Play has a purpose: why the focus on early academics is not what our children need.

A new baseline assessment is being introduced into schools to assess children’s early literacy and numeracy skills objectively. Teachers will also be asked to assess personal and social development from their initial observations. The broader and more detailed assessments which currently result from the EYFS profile has been ruled out as not focusing on the academics sufficiently to provide the baseline for comparison with Key Stage 1 SATS . We’ve had baseline assessments before, nearly 20 years ago now, which were dropped after a few years for being unworkable. The reason for this re- introduction is the government’s preoccupation with school’s accountability, they want to know whether each school doing enough to help children become literate and numerate.

file9701266530751Their assumption is that if you measure something it will be both accurate and useful. This may work if you are measuring a wall with a yardstick but children defy this simple process by being much more complex and variable from day to day especially when they are 4. Child Psychology is adamant that early assessment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, either for its reliability (getting the same result each time ) or its validity (predicting future outcomes) So it won’t even do what they want it to but my concerns today are broader concerning what these demands will do to early education. There is a strong expectation that practitioners should move away from play based learning into structured activities which have a literacy or numeracy focus. This is not what the early year’s sector wants to do and most will resist this pressure but many parents may be confused by the mixed messages they receive.

We need to speak up for play and broaden our understanding away from the Oxford Dictionary definition:

Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

“The children were playing by a pool”

synonyms: amuse oneself, entertain oneself, enjoy oneself, have fun, have a good time, be at leisure, occupy oneself, divert oneself, play games,

It is more accurate to understand play as purposeful and part of the child’s inner drive for knowledge and development. Children learn through play, but what is equally important: through play children learn how to learn. As 16th century French writer and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, said: “Children at play are not playing about. Their games should be seen as their most serious minded activity.”

file0001123027515Small children are not passive, inert receivers of adult wisdom, they have a mind of their own and the best parenting and early year’s education works with that natural curiousity and drive to build a child’s knowledge and experience of the world. Play has a purpose, each child wants to engage in the world around them and the more child friendly and stimulating the adults make it the more learning will result. Play is stifled when the adult is unresponsive or the environment is restrictive and unchanging.

Children are under increasing pressure to begin their formal education as early as possible. The emphasis on getting young children reading and learning maths is putting time for play under pressure. We need to be confident of the reasons why play is important for a child’s healthy, happy development if we are to protect the vital character of early year’s provision.

What does play contribute to a child’s development? Children have a powerful desire to play which ensures the child is avidly curious to learn about the world. Play helps children to notice their surroundings and make sense of what they experience.  Play is not just a way of passing time; it is special for 10 important reasons.

  1. Play feeds a child’s curiousity and ensures the brain thrives on gaining knowledge. A child has a mind of their own from the beginning and sets out to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Play is what happens when a child follows their own line of reasoning to see where it takes them.  Small children are mini scientists exploring and testing out what they find. They ask questions and make judgments. “What is this?” “What can it do?|” “How is it like other objects I know about?” “How is it different?” If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs.
  2. Play develops language and communication. Children learn the language they need. A busy child at play will share what they are doing with an adult by commenting and asking questions which have a powerful relevance to what they are doing. The concept of sustained shared thinking acknowledges the importance of starting from the child and allowing their needs and their world view to shape the dialogue between adult and child. This builds the child’s confidence as well as developing knowledge. When adults ask questions or attempt to teach new concepts a child soon loses interest if it doesn’t resonate with what they are doing. When you observe this you can see the child’s unease and anxiety at being taken out of their comfort zone.  
  3. Play is fun and makes us happy: when you think back to your early childhood what are your treasured memories?  Maybe you remember a special toy fondly or the time you went on an adventure in the woods or built a den.  Children value their achievements. What makes a child feel competent is what they learn to do for themselves.  That’s why children want to keep models they’ve made or have their art displayed at home.
  4. Play reduces stress by helping children feel comfortable and in control.  “I can do what I want and need to do” Children typically have much less freedom than a generation ago which makes them tense.  I believe that some of the rise in behaviour problems is linked to this limited opportunity to gain satisfaction and achievement through play.
  5. Play helps children discover their strengths: children are attracted to activities they can soon learn to do successfully. Once one level is mastered they move onto the next challenge. Play gives a child the freedom to experiment and discover what works well for them, what skills they have and what they can make happen. Playing to your strengths not only builds a child’s competence but creates confidence and excitement at the prospect of learning something new.
  6. file000602326563 (1)Play makes practice fun: if you have something to learn you need to rehearse it and repeat important steps many, many times for the skill to develop.  Play is the perfect system for practicing developing skills whether it is learning to climb or becoming a more skilful communicator. Watch how happy children are to repeat things which interest them.  This experience of playful practice helps children to recognise and accept the importance of practice in other areas of learning once they get to school.
  7. Play builds a child’s ability to concentrate. Play is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration for the young child.  Learning to concentrate emerges from play as a pleasant side effect. Young children are designed to concentrate on what interests them and find it more difficult to concentrate on something led by an adult. A child’s concentration span increases the more experience they have of deeply absorbing play. Learning to shut out distractions is an important part of this. When a child has restricted opportunities for uninterrupted play this has a direct effect on their ability to control their attention.
  8. Play teaches organisation skills. Play may start with a spontaneous idea, but it quickly becomes planned and self-managing.  “What shall I do now?”  “Where shall I take this next?”  Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function. As a child’s brain develops, this skill becomes more established. This vital cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning. Children who have well developed executive function will be successful in education. The Plan, Do, Review process is designed to reinforce this developing skill.
  9. Play helps a child become self-motivated which is vitally important as children make their way through school. Teachers can’t oversee every detail of a child’s work. Children who have experience of successful learning through play will become more active learners who are not passively dependent on adults overseeing every learning moment. This belief in their competence to learn will transfer to classroom learning.
  10. file9891266155042Play nurtures creativity which is using what is available in the room or in your head to make something new out of the familiar. The imagination is not just a pleasant place to visit; it is where all discoveries, inventions and new ideas are incubated. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way.  Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity. The danger for children who are over scheduled with little free time is that it saps creativity. The areas of the brain which manages reflection and imagination are switched off when we are engaged with a demanding task.  The imagination needs space to work its magic.  That’s why our best ideas pop into our heads on a walk or in the bath.  If we over schedule children they don’t have time to dream.


