Early Years Education and the Importance of Play

The early years of education and the importance of play are key in the optimal development of a child. A child has an absorbent mind from birth to the age of 6 years old and is very much like a sponge.


play and early years education The Importance of Play in the Early Years

According to research, children gain seventy-five percent (75%) of their knowledge before the age of three. The argument is that birth to age three is a prime time for introducing cognitive learning. 

The early years are critical in the development of the child. Just as Montessori determined, to be human means to have a family and it is within the family that socialization and primary education of young children should take place beginning from birth. The two most influential sources in a child’s life that affect their educational process are the home and the school. 

The Montessori Method for the Early Years

Children will learn if the real world is presented in a way that children can use their hands and interact with it. This was the guiding principle that Dr. Maria Montessori began in Rome, Italy in the late 1800s. Children should not be forced to learn, rather they should be encouraged and today the Montessori Method is still being used all over the world. Montessori preschools offer many opportunities for the child to expand knowledge of the world during the early years when they are motivated by spontaneous interest. Individualized lessons are given across seven areas which include Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, Mathematics, Geography, History, and Science.

The principal goals of a Montessori teacher are the following;

  • To awaken the child’s spirit and imagination.
  • To encourage the child’s normal desire for independence and high sense of self-esteem.
  • Help the child develop the kindness, courtesy, and self-discipline that will allow him/her to become a full member of society; and 
  • To help the child learn how to observe, question, and explore ideas independently.

[Read more on the Montessori Method here]

For many parents, the Montessori early childhood programs offer the most comprehensive curriculum of preparing their child for elementary school. 

Throughout her life, Dr. Montessori continued to extend her work, developing a comprehensive model of psychological development from birth to adulthood. 

Montessori sees the child as having an absorbent mind, ready to soak up knowledge and experience like a sponge. Her theory was that, by supplying a child with ever more challenging intellectual tasks from an early age, you will end up with an educated child. While it may seem like play, this style of learning in the early years prepares a child for further education and life. 

A Successful Model of Play in School

In Finnish daycare centres, the emphasis is not on maths, reading or writing. The children actually receive no formal instruction in these areas until they are seven years old in primary school. In the early years, creative play is the focus of the child in Finland.

The main aim of early years education in the Finnish system is not explicitly “education” in the formal sense, but the promotion of the health and wellbeing of every child. The goal of daycare is to help them develop good social habits. They also learn how to make friends and respect others. 

Play gives children vital skills in how to learn. Carefully organised play helps develop qualities such as attention span, perseverance, concentration and problem-solving. 

According to David Whitebread, Director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development & Learning at the University of Cambridge, the qualities from learning through play are stronger predictors of academic success at the age of four than just academics. 

The time children spend in the early years, with its emphasis on play and socialisation, are “the most important years. 

According to PEDAL which is located in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education, launched in October 2015 and funded from the  LEGO Foundation. When children participate in organized play; it has a positive effect on their writing skills in the long term. Watch video on this research here 

How Parents Can Help with Play 

The more time parents interact with their young child the better the connection and opportunities to learn.

Parents and caregivers can turn basic everyday activities into interactive play. You can turn routine care times such as changing nappies, bath time or feeding your child into playful moments.

While shopping you can sing, talk, laugh and make faces at your baby. Read books with your child when they are very young and act it out. You can change your voice, make sounds and make it more interactive and playful. You can listen here for more from Cambridge University researchers, on the importance of parents play with babies and toddlers.

Another type of play that is important is social play. For younger children, singing nursery rhymes, playing word games, singing and dancing together can turn language development into real fun.

In addition, find opportunities for your child to meet and play with other children of different ages. This might be with siblings or cousins, or at a local playgroup or toddler group.

Man Carrying Child

Learn to Interact

Parents can encourage children of all ages to play more interactively with each other. They can do this by completing a puzzle together, creating their own game or re-enact a scene from a story together.

It is also important that fathers not only think that the type of play they can do with their children are physical play such as roughhousing. The key is to get involved with their child and to engage with them. [Read: Importance of Play]

When Parents are Sensitive or Responsive they take the time to pause and watch the child; and then try and follow their lead, doing what interests them. This style is one of the keys to supporting young children’s learning and social and emotional development.  This guide by Prof Paul Ramchandani, Professor of Play, on how fathers can be involved in the early years through play and engagement is a helpful guide. 

Play in all its forms is important from the early years and all through to adulthood. When deployed the right way there is a tremendous benefit.

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