Chapter 1: The centrality of play in early childhood

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Chapter authors

  • Nancy Stewart
  • Kierna Corr
  • Julia Henderson

Chapter overview

Play is a fundamental in childhood, and enshrined as a right within the United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Although children play in different ways depending on cultural and environmental contexts, playing is a universal part of development and learning which helps children’s successful growth into complex and capable human beings. Today’s children are growing up in times of uncertainty and rapid change; extensive opportunities to play are crucial for them to develop flexible minds, creativity, ability to work with others, and resilience to manage future challenges.  This chapter first considers the meaning of play, and its centrality in early childhood development. With examples of children’s play, we examine the policy contexts of play in early years settings across the nations of the UK.  Finally, we suggest some necessary conditions to secure play as a right for all young children.

Chapter objectives

  • To evidence play as central to child development
  • To demonstrate uneven policy support for play pedagogy around the UK
  • To exemplify strong and developing play practice
  • To argue for intentional focus to ensure and support play, alongside knowledgeable and sensitive adults as a right.


These photos show a covered structure with retractable cover for wet or very sunny days, welly storage & the gate families use as a main entrance with little peep holes so children can see their parent/carer as they leave. 

Kierna  Corr

Further reading

Broadhead, P., Howard, J. & Wood, E. (Eds.) (2010). Play and learning in the early years. London Sage.

Bruce, T., Hakkarainen, P. & Bredikyte, M. (2017). The Routledge International Handbook of Early Childhood Play. London: Routledge.

Canning, N., (2020) Children’s Empowerment in Play: Participation, Voice and Ownership. London: Routledge/TACTYC.

Digital Futures Commission (2020) Panorama of Play literature review. London: 5Rights Foundation 

Drake, J. (2014). Planning for Children’s Play and Learning, 4th Ed.  London: Routledge.

Fearn, M., and Howard, J. (2012). Play as a resource for children facing adversity: An exploration of indicative case studies Children and Society   26, (6)456-468.  

Gauntlett, D., Ackermann, E., Whitebread, D., Wolbers, T. and Weckstrom, C. (nd) The future of play: Defining the role and value of play in the 21st century, Lego Learning Institute.  

Goldstein, J. (2012) Play in Children’s Development, Health and Well-being.  Brussels:Toy Industries of Europe.   

Gray, P. (2013) Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life. NY: Basic Books.

Christina O’Keeffe, Sinead McNally, Teacher experiences of facilitating play in early childhood classrooms during COVID-19, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 10.1177/1476718X221087064, 20, 4, (552-564), (2022).

Christina O’Keeffe, Sinead McNally, ‘Uncharted territory’: teachers’ perspectives on play in early childhood classrooms in Ireland during the pandemic, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 10.1080/1350293X.2021.1872668, 29, 1, (79-95), (2021).

Play England (2012) A World Without Play: A Literature Review.  

Tovey, H. (2007) Playing Outdoors. Spaces and Places, Risk and Challenge. Buckingham: McGrawHill/Open University Press

Whitebread, D., Basilio, M., Kuvalja, M., and Verma, M. (2012). The importance of play: A report on the value of children’s play with a series of policy recommendations.   Brussels: Toy Industries of Europe (TIE)   

Whitebread, D. (2018) Play: the new Renaissance.  International Journal of Play, 7:3, 237-243, DOI: 10.1080/21594937.2018.1532952

Yogman,, M. Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K. and Michnick Golinkoff, R. (2018) The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, Pediatrics, 142 (3): e20182058.  

Zosh, J., Hopkins, E., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. & Whitebread, D. (2017) Learning Through Play: A review of the evidence. The Lego Foundation.  

Supplementary material

Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Hub
Projects, resource library of research and blogs on play and learning, which can be filtered by area of interest and age group

Learning Through Play in Pre-school and Foundation Stage
Guidance from Northern Ireland supporting practice in all curriculum areas through play-based learning

Learning Outdoors in Pre-school and Foundation Stage
Guidance from Northern Ireland focuses on play and learning outdoors

Learning, Playing and Interacting
Guidance booklet describing a continuum of play and learning, including how a child learns and the adult role, with case studies

The Lego Foundation
This website includes information, ideas, blogs and research: “Children already know play is their superpower. We’re here to convince the grown-ups”

Harvard Center on the Developing Child, The role of play in any early years setting
This video describes the impact of play in supporting responsive relationships, strengthening core life skills, and reducing sources of stress – fostering children’s resilience to hardship, helping to build their brains.

Harvard Center on the Developing Child, Building Babies’ Brains Through Play: Mini Parenting Master Class
This video from UNICEF describes the most important serve and return interactions through play which help build stronger connections in the brain, the foundation for all of a child’s future learning, behaviour, and health.

Birth to 5 Matters, Early Years Coalition
Guidance on play and learning, including playful adult input across all areas

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