To Play Or Not To Play?

Posted on: 16/06/2017

To play, or not to play…that really is the question when it comes to the Early Years Foundation Stage, especially here in the Independent sector. For many, the early years classroom remains that mysterious and terrifying place in every school where the children magically learn to read, write and count even though they seem to play all day! Indeed, ‘play’ and the value thereof, has long been a bone of contention for many - teachers, educational researchers and parents alike. However, it seems to me that the crux of the problem lies in how we define the ‘play’ that is afforded to our children.  

The EYFS curriculum offers a framework to support practitioners in helping young children learn and develop through play. It was developed through extensive discussion with professionals, academics and practitioners and represents an amalgamation of their knowledge and experience.  It begins with the premise that every child is unique and that learning and development occurs at different rates and in different ways. Additionally, there is a strong focus on enabling the fulfilment of each of the three ‘Characteristics of Effective Learning’: Playing and Exploring, Active Learning and Creating and Thinking Critically - fundamentals which have far-reaching connotations for the way in which we all learn*. The EYFS framework has also been designed to be flexible in responding to every child’s  individual needs and, while it sets out a number of goals and milestones, these are not set in stone.  

But what does that mean for your children?

Throughout Ducklings, Nursery and Reception,  ‘play’ at St. Helen’s College can be defined as cogent, purposeful and engaging exploration.  Yes, your children will be presented with a huge range of child-initiated, open-ended games, activities and opportunities for learning where we, as adult practitioners, take a step back and let the children lead the learning. However, these child-led learning opportunities are carefully planned to maximise potential and they are successfully coupled with inspiring teacher-led sessions to impart the vital academic knowledge of literacy, mathematics, communication and language that your child will need as he or she moves through our school. We are extremely fortunate to have an expert EYFS staff, who are astute in knowing how and when to guide the children, either with a carefully worded question here and there or a gentle nudge to try a different approach. The need for our children to develop motor skills, social skills, creativity, confidence and self-esteem (not to mention that all-encompassing sense of awe and wonder) is beyond doubt and play is vital in this. Whether it is seeing a group of children work together to write a recipe in the ‘Mud Kitchen’ or watching the joy on a child’s face on discovering that they are suddenly able to find a number bond to ten after ‘playing’ with the Numicon tiles in the sand tray, it is easy to see that purposeful, collaborative play is an essential part of learning. I think we would all agree that our children should not be subjected to endless rigorous academic teaching at such a tender age and the holistic approach to learning in the EYFS here at St. Helen’s College has proven consistent in enabling hugely successful outcomes for our children year on year.  


It is staggering to think that much of what we now take for granted about early education dates back to Friedrich Froebel’s revolutionary work as long ago as the early 19th century. It was Froebel who believed that young children should learn through play and through first-hand experiences with natural materials like sand and water and that physical education was of huge importance at school. Froebel put the relationship between educator and child at the heart of learning and saw each child as an individual whose wishes and choices should be respected. These were revolutionary ideas in his time – so revolutionary that both his school and his kindergarten were banned at different times by the Prussian authorities for such radical thoughts!  However, Froebelian theory continues to be at the heart of most current Early Years teaching and many other principles founded almost two hundred years ago continue to ring true with the St. Helen’s College ethos - not least in our school motto: Excellentium e Concordia - Excellence through Harmony.    

Over the past three weeks, we have undertaken our wonderfully successful EYFS Family Discovery Days across Nursery and Reception, opening our classrooms (both indoors and out) to offer parents a glimpse of the vast learning opportunities available to our younger learners - play included. As a staff, we were thrilled to see every parent stepping into their children’s shoes for a few hours, taking a full and active part in all the learning, play and fun! Each time you joined your children playing with blocks, with sand, water or clay, or became immersed in a scintillating bug hunt, or planted and tended plants in the ‘Garden Centre’, you were seeing planned, purposeful play in action. I do hope that it proved to be an enlightening and rewarding experience for those of you who were able to attend (as well as a lovely excuse to join in a bit of play yourselves!) and the many positive comments we have already received from parents have been truly heartwarming to hear.  

So, I urge you never to underestimate the benefits of play, no matter the age of your child and perhaps consider playing a game or two with your family this weekend. Play really can shape learning for life from the very start; a true building block to the future, limited only by our imagination.

I realise that I might be somewhat biased in this, but I am proud to admit to a deeply held belief that we can all look to the EYFS for inspiration in shaping the path for our future learners - there’s a reason we are named the ‘Foundation’ stage after all…

Ms Matthews


*Should the Characteristics of Effective of Learning only be prioritised in the Early Years?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTYhmRHDPl8