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Play in Early Years – A Comprehensive Guide

Introduction to Play in Early Childhood

Thirty years of scientific research have shown that the most important period of human development is from birth to eight years old  (UNICEF). Between these years, children grow, learn and develop more than at any other time. Therefore, things they experience during these years will either have positive or negative impacts on their outcomes in life.

Play is an experience that can positively impact early childhood, and it can be structured, non-structured, formal and non–formal. It is defined by the Encyclopaedia on Early Childhood Development, as:

“A spontaneous, voluntary, pleasurable and flexible activity involving a combination of body, object, symbol use and relationships.”

Play England’s Charter for Children’s Play describes play as:

“What children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own way, and for their own reasons.”

We have all seen children play at some point, and while it looks fun and makes them happy, it also contributes to their cognitive, social, physical and emotional development and well-being. During play, children are thinking, remembering and solving problems. They are communicating, cooperating, negotiating and expressing their feelings, and may also be physically active, e.g. moving and balancing.

Play is not just a pastime or a luxury; it is fundamental to the learning and development of children in their early years. This comprehensive guide will explore the various dimensions of play, its benefits, stages, and types, and how parents, caregivers, and educators can support and encourage play-based learning.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

The Benefits of Play

Play is so important that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognises it as a right of every child. The reason for this is that children have an innate drive to play, so it is crucial for the enjoyment of early childhood. It also has many benefits, as it:

  • Stimulates brain development to make connections and grow.
  • Relieves stress and increases happiness and overall quality of life.
  • Fosters creativity.
  • Boosts confidence and self-esteem.
  • Allows children to engage and interact with the world and find themselves.
  • Helps children to learn essential skills, e.g. communication, problem-solving, literacy, numeracy, social and intellectual.
  • Promotes emotional resilience to cope with emotions, such as fear, anger, aggression and frustration.
  • Gives children the opportunity to express themselves and explore their feelings.
  • Promotes physical activity, which can develop gross and fine motor skills.
  • Helps children to cooperate, communicate, collaborate and negotiate with others.
  • Builds empathy so children can understand the feelings of others.
  • Improves concentration and focus.

Play improves brain development and growth in early childhood and builds a strong foundation for future learning. It is also fundamentally important for learning 21st-century skills, such as problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills critical for adult success (Yogman, M. 2018).

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Stages of Play

Children’s play will vary as they grow and develop. In the first five years of their life, they will go through six stages of play; unoccupied, solitary, spectator/onlooker, parallel, associative and cooperative.

Unoccupied play

Some may think newborns and infants cannot play, but they would be incorrect. Between birth and three months, they are playing instinctively, even though it doesn’t look like it. At this stage, it is known as unoccupied play, which may include:

  • Putting their hands and feet in their mouths or the air.
  • Listening to singing.
  • Moving around in a cot.
  • Kicking their legs.
  • Using play mats.
  • Tummy time.

This early play allows babies and infants to make sense of the world around them by:

  • Observing and reacting to their surroundings.
  • Making random movements.
  • Exploring how their body moves.
  • Discovering what they can and cannot do.

Unoccupied play lays the foundation for the further stages, where children will begin exploring more and engaging in more meaningful play.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Solitary play

After unoccupied play, children will play alone by themselves with no interaction with others, which is aptly named solitary or independent play. Children between these ages do not possess the necessary social skills to play with others.

During solitary play, children may:

  • Stack blocks.
  • Play with toys, e.g. dolls, stuffed toys and toy figures.
  • Read books.
  • Play musical instruments.
  • Touch and taste things.
  • Talk loudly.

This stage of play allows children to:

  • Entertain and find themselves.
  • Be more self-sufficient.
  • Be independent.
  • Concentrate and focus.
  • Start to identify their interests and preferences.

Solitary play is usually in children between 3 months and two years old. However, it may continue past two years old as some children may be shy or prefer playing alone.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Spectator/onlooker play

In the next stage, children observe other children from a distance but do not participate. Hence the name spectator/onlooker play. It occurs in younger children, usually between the ages of two and three, and is the first step where they are learning to play with others.

