and cognitive skills are also called into play.


  • Constructive Play – Playing with toys such as Lego, blocks, magnets and other construction materials encourages children to explore and discover shapes and patterns. Creativity, maths and logic are practiced and developed in this way.


  • Fantasy Play – Here, children have the chance to explore different roles, emotions and situations from a safe place. Through fantasy, they are free to express their thoughts, feelings and concerns.


  • Expressive Play – Children can express their feelings and creative ideas through art, music, dolls/puppets and other equipment.

As the adults and carers in our children’s lives, it is our role to ensure they have enough time, space, freedom and opportunities to engage in stimulating, meaningful activities. Children also benefit hugely from playing with adults. Do, however, be careful not to take over, imposing too many rules and structured activities. Let the child take the lead. Not only will this allow you to discover more about who your child is, you may also be reintroduced to your own inner child! So go, have fun. It’s play time!

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