Why play is key to developing independent learning in the early years

Many people are sceptical of the benefits of play, but one teacher argues that it is the best way to ensure that children are learners for life

Tim Barber

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Many people in education take rather a pessimistic view of a heavy play-based approach to teaching and learning in early years. But I strongly believe that children learn best when they are actively engaged in their play.

Play is an essential part of every child’s development. It is our job as skilled early years practitioners to facilitate learning by manipulating and supporting play to ensure learning is irresistible. If we model and scaffold effectively, there’s no need to put them in a box and spoonfeed them an education.

Walking into our vibrant early years Reception unit, where play is used as the main vehicle for learning, things may seem a tad chaotic to the untrained eye. But if you look closer, you will see that the indoor and outdoor learning environment has been planned to a high standard and to develop children’s independence skills. Continuous provision has been organised in a way that enables children to carry on learning in the absence of an adult. Resources within each area of the provision are well organised and are age and stage appropriate, which enables children to make choices. The environment is ever changing and supports pupils to develop the skills that they need.

Themed writing area

Take, for example, the writing area.

At the very beginning of the academic year, when the children first come into Reception, practitioners lay large pieces of plain paper on the floor. Children self-select from a carefully chosen range of stimulating and attractive mark-making tools, which are clearly labelled and well organised into different sizes and colours. Children draw and experiment with early mark-making independently, with support from adults only if it is required. By lying on their stomachs, children are able to develop core stability. Tummy time builds upper body strength, which is something that is required before the child is able to hold a pencil correctly.

Further into the year, as children develop their phonological awareness, tables, clipboards and writing tubes are introduced in the writing area. Children are offered a wider range of stationery, which is often dressed in their interests. Dressing a pencil box with a Spiderman theme often encourages young boys to access the writing area independently and write for a purpose.

Healthy balance

So what are teachers and early years foundation stage (EYFS) practitioners actually doing while children are engaged with their play? Contrary to popular belief, there is no time for us to sit back and drink cups of tea while the children have a lovely time.

Achieving superb outcomes at the end of EYFS is largely managed by the facilitation of a healthy balance of both adult-led and child-initiated learning.

Teachers achieve high-level engagement within adult-led activities by taking the time to deliver them in a playful manner.

There is absolutely no doubt that your average five-year-old prefers to learn phonics on the push bikes outdoors, rather than being stuck on the carpet of terror indoors.

Tim Barber is assistant headteacher at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School and Preschool, and leading foundation stage practitioner at Hampshire County Council

This is an edited article from the 17 June edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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