Some examples of spectator/onlooker play are:

  • Watching what other children and even adults do.
  • Listening to others talking and the way they engage with one another.
  • Imitating the play of others.

This stage allows children to:

  • Understand the social rules and norms regarding play.
  • Learn how other children play and interact.
  • Develop their vocabulary.
  • Build confidence and their own skills.
  • Prepare for the later stages of play.

Parents and caregivers should not be concerned. It is normal and healthy for children at this stage to observe others without taking part, and it is essential for their learning and development.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Parallel play

Parallel play is where children, usually between the ages of two and three, play side-by-side but have little or no engagement and do not influence each other’s play. It is not because children dislike one another; it is just they are not at that stage and are in their own little worlds, playing with their own toys.

It may include:

  • Watching each other.
  • Copying one another’s behaviours, i.e. mimicking.
  • Little chats.
  • Playing with similar toys.
  • Doing activities alongside one another, such as drawing and painting, but not together.

This stage is crucial for a child’s learning and development because:

  • They are taking in vital information.
  • It prepares them for the next play stage, where they interact and engage with other children.
  • They are not yet prepared to engage and interact, e.g. sharing.

Don’t force children to play with each other, as this will happen naturally.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Associative play

This fifth stage of play, associative play, is where children (between three and four years old and until around the age of five) may still play separately and focus on what they are doing, but they start to interact and engage with each other.

They may:

  • Show more interest or get involved in what others are doing.
  • Chat with each other more.
  • Share toys and other items.
  • Take turns for activities.

Associative play is important for development as it:

  • Develops skills, e.g. social, problem-solving, communication and language.
  • Enables children to learn how to share, cooperate and take turns.
  • Promotes positive relationships, i.e. friendships.
Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Cooperative play

After the associative play stage, children will start to use cooperative play, which usually occurs between the ages of four and five. However, this stage can appear earlier in some children, especially if they have older siblings.

t this sixth stage, children start to interact, engage, cooperate and use the skills they have developed to play together as a group. They work together to achieve a common goal, which may include:

  • Doing activities and games together, e.g. puzzles, board games, play sets, etc.
  • Including others in play.
  • Having rules and aims.

This stage of play is vital because it:

  • Builds connections and lays the foundation for later interactions.
  • Develops skills and provides knowledge that children can use in the future, e.g. social, communication and cooperation.
  • Helps children to develop empathy and understand the needs of others.
  • Teaches children how to regulate their emotions, handle conflict and learn to compromise.

It is important to note that children can return to earlier play stages, and some may develop more quickly than others. Recognising the stages of play can help parents, caregivers and educators when providing play activities.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Types of Play

There are many types of play in early years, and they all have various benefits. Here, we will look at some examples.

Competitive play

This type of play is usually after the cooperative play stage. It is where children start playing with others and engage in competitive play opportunities with rules, guidelines, winners and losers.

Some examples of competitive play include:

  • Playing board games.
  • Participating in team sports.
  • Competing in races.

Competitive play helps children to:

  • Learn about teamwork, rules and taking turns.
  • Understand winning and losing.
  • Develop emotional regulation, i.e. not getting angry, upset or frustrated if they lose.
  • Cope with losing and disappointment.

Constructive (construction) play

In constructive play, children will create new things from various materials, toys and other items, i.e. they are engaging in play involving construction.

Some examples of constructive play include:

  • Building things with blocks, Lego or magnetic tiles, e.g. towers.
  • Constructing a fort or den.
  • Using boxes to make a pirate ship.
  • Making sandcastles.

Children may also add other toys and items into their constructive play, e.g. putting Lego figures into towers they have built.

Constructive play helps children to:

  • Be creative and imaginative when constructing something.
  • Develop problem-solving skills, i.e. what happens if I put this block here and what to do if a block tower keeps falling over? It helps with logical thinking.
  • Persevere if something they are constructing is not working and they have to try again.
  • Plan and organise their construction, which will develop their skills in these areas.

