How do we, as teachers and parents, discover the power of play?

By | 2017-08-22T20:31:08+00:00 November 24th, 2015|For parents, For teachers|0 Comments

Playing helps children to learn, but are you aware of how crucial it is for their overall development? In this blog Ruth Churchill Dower, Director of Earlyarts, explains what kind of play can help children and how.

Can you remember a time as a child when you spent hours and hours simply playing? You could even waste a whole day just being immersed in a single idea that evolved from hour to hour. Whether it started as a dressing up game that became a whole family drama including all of your teddies and dolls, or you started playing with sticks in the woods and ended up building fabulous leafy dens, you would no doubt have been enjoying yourself and not wanting to stop.

Play is a fantastic way to release the imagination and exercise both the brain and the body simultaneously. So why does it feel a bit like hard work, the older we get? It’s a sad fact that, as adults, we often need to make a conscious space in our busy lives to play. Often our version of play can be somewhat restricted by the boundaries of time, routines, inhibitions or lack of energy, or numerous other factors that can affect how open we are to play on any one day, such as our sleep patterns, diet, exercise, relationships, hormones, and so on.


The things we play with are generally more structured – whether it’s through sport, music, baking, gardening, or electronic games – we are often still seeking to push ourselves in new ways, away from the world of normality towards a richer experience in the world of the imagination. And yet, so often we are caught short of this goal as we realize that we only have an hour to make tea, clean up, bath the kids and read their bedtime story before rushing off to our book group!

Thankfully, children are natural players on the whole. Granted they don’t have our responsibilities, but even so they still don’t need to work hard at being imaginative or letting their creative expressions go, and there are good reasons for this. Children know instinctively that play helps improve their learning and development in six core areas:

1. Cognitive / Linguistic (the way they think, develop ideas, ask questions, express this through language, store and recall memories, and connect bits of knowledge together to make meaning).

2. Emotional / Sensory (the way their senses are stimulated and heightened, mastering skills that help to conquer their fears, increasing confidence and resilience to face future challenges, building empathy, managing emotions and learning from mistakes).

3. Social / Relational (the way they interact with others and the world around them, learning to understand and respond to different types of interactions, building positive relationships and communicating in ways which fulfil their needs).

4. Behavioural (the way they monitor their own and others’ behaviours, building self-regulation, setting themselves appropriate levels of challenge and achievement; being in control of their own learning).

5. Physical (the way they develop gross and fine motor control, manage the movement of their bodies through balance, motion, spatial awareness, proprioception, co-ordination, etc., learn how to be adventurous, take risks and extend their boundaries).

6. Cultural / Creative (the way they explore, experiment and solve problems; express their inner most thoughts and ideas through creative, non-verbal languages; develop pretence and make-believe to ‘test out’ various theories and understand the differences in people and the world; enabling a symbolic representation of culturally defined meanings e.g. through visual arts music, song, dance, drawing or storytelling).


Neuroscience experts, Shonkoff and Phillips, have shown that when play has an element of novelty, i.e. children are constantly building new ideas and imaginative activities, these experiences are perceived as rewarding in the brain. This is important because reward signals increase activity in the hippocampus, which is the brain’s key structure for learning and memory.

So this has enormous implications for how we, as educators or parents, structure our play environments to ensure that children’s imaginations are triggered regularly. That’s not to say that children shouldn’t be returning to the same play routines again and again – repetition of play is another important way for the brain to reinforce the synaptic connections that help create meaning and context – but the need for innovative and imaginative experiences is also strong, and we should think carefully about how we help to stimulate these for our children.


Early childhood psychologist, Jean Piaget, was the first to describe the different types of play that emerge at different stages of childhood and are now considered to be fundamental to healthy learning environments. In practice, children’s play nearly always contains one or more of these, and the five main types are generally accepted now as being:

  • Physical play (play that involves active exercise, rough and tumble, gross or fine motor control, hand-eye co-ordination, builds strength and endurance)
  • Play with Objects (play that involves exploration of materials and objects to see how they feel and behave (sensori-motor play), collecting, sorting, classifying, making and constructing, developing manipulation and imagination, thinking and reasoning skills)
  • Symbolic play (play that involves the creative expression of ideas, feelings, thoughts and experiences through verbal or non-verbal languages such as painting, drawing, dance, music, sounds, collage, and so on.)
  • Socio-Dramatic / Pretence play (the most common type of play that involves role playing, dressing up, story building, fantasy and make-believe that helps children work on self-regulation, morality, relationships and the social norms in the world around them).
  • Games with Rules (play that involves rules that help children make sense of sharing, taking turns, understanding others’ perspectives, competition, problem-solving and boundaries).

Piaget discovered in 1959 that Play with Objects in particular is associated with the development of speech and language skills as children often continue a narrative as they play with objects in an imaginary capacity. Developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, suggested in 1986 that this sort of play helps children keep track of the goals of an activity, the progress made, and the relative success of different approaches. Private speech is commonly related to the development of these important cognitive abilities.

Through drawing, younger children often record what they know about an object or how they have experienced the object, rather attempting to replicate the object exactly. Through this, they build a graphic vocabulary which they use to organise their knowledge into a pictorial representation which enables them to represent their ideas more clearly over time.


Similarly, different musical concepts play an important part in learning, understanding and communicating for young children. Infants’ response to patterns, rhythms and sounds forms a keypart of their early communications (pre-language), which enables their carer to fulfil their needs and strengthen their attachment, self-esteem, and mastery of skills.

Research based on studies from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans shows how some music activates the same areas of the brain that are also activated during mathematical processing. It appears that early musical training begins to build the same neural networks that are later used for numerical tasks. Similarly, drama and role play can stimulate the same synapses that focus on spoken language; painting can stimulate the visual processing system that recalls memory or creates fantasy; movement, drawing and modelling link to the development of gross and fine motor skills.

So we can start to see how play is so fundamental to the development of the whole body and brain, and how it helps to shape everything we learn as we grow. At Earlyarts, we are passionate about supporting adults to feel confident in scaffolding children’s creative play. We have put together a short course which explores how to create play-based learning environments that engage and immerse children in their learning.


As part of the course, we have created a Play Styles Observation Toolkit which helps us spot children’s preferred play styles so that we can extend these within a balanced learning environment. Finally, there are four practical techniques to encourage our children to think, learn and play more creatively, as well as a tonne of further resources on creative play-based learning.

We are delighted to offer a 50% reduction just for Creatubbbles subscribers. Click here to take advantage of our playful offer!

PLUS, you can get some amazing ideas and give your own creative skills a boost with our free download: Ten great techniques to make your teaching more creative.

Either way, we would love to hear what you think and support you on your creative journey through play!

Ruth Churchill Dower

Director, Earlyarts


Ruth’s recent publications on how creative practice will impact positively on a child’s life can be read on her Blog, in the Guardian, Born Creative, Cultural Entitlement in a Nutshell, and International Creative Practice in Early Years Settings.


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Ruth works as an educator, trainer, consultant, author, speaker and thought leader with a specialist focus on how creativity can nurture our learning and leadership development.Ruth set up the award winning network for the arts and early childhood sectors, Earlyarts, in 2002 with a vision to embed excellent creative leadership in many schools and settings across the world. To achieve this, Earlyarts works in collaboration with artists, educators and cultural organisations to build creative networks and train around 600 educators each year.Ruth lives in Yorkshire, UK and spends any free time in the hills paragliding, mountain biking, puddle-splashing and generally having as much fun with her two children as possible before tea.