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Games with everything to play for

Check your nearesals, urges Kate Lee

As any child knows, toys are nice but you can play very well without them.

All you need is time, imagination and whatever comes to hand.

Formally recognised within the Children Act, play could be said to be enjoying its greatest ever degree of popularity in the corridors of power.

Many early years practitioners view it as essential to a young child's social, emotional and intellectual growth.

In the race to plan activities that reflect all six areas of the foundation stage curriculum it can, however, be easy to overlook the sort of play opportunities that do not necessarily fit into this scheme but are hugely enjoyable and provide a rich seam of learning potential.

Think back to your best play memories from your own pre-school days. Which are the clearest and most powerful? Do those memories relate to toys, or to people, places, emotions and sensations?

Perhaps you remember making and playing in dens, the woodland hide-out, the tent made of billowing sheets, the secret lair behind the sofa.... Do you recall the delicious gloom, the smell of dust, the power of having your own front door? Or perhaps you spent hours making perfume out of rose petals, enjoying a sensory feast of sweet scents, delicate colours and velvety petals.

Such play experiences may be "off the record" but they are powerful, not least because they are defined by a sense of ownership that is one of the key characteristics of true play.

So is it possible to bring "unofficial play" of this sort into a nursery school or reception classroom? Yes. A good place to start is by checking scrap facilities in your area, potentially a source of all manner of resources.

Your toy library (many of which are run on a voluntary basis) may be able to help you find resources of this sort (tel Play Matters: 020 7255 4600 to find your nearest library).

If there is no formal recycling centre nearby, you can still approach businesses for big boxes, lengths of tubing and so on. Such contact might spark other useful play and learning opportunities: once a relationship is in place, perhaps the managing director could be persuaded to come in and read the children a story?

If storage facilities permit, run a scrap week, encouraging parents and carers to bring in things such as old sheets or containers. There is lots of scope for fostering knowledge and understanding of the world if an emphasis is placed on recycling (why we do it, how we do it), and you could link the resources you obtain to a particular area or type of play, such as building or role-play.

Or you could simply cry: "Let's make tents!" and re-live the delicious gloom.

After all, when children see adults getting involved in their games, it sends a clear and positive signal: play is valuable, and valued. And that is something every child deserves to hear.

l Following lobbying, a late amendment was made to the Children's Bill.

The Act specifies five outcomes for children:

* Physical and mental health

* Protection from harm and neglect

* Education, training and recreation

* The contribution made by children and young people to society

* Emotional, social and economic wellbeing.

The inclusion of "recreation" is the important point, since as a matter of policy it positions play alongside other key outcomes for the first time.

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