Physical play

Another type of play is physical play, which involves body movement. This type of play may be competitive or non-competitive.

Some examples of physical play include:

  • Object play.
  • Dance.
  • Ball throwing and catching.
  • Games, e.g. tag.
  • Frisbee.
  • Bike riding.
  • Swimming.
  • Messy play.
  • Jumping.
  • Skipping.
  • Climbing.
  • Using outdoor equipment.

The activities will depend on the age of the children.

When children are active, they learn, sleep and eat better and are happier and healthier for it (GOV.UK). Physical activity:

  • Encourages children to enjoy being physically fit.
  • Contributes to brain development and learning.
  • Builds relationships and social skills.
  • Maintains a healthy weight.
  • Develops gross motor skills, i.e. movements involving the whole body.
  • Builds fine motor skills, i.e. movements involving smaller muscles.
  • Helps with muscle development, movement, coordination and balance.

The benefits of physical activity can be lifelong.

Symbolic play

This type of play is a form of imaginative play where children learn to express themselves by using objects to symbolise other things.

Some examples of symbolic play include:

  • Holding a banana up to their ear and pretending it is a telephone.
  • Using a plate to mimic a car steering wheel.
  • Picking up a stick and pretending they are a wizard or witch with a wand.
  • Using a cardboard tube as a telescope.

Symbolic play helps children to:

  • Be independent and make sense of the world around them.
  • Develop important skills, e.g. language, motor, emotional, social, communication and problem-solving.
  • Learn to express and process their ideas, experiences and emotions.
  • Demonstrate their own interests.
  • Be creative and use their imaginations.
  • Have fun and be engaged for long periods.
  • Encourages cooperative play and teamwork.

The NHS has some great ideas for symbolic play here.

There are many types of play, and far too many to cover in this guide. There is information on further types of play on Play Types – Play Scotland.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

The Role of Play in Learning

Play is one of the most natural ways for children to learn and is central to early learning and development. According to Unicef, play creates powerful learning opportunities across all areas of development: intellectual, social, emotional and physical.

Play has a significant role in early years’ learning as it:

  • Encourages the development of skills, such as motor, cognitive, social and emotional skills, which children need to succeed in the future.
  • Builds confidence, self-esteem, resilience and independence as children learn to explore.
  • Helps children to solve problems, relate to others and set their own goals.
  • Gives children the freedom to explore their interests in a safe environment, which stimulates their thinking.
  • Helps children to learn about themselves and the world around them.
  • Prepares children for school, as it helps develop literacy and numeracy skills.

Play is so critical for early years learning, hence why it is in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Statutory Framework. These are standards that school and childcare providers must meet for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five years old.

Learning while playing is often referred to as play-based learning (PBL), and there are two main types:

  • Free/unstructured play (child-led) – where children direct their own play while an adult observes but not intervenes.
  • Guided/structured play (adult-led) – where adults, such as parents or teachers, guide play. They select activities and materials to focus on specific areas and reinforce key concepts.

PBL is where free play is combined with specific learning outcomes for early years children. It provides many learning opportunities for children to explore, create, discover, experiment and imagine in playful and fun ways. While playing, they can also develop skills in specific areas, such as:

  • Literacy and communication – PBL can help children to develop and improve their literacy skills, which are essential for reading and writing. Also, engaging with other children during learning will help with communication skills, e.g. children playing word games together.
  • Numeracy – playing with numbers and maths can help early years’ children develop numeracy skills, e.g. children setting up a pretend shop and using practice money to buy and sell things.
  • Problem-solving – PBL helps build problem-solving skills, as it encourages critical thinking, e.g. children working out how to stop a tower of blocks from falling over or arranging objects from the shortest to the longest. Finding solutions to problems can also help with numeracy and literacy.
  • Social – PBL is important for social skills development, as children may share materials, work together, agree on how to do an activity and find solutions for problems.
  • Creativity – PBL can foster creativity and curiosity in children as they can use their imagination during play, e.g. using materials to build a spaceship or pretending to be a specific character.
Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Encouraging Play at Home and in Educational Settings

For play to be effective in early childhood learning and development, children’s play experiences and opportunities should be diverse, interesting, and meaningful. They should also have the space, time, resources and autonomy to play freely.

