02/07/2013 08:19 BST | Updated 31/08/2013 06:12 BST

Let the Children Play

I have been working in the early education field for 15 years. I have never met anyone in the field who has not agreed that early learning is founded on play.

They've put me on the fast track

and I hope I'll be OK-

I learnt to read quite quickly

but I never learnt to play.

(Peter Dixon - I am the Best in School)

I have been working in the early education field for 15 years. I have never met anyone in the field who has not agreed that early learning is founded on play. This has been reflected in training , books and government guidance materials. From High Scope to Montessori and Reggio Emilia, including research and curriculum guidance from around the world, it is very difficult to find early education materials that don't make reference to play.

Children learn best through first-hand experiences... the purpose of play-active learning is that it motivates, stimulates and supports children in their development of skills, concepts, language acquisitions/communication skills and concentration. It also provides opportunities for children to develop positive attitudes and to demonstrate awareness/use of recent learning, skills and competencies, and to consolidate learning.

"[ Welsh Assembly Government. 2008. Play/active learning: Overview for 3- to 7-year olds.

Mrs James a retired Reception class teacher stated

My whole career was built on structured and child initiated play led activities. I KNOW that was best for those children......... It was wonderful to be able to be spontaneous, to go and collect conkers from the trees without endless paperwork to fill out to ensure it was safe.

When I was a child the first year of school was called the babies class with half of the day dedicated to child initiated play and pre-school was called playgroup. When we weren't at school we played in the street with our friends. This free, self directed play is becoming less common as parents send their children to more and more organised activities. Early education professionals are becoming increasingly concerned that it is being stripped from the early years too.

I was alarmed therefore to read the recent BBC article entitled 'Play being pushed aside in Nurseries'. The article is written in response to standards that have been published for the new Early Years Teacher qualification, a post graduate qualification for those who wish to lead education and care from birth to end of Foundation Stage (the first year of school).

The standards outline the criteria that students will have to meet to obtain the status. Many are admirable

• Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of how babies and children learn and develop.

• Engage in sustained shared thinking with children.

• Know and understand attachment theory, its significance and how effectively to promote it.

What about play?

Knowledge of synthetic phonics for teaching reading and appropriate strategies for teaching mathematics are specific requirements but play doesn't feature in any of the standards.

Play does however feature heavily in Professor Cathy Nutbrown's independent review of early education and childcare qualifications commissioned by the government.

In response to the question,

What do those working in early education need to know and do?

Nutbrown recommends courses that are 'linked to a thorough understanding of child development and play.' So why remove any reference to play in the published standards?

It could be argued that since the EYFS is a play based curriculum, standards such as

Demonstrate a critical understanding of the EYFS areas of learning and development.

imply that early educators need to know about learning through play but why not make it explicit?

Surely training to be an early years teacher without learning about play is the same as learning to be a doctor without learning about medicine.

Without an explicit mention of learning through play, I worry that early education could become increasingly academic in focus. As nurseries become more structured, children are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioural difficulties as they are thrown into an environment that is unsuitable.

Parents are constantly bombarded with advice about what children should be able to do before they are 5. It's not surprising that they 're anxious that their children aren't building the skills they need to succeed once they reach full time school. We need strong early years leaders who can ease parental anxiety, outlining the importance of all the underlying skills for literacy and early school life that children acquire through play and talk. Without this more nurseries will bow to misinformed parental pressure to become more academic.

Why Should Early Years Teachers Know about Play?

Academic learning leads to rigid play and this develops rigid people

(Jennings 1993).

This doesn't mean that children should be always left to play alone, the teachers role is to extend the play beyond the child's own experience to help them develop new ideas. Finding the balance between allowing children to follow their own interests and encouraging them to try new things is a difficult task and needs a thorough understanding of the theory of play. By playing with children and observing them at play we notice things, we discover the child's interests, we ask the right questions, learning about the whole child, how to motivate them and when they are ready to move to the next stage. Through children's play we notice that not all children are ready to learn the same things at the same time and in the same way.

Play is also key to social and emotional development. Play helps children to understand themselves and others. In play children act out their conflicts and arrive at a solution that is useful to them, they confront their fantasy villains and interpret and explain feelings about reality.

"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things."

~ Plato

Children have played since the beginning of time, it is what children do. How can we begin to teach young children if we do not understand the very essence of their being? Play is a small and simple word but leads to great things. Would it be too much to ask to put it back on the agenda?