Inspiration on how to play

A Better Start

Our job is to open doors and windows to the land of possibilities" – Penny Tasson

Richard Newson

As early years practitioners working with children in their pre-school years, we all value the importance of play for young children.

We recognise that play is how children experiment with their world. It is how they unpack their experiences, and refine and develop their abilities. From the fine motor skills needed to use a paintbrush, to the awareness of give and take required to hold a conversation, play is the magical mixing bowl where these skills can be rehearsed and experimented with.

So it makes sense that we take time out to consider if we ourselves know how to play? Whilst doing our upmost to provide high-quality play experiences in nurseries, children’s centres and other early years settings.

After all, by the time a child moves on from nursery some will have clocked up 2,000 to 3,000 hours of childcare. As the adults responsible for shaping this precious time we have a considerable responsibility to the children and families we work with, to ensure children get the most from their play.

Asking ourselves about the types of play we find easy, and the areas where we get bored or disinterested, can help us be aware of how our personal experiences as a child may be shaping the play opportunities we provide today.

These questions were posed to early years practitioners attending a Knowledge Makes Change seminar convened by the Lambeth Early Action Partnership (LEAP). The event was the first in a series of lectures designed to inspire local practitioners with the latest research and practice developments on issues relating to early childhood development.

The seminar was led by Penny Tassoni, president of PACEY and a UK expert on children’s play. The session aimed to inspire practitioners to refresh their practice.

Here are some of the top tips provided to inspire practitioners:

  • Be aware of your own preferences. Penny was quick to point out that, for her, playing board games is play ‘heaven’. However, her enthusiasm could wither if a child wants to repeatedly play with a pull-along toy. When it comes to play, we all have types of play that come more naturally to us, we just need to be aware of them. So it is important to be honest and realise that sometimes supporting children’s play is hard, both for the practitioner and the parent. The good news is that supporting play is a skill, and one that can be learned. It is often easier to maintain and enjoy playing with a child when you understand how the play is supporting their development.
  • Child-led or Adult-led? There is a debate amongst practitioners about whether play should be led by the child or shaped by the adult who is present. In fact, there is room for both scenarios. Role-play games, where children rehearse different power dynamics, relationship skills and real-life situations, may be inhibited by the presence of an adult. On the other hand, adults can widen the possibilities of a child’s play by introducing new resources, vocabulary or directions. Adults are there to guide and shape play when required.
  • Support parents in creating the best playful experiences. Parents’ own childhood experiences of play are often varied and may not always enable them to relate to their children’s context. For many adults, their early play was defined by being outside, often focused around their local park or playground. These experiences may be at odds with their children, for whom the freedom of play is now often expressed indoors or involving screen time. Practitioners can lead by example, and encourage parents to find new ways to join in with their children’s play.
  • Develop your play programme. Given how much time a child can spend in a setting, practitioners should be wary that activities don’t stagnate. The Ofsted early years inspection framework considers this under its ‘intent, implementation and impact’ requirement that early years settings provide early education experiences that ‘over time are consistently and coherently arranged to build cumulatively’. In other words, asking children to make chocolate rice crispies for the third time this month, isn’t making the most of a developmental opportunity.
  • Audit the play taking place. It always helps to spend some time observing and considering the types of play that take place in your setting or within the child’s home (if you are visiting a family as part of your role). Look at how a child is spending their time. Ask yourself: what is particularly popular with the children, and is a broad spectrum of different types of play available to them?
  • Are creative materials available, what opportunities are there for children to be creative e.g. having junk modelling available, such as kitchen rolls to be made into binoculars for role play. What are the children’s interests and how can they become part of the play?

And is there time set aside for children to benefit from storytelling and looking at books? Early years practitioners and other professionals need to reflect on why some activities are of interest, or why some children do not engage in some types of play.

As the adults supporting children’s early play experiences we need model how to play, enabling a ‘balanced diet’ of different play opportunities. After all, children who only take part in a narrow set of play opportunities may not be developing a wider range of skills, vocabulary and knowledge. Asking ourselves if we know how to play, is a question practitioners should always be asking themselves.

Useful resources:

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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