According to the EYFS, children learn and develop well in enabling environments, which means having a place where children can play, learn and explore that is:

  • Safe.
  • Secure.
  • Varied.
  • Rich
  • Child-centred.
  • Familiar.
  • Warm.
  • Welcoming.
  • Nurturing.
  • Caring.
  • Supportive.
  • Flexible.

When creating an enabling environment for early years children, it is important to consider the emotional aspects as well as the physical, e.g. indoor or outdoor. For example, the atmosphere should make them feel comfortable and a sense of belonging. The interests, development stages and individual needs of each child must also be considered, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

So, how can parents, caregivers and educators create play-rich environments? Here are some tips:

  • Ensure children have sufficient time and freedom to play.
  • Children need time to plan their play. According to Development Matters, children should be offered outdoor play daily for at least 45 minutes.
  • Children should be able to engage in continuous periods of uninterrupted play.
  • Adults should refrain from interacting with children when engaged in free play, as it should be child-led.
  • Provide outdoor and indoor play opportunities.
  • Children need to play in both indoor and outdoor environments.
  • Adults should listen to children and provide activities based on their interests.
  • There should be sufficient room for them to play safely, move freely and explore. The space should be free from clutter and other hazards.
  • Each setting should be adaptable so that children can engage in activities they find interesting.
  • Provide a diverse range of activities and resources, e.g. materials, equipment, props and other objects.
  • Resources should be interesting, and there should be some that children are familiar with, as they enjoy repetitive activities.
  • Children should be allowed to choose how, what and where they want to play and with whom.
  • It is important to introduce new resources, themes and activities to keep children engaged.
  • Resources should be at child height.
  • Introduce multi-sensory materials, e.g. sand and water stations, and natural resources when outdoors, such as mud, leaves, cones, etc.
  • Display books and pictures that give children ideas on what they could play.
  • Have areas in the space for children to relax, sit, talk and sleep.
  • Activities should be varied and encourage development in all areas.
  • Allow risky play
  • Play spaces should be safe, but that does not mean stopping children from doing activities that involve some element of risk. Studies have shown that risky play, e.g. climbing, can benefit children’s learning and development (Play Wales).
  • Risks should be assessed and managed in the space, g. by using crash mats for climbing.
  • Adults will need to balance risk with development opportunities. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has further information here.

There are so many play opportunities and experiences for parents, caregivers and educators to consider. The play opportunities will depend on children’s ages, interests, development stages and abilities. Budgets, finances, location and space size will also influence choices. Below are ten resources to start with to help with ideas for age-appropriate toys, activities, and play spaces.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide

Overcoming Challenges

Providing high-quality play opportunities and environments can sometimes be challenging, whether at school, nursery, childminder premises, other childcare facilities or even in the home. Here are some common challenges parents, caregivers and educators may face.

Limited access to play

Some early years settings and homes can lack space, which can make it hard to carry out certain activities and may hinder play, for example:

  • The size of the building may limit resource and activity provision.
  • Childcare providers may be responsible for many early years children, meaning they cannot safely do certain activities. However, they must ensure they meet the indoor space requirements under the EYFS.
  • There may be plenty of space indoors but not outdoors, which restricts outdoor play opportunities.

Some strategies to adopt to overcome limited play access could include:

  • Taking children into other settings to play, e.g. parks, woodlands, nature reserves, adventure playgrounds and other open spaces. Play Scotland has some ideas for creating outdoor play experiences.
  • Planning for the size of the space. There are plenty of activities for smaller play spaces, e.g. using simple props and group areas of play.


