Play underpins the learning and all aspects of children’s development. Through play, children develop language skills, their emotions and creativity, social and intellectual skills. For most children their play is natural and spontaneous although some children may need extra help from adults. Play takes place indoors and outdoors and it is in these different environments that children explore and discover their immediate world. It is here they practise new ideas and skills, they take risks, show imagination and solve problems on their own or with others. The role that adults have is crucial. Adults provide time and space and appropriate resources. These might include clothes, boxes, buckets, old blankets that will inspire play and fire children’s imaginations. They observe play and join in when invited, watching and listening before intervening. They value play and provide safe but challenging environments that support and extend learning and development.
Living, playing and learning are almost one and the same thing for babies and young children for much of the time. For young babies play begins in their first encounter in the womb with their mother’s hand touching the place where they have just kicked her stomach or when she sings or talks to them. A mother’s voice before the baby’s birth and her face, touch and gestures when the baby is born all play a part in creating emotional warmth and interaction which lead to play and learning for babies.
The first months
New babies are drawn to look at the human face and they begin to learn how to ‘read’ the face of their mother or another caregiver. They carefully watch her eyes and mouth – finding out all about her and they enjoy hearing her singing and seeing the different movements of muscles in her face. Playfulness begins in earnest – smiles become broader as the baby expresses delight at seeing special people like dad, or mum, big brother and grandparents. The movement of a mobile or seeing and hearing a black and white squeaky toy soon begins to interest young babies because they are finding out about the world through whatever they can see, hear, touch, smell and taste. By the time babies are reaching out and grasping small toys another phase has begun where baby may be able to shake a rattle or raise an object to the mouth to find out more about it by placing it in the mouth to explore it more thoroughly.
Movement leads to new possibilities for babies’ play and learning – rolling and reaching allows them to make things happen and by the time they are able to sit unaided they find out what they can do with a wooden block or a ball or a shaker. Physical dexterity then allows fuller exploration of scrunchy material, paper or anything within reach. As babies continue to explore the world in this way their understanding and enjoyment are enhanced by warm caregivers who know how to be partners in their play helping them to hold something the right way or showing them how to push or pull something; always watching over them yet allowing them ‘space’ so that they can enjoy some independence whilst keeping safe.
Babies and young children love to play with anything from their fingers and toes, to their toys, as well as with sounds and with adults and children. When young children play they learn at the same time, so play is a very important way for children to learn. If you watch very young children playing you will notice that they don’t always need other children or adults because they are quite happy playing alone, provided they can see and hear others near by. When babies play, their whole bodies are involved in reaching, grasping, rolling and touching things. As they become more mobile and they gain control over their bodies babies enjoy putting things together such as piling blocks on top of one another or banging balls together, or filling and emptying containers. Two year olds love to pretend, basing their play on imitating things they have seen you, or other people do, like vacuuming, talking on the telephone or playing a trumpet. When they play like this they don’t always need the real thing, as they will make do with anything that they can adapt to their pretend play. By the time they are moving towards their third birthday children begin to play with others more, and increasingly enjoy playing with other children. Babies and young children also enjoy looking at books, listening to stories and rhymes and joining in with songs. As they hear and join in with stories, songs and rhymes and look at books, young children become familiar with different sounds and words, and they begin to anticipate events. Babies and young children are learning all the time. They learn through looking, listening, touching, tasting, investigating, exploring, experimenting and through playing and talking. This means that young children need to have opportunities to