Play’s the thing: new research directions on the importance of play from the University of Cambridge

A four year old girl (who happens to be my daughter, but this could be almost any child in that age group) is gathering sticks and leaves in the park. She uses them to make a tiny tent on the base of a large oak tree. I don’t interfere with her play, although I’m just near enough to make out some of the things she’s saying to her imaginary pets. Apparently, there is a storm coming and they have to protect themselves while she’s away. Later on, she will explain the whole situation to her friend, who’ll join her important project, and together they’ll ensure the safety of their extraordinary collection of pets – ranging from squirrels to unicorns. This is play in its purest form and, as most parents and early years educators would say, it seems to be extremely beneficial for the overall development and learning of children.

outdoor_children_playing

The impact of spontaneous play on early learning cannot be overestimated – Alphablocks Nursery School & Pre-Prep, Hadley Wood

We know that free and spontaneous play is under threat, especially for children in the 2-5 age group. This is mainly because of perceived threats due to our ideas about levels of traffic, crime, germs, or simply due to a lack of time. And there is no doubt whatsoever that most parents and educators understand the importance of play and want to overcome those perceived threats.

Play in all its rich variety is one of the highest achievements of the human species. It underpins how we develop as intellectual, problem-solving, emotional adults and is crucial to our success.

Dr David Whitebread, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

But how exactly is play beneficial? In what ways does it impact early learning? How does it help morph the adults we become?

These questions are complex and far-reaching. They are not easy to research and they are certainly not easy to answer with sufficient evidence from the field.

A step in answering these questions is being taken by the new Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDaL) at the University of Cambridge.

Preliminary evidence suggests that play may be beneficial in the following areas of learning and development:

  • Play could be supporting the early development of children’s self-control.
  • Play may also support children’s abilities to develop awareness of their own thinking processes.
  • In turn, this influences how effectively children go about undertaking challenging activities.

This sort of evidence makes us think that giving children the chance to play will make them more successful and creative problem-solvers in the long run.

Dr Sara Baker, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

One of the key questions, of course, will be how to take the evidence that is coming out of this and other similar research projects and use them to drive best practices in early years education.

We are keeping a close eye on these new research directions here at Alphablocks Nursery School & Pre-Prep and are always looking for ways in which they can inform our day-to-day practice.


Alphablocks Nursery School & Pre-Prep in Hadley Wood provides outstanding education to children aged two and a half to six years old. The school employs only the best teachers and practitioners, who implement a child-centred approach to learning. Our primary goal is to empower children to become confident learners in an outstanding environment in terms of its educational potential, balanced play opportunities, safety and security. We serve the local communities of Hadley Wood, Potters Bar, Cockfosters, High Barnet, Totteridge and Whetstone.