Whether it is in an early setting or at home, there is no escaping the fact that there is a cost to providing high-quality play experiences for early years’ children. Some settings may be reliant on public funding from local authorities, meaning they have tight budgets. Parents and caregivers may also have low incomes and limited funds.

A lack of finances can impact play experiences, e.g. the equipment in the setting may need replacing, the indoor environment improving, or resources running low.

Some strategies to adopt to overcome financial issues could include:

  • Asking for donations for materials, e.g. cardboard tubes/boxes, egg cartons, foil and other everyday recyclable household items.
  • Using free play resources, e.g. Look, Say, Sing, Play early years resources.
  • Printing play resources, e.g. Little Owls Resources.
  • Looking in charity shops for second-hand equipment, toys and other items.
  • Get planting! Seeds are relatively cheap and can be sown directly into the ground, in pots of compost or a grow bag. Local garden centres and community schemes may be able to donate.
  • Using natural resources, e.g. using mud for muddy play and collecting cones, leaves and sticks.

Time constraints

Children should have sufficient time for free, uninterrupted play to get the most out of their play experiences. However, there are time constraints in early years’ settings and at home, so allowing them to play all day, every day, is, unfortunately, not feasible.

Early years providers must assess children and help them meet early learning goals (ELGs) under the EYFS framework. At home, there will be demands of parents and caregivers, such as work and everyday tasks, such as cleaning, shopping, cooking, etc.

While free play supports children’s development in the early years, there will need to be times when play is adult-led to ensure children are focused and meet the required learning outcomes of the EYFS. At home, structured play is also important, i.e. giving children a particular task to meet a specific learning objective.

Some strategies to adopt to overcome time constraints could include:

  • Parents/caregivers allocating time to join in with children’s play.
  • Allowing sufficient time for free and structured play and getting the right balance between the two.
  • Linking structured (guided) play with unstructured (free) play, e.g. by actively observing children during free play, adults can see what interests them the most and structure activities according to their preferences.
  • Observing children during free play and assessing them against the early learning goals and outcomes.
  • Having a specific area and environment for structured and adult-led play, e.g. desks and chairs.

Safety concerns

There are safety concerns in early years. Children can and do hurt themselves, e.g. falling over and cuts, bruises and grazes. However, with careful planning, organising and assessing play activities and environments, adults can reduce the risks of injury.

In an early years play setting, hazards can cause injury or illness to children. Hazards are anything with the potential to cause harm, e.g. objects that could fall on them or cables that they could trip over. Risk the likelihood of these hazards causing harm and the consequences.

It is right to have safety concerns about children during play. However, it should not mean wrapping them in cotton wool and stopping them from engaging in risky play. Remember, risky play can be beneficial, so it is important not to restrict these types of opportunities, as it may hinder their development.

Some strategies to adopt to overcome this could include:

  • Managing the number of children playing in certain areas and carrying out specific activities.
  • Identifying the hazards associated with the play environment, activities and equipment.
  • Completing a risk assessment and managing the risks. Further information on this is on Play Scotland and the HSE.
  • Providing protection for risky play, e.g. crash mats for climbing.
  • Ensuring the play space is free of clutter.
Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide


Play is not just fun; it has many benefits and is critical for a child’s learning, development and well-being. Therefore, they must have access to a wide range of high-quality play experiences and types in the first five years of their life as they go through the six stages of play and beyond.

Parents, caregivers and educators should actively engage in play with young children and create play-friendly environments that support learning and growth. The activities, resources and spaces should meet the individual needs of each child, and both free play and guided play opportunities are needed, as they are vital in early learning.

While there may be challenges associated with play in early years, parents, caregivers and educators can overcome them with planning, creativity and imagination. It is also crucial to get a balance when using technology and ensure it does not displace positive activities by providing non-digital play opportunities.

Please use the comments section to share experiences or additional tips for promoting play in early childhood. A supportive and informative community of parents, caregivers and educators can help support children’s development and learning through early childhood.

Play in Early Years - A Comprehensive Guide
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