Engaging young children in play

Children get more out of play when they take the lead. But the science shows us adults can – and should – join in. Here’s why

Children and grown-ups: the perfect play partners 

Whether you’re a parent, nursery leader or teacher, if you get involved in play – meeting children where they are to share and encourage their ideas – you’ll both get lots out of it.  

Resist the urge to take control. Instead, try asking open questions that invite little ones to explore for themselves. Simply switching “here’s how to build a marble run” to “who can build the fastest marble run?” can unlock a powerful world of learning through play.   

When children try things out for themselves, they remember what they’ve learnedPlus they get the burst of joy that comes with each new discovery.  

Four ways to play – and how they work together

Broadly, there are four ways of playing. And some make it easier to learn than others. To compare them, let’s think about decorating a cake.

1. Free play
2. Guided play
3. Games
4. Instruction

Parents and teachers often swing between free play and instruction, spending less time in the middle

But for children to get the most from their play, the middle is where you want to be.  

In fact, one study of 4-5 year olds looked at learning about shapes through instruction, free play, or guided play. The guided play group had a better grasp of shapes both after the lesson and a week later.  

As a grown-up, your encouragement is everything. Knowing you’re there to share their interest and guide (but not control) makes children feel even more confident to try new things – and keep on learning. 


Our paper’s brimming with research and stories 

How do you guide play well? How do different countries include play in their early learning programmes? We've gathered the latest research and case studies for our whitepaper 

Take a look to get the lowdown. Spoiler: all the science points to one thing. When grown-ups are good at guiding and facilitating play, children are even more likely to thrive. 

Dive into our latest news, research, blogs and project stories


Let's play


More research