Bridging the gap: Why play is so important in Early Years

The 'gap' is reference to early years learners that have struggled to grasp key skills that will take them through to primary education. This issue, which can be seen in children who fall behind when starting primary school, begins much earlier in their lives and we see regular evidence in early years’ settings nationwide.

Some children as young as 2 or 3 years-old can find ease with learning language skills, others struggle. Children of this age can also find focus and show attention, while some are more difficult to control and settle. Anyone who has experienced an early years setting can see the gap between these traits clearly. ‘Bridging the gap’ is something that educators and politicians talk about regularly, but to tackle it we need a hands-on approach.

Play is king

There is always a strong value placed on the importance of play within early years, it is a valuable tool in all children’s learning journeys. We know through study that this is how young children learn best. Socialising, teamwork, improving language and confidence, creativity and curiosity are just a short list of the lessons learned from play. When this is successful, children are much more prepared for a primary learning environment.

Teachers of older students though, sometimes parents too, can struggle to come to terms with how this system works. Surely an attentive class given clear instruction and exercise should learn better? Wouldn’t that help to bridge the gap if taught from a young age?

How we all learn best

We have to take a look at the children around us and a number of studies to answer the questions above. Look at our own children or the children of our friends and families. How do they gain their vocabulary, social skills and curiosity? Playful interactions. Between friends and with adults, these interactions are the key to learning valuable lessons which will help the transition to primary school.

A quick Google search can show the number of studies exploring the effects of ‘play deprivation’. Most of them lead to similar conclusions; that removing the opportunity for play in childhood is more likely to result in a decreased ability to learn in the early and primary years.

Everyone has a part in bridging the gap

You can see from watching young children at play, the level of thinking and learning which is taking place. Practitioners have a huge role in this development, they can provide the right resources whilst keeping early learners comfortable and safe. This leads to an environment where children can happily express themselves. These points also apply for the parents too, at home, giving their children the tools to explore and understand the world around them. The communication and relationship between nursery and parent should be nurtured as it is with the child.

Bridging the gap between nursery and primary school is not a quick, easy fix. With continued commitment to play with added learning outcomes, numeracy and literacy skills will naturally improve and ready children for the step up to primary.