Play: it's serious.

Sally Hogg, Policy Fellow at PEDAL centre, University of Cambridge

Play and learning can be perceived as opposites, particularly for older children: The school day is often divided into lessons, where the learning takes place, and ‘play time’, which is presented as something different to – break from – the learning. But a true understanding of children’s development shows us that play IS learning. And indeed some of the most valuable learning takes place through play.

We know that play is a universal and fundamental part of childhood, right from the start. Children from every culture, economic background and community engage in play, although it might look different in different places. Play is a way for children to make sense of the world, express and expand their understanding.

PEDAL: The centre for research on Play in Education, Development and Learning is part of the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. We are a team of researchers from a range of disciplines including education, psychology and child development. We are currently conducting research to understand more about play in childhood, its role on social and emotional development, and how play in education settings can support learning and cognitive development. We hope that our research can help parents, professionals, organisations and policy makers to improve children’s lives around the world.

We already know a lot about the impact of children’s play. Play in the early years has been associated with a range of outcomes, including self-regulation, executive function, language development, emotional wellbeing, behaviour and social development. These important aspects of early development are key to enable children to start school ready and able to engage in academic learning. They are also the capacities that we know are key to thriving throughout life: the foundations of so-called “21st Century” skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication and emotional intelligence.

The research shows us that:

  • When parents engage more in play with their children, right from the start, it supports children’s learning, behaviour and emotional development.

  • Play is often socially interactive; children often play with their peers or parents and this is an important part of social development.

  • In educational settings, playful learning is engaging and enjoyable for children and can support the development of a range of outcomes. Studies have shown that preschool and school settings that have play-based and child-led learning activities in school can improve both academic and social development.

Playful interactions between parents and their babies in the early years are a wonderful way to support early development. Play enables parents and children to have fun together and to enjoy each other’s company. Early play can involve many of the behaviours that we know support babies’ early brain development: it often involves parents and babies taking turns and responding to each other’s cues. Play is particularly beneficial for younger children when parents are able to watch their children and follow their lead.

Some parents find it difficult to play with their children, particularly if they did not have good experiences of being played with as a child or are stressed, distracted or depressed. Professionals like family nurses and health visitors can support parents in early play, both by providing ideas and encouragement, and by modelling playful interaction with babies. Play doesn’t just happen when we sit on the floor with toys, it can also happen through playful interactions in everyday life – playing games as we change children’s nappies, give them a bath or take them to the supermarket.

Research has shown that mothers and fathers often play with their children in different ways, and they can have unique and different contributions to children’s development. One study, for example, found that fathers’ playfulness in toddlerhood was associated with children's vocabulary skills in prekindergarten whereas mothers' playfulness was related to children's emotion regulation.

Play is one of the most enjoyable and valuable ways to support children’s learning. Play is fun, but it is also seriously important.