Jeni Hooper is an Educational and Child Psychologist with a special interest in positive psychology. She is the author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful which offers parents and teachers a step by step guide to creating a happy childhood. Jeni works with schools, local authorities and the voluntary sector as a consultant,


About hooperj

I am a child psychologist and wellbeing coach and author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish which is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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6 Responses to Play has a purpose: why the focus on early academics is not what our children need.

  1. Betty Davis says:

    I love this article. It is true on all accounts. Young children learn through play.

  2. Wendy Williams says:

    If you have ever worked with disturbed teenagers who for one reason or another missed out on playing and childhood,and have experienced the wonder of taking them back to play as a child does and even to bottle feeding you will know that we must not miss out on these important times. Why do kittens play,why do lambs jump and skip in the field? Because childhood and playing is how we all learn to live as adults

    • hooperj says:

      Play is a deep need which satisfies the emotions while at the same time developing the body and mind. It is dangerous to assume we can replace it with formal learning to early. Stuart Brown’s research on the essential nature of play comes from his research with disturbed adults, many of whom were deprived of play as children. the freedom to play lights up a child whatever their age. Not just children, adults need to play too.

  3. says:

    Play and academics can coexist and do in many early childhood settings. Good teachers know how to follow a child’s lead in play and embed learning opportunities that engage children further in their chosen activities. Within these embedded opportunities the teacher can expand children’s knowledge or deepen their understanding and provide opportunities for the child to respond and apply this new knowledge. All of this within, not without, play.

    Literacy and numeracy are dependent on the development of several sub-skills, many of which can be learned indirectly through natural conversations, play and reading books aloud (vocabulary and concepts like directionality and more & less). But, some early skills must be taught directly, like alphabet knowledge & phonological awareness. The ability to identify and foster natural applications or opportunities to practice these newly learned skills within play is the gift of a gifted teacher.

    • hooperj says:

      Young children flourish when they can play and learn alongside skilled educators on that we totally agree. I’m certainly not saying hands off learning in the early years because independent play is enough. As an Educational Psychologist I have often needed to counter the view in pre schools that Free Flow Play is the Gold Standard when I’m consulted over support for children with SEND whose play is restricted or repetitive. My concern with play based learning in UK schools is that the ratios in reception is 1:15 at best which makes it tough compared to nursery. Knowledge like alphabet and phonics needs to be build on a foundation of language, cognitive and social skills which are developmental and at 4 years old many children are still building these core skills to a level where they are ready for this knowledge. My concern is that the pursuit of academics is tempting parents and schools to do too much too soon. Also the practical organisation of 30 x 4 year olds makes group instruction a more likely choice than nuanced, personalised learning.

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