Groundbreaking research into the effects of "playfulness" on learning is showing that young children achieve much more in less formal environments.
An independent study involving 150 children of nursery and reception age has already shown that "playful practice" is more effective for learning, says psychologist Justine Howard.
Dr Howard, leading the research from the department of humanities and social sciences at the University of Glamorgan in Pontypridd, says children as young as three and four can distinguish what is and what isn't play.
"The findings so far have shown that playful practice does work," says Dr Howard.
"The first stage was to define what children considered to be play and what was not. We found that children thought that being on the floor was play, but working at a table was not!"
Researchers used puzzles and building block exercises to compare eight minutes of play with eight minutes of formal practice, and found that tasks were completed significantly quicker during the play.
Children's development is at the heart of the Welsh Assembly government's foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds where learning takes place through structured indoor and outdoor play activity.
Pilots in 41 schools and nurseries have been hailed a great success in the first 18 months. The Government is aiming for a 1:8 adult to pupil ratio for the under-fives and a 1:15 ratio for five to seven-year-olds.
Dr Howard said that the initiative could be "hugely successful", but that small ratios and giving teachers confidence in teaching through play would be key.
CASE STUDY - MOUNT AIREY
Heather Cale allows her children to make daisy chains and paint numbers with water to teach maths. Not a conventional way to learn how to do sums, but nevertheless, learning through play is having remarkable results in a Pembrokeshire school.
Mount Airey school in Haverfordwest (pictured left) is now in the second year of piloting the foundation phase. It has six classes and more than 180 children signed up to the new way of learning. Heather, who teaches Year 1 and is the school's maths co-ordinator, says: "The foundation phase has been a great awakening for us. It's what we've always wanted to do."
Under-fives enjoy a 1:8 adult pupil ratio while the older pupils have a 1:15 adult pupil ratio. "The key is definitely the adult contact and interaction," says Heather. "This way we can see the process of learning and be involved in children's progress."
Heather says they have seen a real improvement after just 12 months. "A lot of my children are now confident with numbers. Some five and six-year-olds can count up to 100 and are doing adding and subtracting. Learning is now embedded in the games and activities so they're learning without realising it."
But it is no free-for-all. "The teaching is very structured and there is probably more planning involved, rather than less, because of all the activities that we do," says Heather.
Pupils have been known to go out walking in the rain and make mud pies.
"We use our environment as much as possible to learn," says Heather. "In the summer we'll be using our African hut to learn about multiculturalism; we'll be planting or making daisy chains to learn how to count, or making number patterns on the fencing by painting with water which dries in the sun."
Brenda Meredith, HMI, Estyn, will give a talk entitled "Introducing the Foundation Phase" on Thursday, May 25 at 10.30am. She will examine current developments and discuss its future implementation in schools