The Value of Play & How Preschools Structure Play to Enhance Learning

This article is aimed particularly at parents of young children from the international community who are either living in Singapore or moving too Singapore in the near future. We hope of course that it maybe it maybe of use to other parents as well.

What is play?

There are many different definitions of play. The following definitions from Webster’s are useful:

  • light, brisk, or changing movement (e.g. to pretend you’re a butterfly)
  • to act or imitate the part of a person or character (e.g. to play Pirates)
  • to employ a piece of equipment (e.g. to play with lego)
  • exercise or activity for amusement or recreation (e.g. to play handball)
  • fun or jest, as opposed to seriousness (e.g. to play peek-a-boo)
  • the action of a game (e.g. to play blind man’s bluff)

Firstly let me declare a bias – and then hopefully justify that bias:

I am a believer in the value of play and the critical role is plays in the development of children. In my experience it is the single most important thing that parents and a Preschool / Kindergarten should encourage and develop in their children.

Let me justify this view from 3 different perspectives

  1. Observational: teaching experience and reinforced with personal experience with own children
  2. Academic: There has been much academic research in this area that support the important of play in child development. A couple of links to online articles which cover some of these finding are provided
  3. The innate nature of play: When you observe both children and adults learning new technology it is interesting that the vast majority will take it out of the box and start playing with it immediately. The manual is left untouched! Apple were very smart to make their iPhones and iPads very intuitive and then they did away with the manual altogether.

Academic literature and research has identified many benefits from play. Some of the most significant benefits are summarised below:
  • Better Social skills
  • Promotes Critical thinking & Problem solving
  • Develops creativity
  • Ensure learning through a wide range of senses
  • Develops both gross and fine motor skills
  • Helps with language development
  • Helps a child to become a risk-taker

Structured play involves the teacher, or parent, playing a central role in setting up the play opportunities for their children and making sure that they get exposure to all the different types of play.

This approach could involve the following activities at a preschool:

  • Developing play opportunities in the context of topics e.g. for the Topic ‘my body’ having a doctors surgery as a role play area.
  • Developing play opportunities in the context of the curriculum e.g. using play dough to develop fine motor skills or as an introduction to letters, or playing with water which helps children understand the basics of volume/maths skills ‘How many of the blue cup fits into green bucket?”.
  • Setting up play stations – and letting children choose the tasks that most interest them – each station could have a different focus – one could be focusing on eye/hand co-ordination – e.g threading beads or posting letters in a box, another could have a maths focus – sorting colour bears into groups or laying out a teddy bears picnic – making sure each bear gets one cup, one plate etc.
  • Having a dressing up area and ideally a small stage or platform plus a mirror, for children to play and “perform” on – which helps develop confidence, creativity and language
  • Providing both Indoor and outdoor play areas to provide a wide variety of play opportunities in different settings – some children love being outdoors bouncing balls or walking along a wooden beam etc.
  • Monitoring the play – phase in / phase out as required. Being prepared to intervene to teach children how to play or share  if necessary

It is important to note that this approach does not stop children from engaging in imaginative play or forces them down a single path – it simply provides a starting point for a play session. It is also interesting to observe how children as they get older always seek to structure their play – making rules as they go along seems to be an innate part of group play.

Here are some simple, and probably obvious, tips on how parents can encourage play:
  1. Create different play areas at home – have a drawer in the kitchen with  kitchen role play in it so that your child can copy you ( or your helper!) cooking ,  have a bucket of bath toys in the bathroom etc.
  2. Pull out toys and games for your children – quite often children forget what toys they have or gravitate towards the same toy every day.
  3.  Make toys easily accessible and rotate your toys around so that chidren don’t get bored.
  4. Participate in play together – children are always thrilled when Mummy or Daddy join in
  5. Have an art/ painting area with lots of paper, colouring glue, glitter.
  6. Many of the best play situations just take a little thought – throw a large sheet over a table and give your child a torch or take the saucepans out of the cupboard, turn them upside down and give your child a wooden spoon to hit them.
  7. Ration the use of computers and TV’s.
  8. Arrange Play dates – very important if you only have one child

Our practical advice to parents is to take a little bit of time to reflect on the value of play and to see if structured play makes a difference to your child’s learning experiences. Research the different methods Preschools & Kindergartens adopt and then select one that follows an approach that you believe in and can also practice at home as well.

All children love to play – it’s what they do best. As a Kindergarten I feel we should make sure that our children get the most out of play and most of all have fun whilst they do it! I hope you enjoyed this article and wish you well in your plans to ensure play is part of your child’s experience in their formative years – and throughout their lives. Play on!

For more in-depth reading on the value of play:
Early childhood news Waldorf Research Institute Play and the iPad : When Tablet turns teacher -  A Financial Times article

About Katie Terry

Katie Terry has over 15 years’ experience of teaching in the UK, Hong Kong and Singapore. She has taught at kindergarten and primary level including children with special needs.

Katie was an international child herself and spent most of her childhood in Hong Kong. Katie is a Director of Rain Trees Kindergarten in Singapore – for more information and her contact details please visit