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Play and learning in the early years

Dec 1, 2021 | Early Childhood

Play and learning in the early years

Play and learning. Not opposites, but complementary.Associate Professor Christine Howitt discusses how play is what young children naturally do and how they best learn.


Play has been described as self-directed, engaging, meaningful, imaginative, and challenging to children. Play allows young children to explore, create, problem-solve, practice new skills, construct new understandings, enhance reasoning and thinking, and consolidate learning at their own pace in a safe environment. By allowing them to set their own goals, try new ideas and make decisions, play provides young children with agency.   

How does play support learning?

Play has been found to support young children’s social and emotional wellbeing; confidence; resilience; communication (both verbal and non-verbal); and literacy, numeracy and science knowledge and skills. Thus, play provides a strong foundation for building lifelong learning skills. 

Regarding science, young children use all their senses during play as they observe their world. They develop their science skills by using a range of materials and equipment, such as magnifying glasses or building blocks (see photo). They apply trial and error to answer their own questions or just see what might happen, satisfying their innate curiosity. As they talk about their ideas, theories and approaches utilised during play, young children use scientific language and reasoning. Through interactions with other children to solve problems, they learn cooperation and negotiation. Given time, young children can re-visit and re-engage with materials and activities to build on their ideas and observations, further developing their science skills and knowledge.  

How does play support learning?

Support play in three fundamental ways 

  1. Planning for stimulating play environments by using open-ended and flexible materials (such as loose parts) that enhance young children’s curiosity, exploration, and creativity. 
  2. Observing young children’s play to make informed decisions on when and how to join in the play. Intentional teaching practices during children’s play include challenging, co-constructing, explaining, imagining, listening, modelling, negotiating, questioning, and scaffolding. 
  3. Documenting young children’s play to plan future play experiences; assess their skills, knowledge, and dispositions; and to share with families to make learning more visible.  

Associate Professor Christine Howitt, Graduate School of Education, The University of Western Australia 


For more from Christine Howitt, see Eyes Wide Open, a new early childhood science resource that acknowledges the importance of play in children’s learning and the place of the educator in guiding that learning. You may also like Adventurous Play by Niki Buchan, a book that acknowledges the critical role of providing play opportunities.

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