Celebrating children’s right to play

    Published: 20 November 2019

    I am sure at some point in your career working in early years you will of have heard of the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As practitioners, we don’t tend to give it much thought on a day to day basis. However, a lot of its content underpins our practice within early years. Fortunately, UK law and the EYFS ensures we adhere to the 54 articles within it.

    The 54 articles cover all aspects of a child’s life, they set out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all children everywhere are entitled to. Every child has rights, whatever their ethnicity, gender, religion, language, abilities or any other status.

    You can find out more about the UNCRC at:


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    The right to relax and play (Article 31)

    As Early Years Professionals we all understand the importance of play. But, is play just play? There are lots of different types and stages of play. Do all practitioners and parents understand and value play?

    Let’s start by reminding ourselves on some well-known theorists view on play.

    In 1920, Sigmund Freud posed a psychoanalytic play theory that was defined in his book "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." In this work, Freud described play as a child's mechanism for repeatedly working out a previously experienced traumatic event in an effort to correct or master the event to his satisfaction.

    In 1972, Bruner stated that one of the main functions of child's play was to rehearse actions to various real-life scenarios in a safe, risk-free environment so that when confronted with a difficult situation, it would not be so stressful.

    John Dewey was a prominent theorist in the early 1900s. According to Dewey, play is a subconscious activity that helps an individual develop both mentally and socially. It should be separate from work as play helps a child to grow into a working world. As children become adults, they no longer "play" but seek amusement from their occupation. This childhood activity of play prepares them to become healthy working adults.

    Maria Montessori, an Italian educationist during the early 1900s, postulated that "play is the child's work." According to the Montessori method, which is still employed today in private schools, children would be best served spending their play time learning or imagining. Montessori play is sensory, using a hands-on approach to everyday tools like sand tables. The child sets her own pace, and the teacher is collaborative in helping the child play to learn.

    Jean Piaget is most noted for introducing the stages of child development. These stages directly relate to play, as he stated that intellectual growth occurs as children go through the stages of assimilation, or manipulating the outside world to meet one's own needs--playacting--and accommodation, or readjusting one's own views to meet the needs of the outside environment, or work.

    Lev Vygotsky suggested that children will use play as a means to grow socially. In play, they encounter others and learn to interact using language and role-play. Vygotsy is most noted for introducing the ZPD, or zone of proximal development. This suggests that while children need their peers or playmates to grow, they need adult interaction as they master each social skill and are ready to be introduced to new learning for growth.

    What are your views on the value of play?

    What is your setting’s vision for children around play?

    How do you and your team provoke, encourage and support and maximise play in children?


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    Play and child development

    It is also important that we all understand and recognise the stages of play, this helps us to have realistic expectations of children’s play and can help us when planning the curriculum. Below is a guide around child development and the stages of play.

    0-2 Years – Solitary play – Plays alone with limited interaction with other children.

    2-2 ½ Years – Spectator - Looks at other children around them but does not interact with them.

    2 ½ Years – Parallel – Plays alongside other children but does not interact with them.

    3-4 years – Associate – Starts to interact with others in their play, there may be fleeting co-operation in their play. Develops friendships and preferences for playing with some but not all other children. Play is normally in mixed gender groups.

    4 Plus – Co-operative – Plays together with shared aims of play with others. Play may be quite difficult and children are supportive of others in their play. As children reach a primary age children play tends to move to single gender groups.

    It can be useful to think about the children in your setting, what stages of play are they displaying, how do we set up the provision to support these stages of play development?

    Open end resources and play

    Recently we have discussed the value of open ended resource play and the benefits it has on children’s play. Open ended play materials encourage children to be curious, creative and direct their own play. There is no right or wrong way, no rules and no ultimate goal to reach.

    Recognising that children need time to engage in self-driven play is of essence among parents, caregivers and educators. Play promotes the cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of the child hence it should not be underestimated. Children also develop and strengthen skills such as language development, problem solving, negotiating, and sequencing skills which will be used in further learning (Singer et al., 2006).

    How have you started to increase your use of open ended materials with your setting?

    How has this impacted on the type of play children are displaying?

    So with all this in mind, are the children ever “just playing”? ……Play is learning and it is a child’s Right.

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