The Educational Value of Play as Work and Work as Play

Last Updated: 11 Feb 2020
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Arguably play performs a vital important role in the education and personal development of the child which can be incorporated within a wider educational framework both on its own as a child-led activity and as part of a curriculum. Play helps a child to develop social skills as well as their imagination, language skills, capacity for problem solving and motor skills. Play enhances a child’s capacity for creativity, which is a vital skill in later adult life.

Play is best appreciated when it allows the child to interact with the wider world through a free exploration of the objects and phenomena they encounter which is completely in line with their natural tendency to want to explore the world. Play also allows for a process of socialization whereby the child can develop their emotional expression and ability to empathize with other children through helping and sharing activities.

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The Italian educationalist Maria Montessori argued that a child led form of play is crucial and helps the individual to develop by organizing experiences through an engagement of the body and mind. This led Montessori to declare that ‘play is the work of the child’. In line with this approach, it will here be argued that play is vital to a child’s educational development. At the same time, in line with the eyfs curriculum, it is arguably beneficial if play is monitored so as to allow for an element of ’progression’ in the child’s learning activity. Though, arguably, this should not completely replace the child’s tendency to play freely without aim, which is a valuable experience. In my own childhood experience the ability to play without aim alone or with others was crucial to my creative learning as well as helping me to create social skills.

Tina Bruce, author of Early Childhood Education (2004) argues that: “Children learn best when they are given appropriate responsibility, allowed to make errors, decisions and choices, and respected as autonomous learners”, (Bruce, Learning Through Play, 7). Bruce continues to say that relationships are central to a child’s ability to play and learn effectively. Therefore it will be ultimately concluded here that the adults who have important roles in a child’s life are required to secure a stable and happy environment for the child to play, whilst monitoring that play to ensure a progression in the child’s development. It will also be argued that ‘play’ and ‘work’ are ambiguous categories which – in line with Montessori’s thought – should be allowed to overlap.


Play has several identifiable purposes which help children to develop into individuals capable of interacting within a wider social community. Firstly, it helps to enhance rational thought processes, developing the ability to formulate abstract concepts, making sense of the world of objects and developing problem solving skills. Through play children develop the ability to make decisions based on an increasing awareness of their physical environment. It is important to recall at this stage that, as Bruce argues: “Subjects such as mathematics and art cannot be separated; young children learn in an integrated way and not in neat, tidy compartments,” (Bruce, Learning Through Play, 7).

Play also helps children to develop coordination skills by using the muscles necessary to perform simple everyday activities. These ‘motor skills’ can be enhanced through grabbing, pushing and holding objects in everyday play and include ‘gross motor skills’ and ‘fine motor skills’, including hand-to-eye coordination. Random play is important in this process, though so is sport played to rules, which also helps to build team skills which are vital for social education.

Language and communication skills are also enhanced through play, whether through direct interaction with word cards or through talking and negotiating during organized or free role play.

Similarly, emotional skills are developed through play as the child learns how to interact with others and to compromise in sharing and waiting their turn. By interacting with other children around objects important lessons are learned about fair behaviour around limited resources. As children interact with their environment and with other children and adults they develop the seeds of personality, learning self-confidence, independence and ways of creative expression.

Play is often divided into categories, with each category being thought to be better at developing specific aspects of the young child’s personality and physical capacity. As Dr. David Whitbread argues in a study conducted to assess the value of children’s play, five categories are often identified: “physical play, play with objects, symbolic play, pretence/ socio-dramatic play and games with rules” (Whitbread, 18). So while physical play will be ideal for developing motor skills, symbolic play will be ideal for developing language and imagination skills. However, there is also a strong crossover between different types of play and to restrict or categorize them strictly might interfere with the child’s creativity. For example, symbolic play (using symbolic codes such as “spoken language, reading and writing, number” etc) may interact with physical play to become a kind of dance routine. The risk of very structured play is that these slippages between different types of learning will arguably not have the ability to emerge, and it is therefore of great importance that the level of monitoring allowed for under the eyfs curriculum does not interfere with the natural inclinations of the young learner to discover for themselves. Here it is important to note the great crossover between ‘play’ and ‘work’ and the way in which a child’s natural tendency to make play become work – and vice versa – should not be hampered.

To highlight this it is worth considering the way in which Montessori noted that children often gravitated to educational word play over playing with toys, drawing some interesting conclusions. In The Secret of Childhood she observed: “Though the school contained some really wonderful toys, the children never chose them. This surprised me so much that I myself intervened, to show them how to use such toys […] The children showed interest for a time, but then went away, and they never made such toys the objects of their spontaneous choice. And so I understood that in a child’s life play is perhaps something inferior, to which he has recourse for want of something better…” (Montessori, 128)

Whilst this has been taken as indicating that Montessori felt children should work and not play, what is arguably intended, rather, is that children when left to their own devices will make work of play and play of work. In this sense Montessori felt that children engage in play seriously with the intent of interpreting the world via its objects. Children ultimately play in order to become adults, so play for them is a type of work. Yet similarly, work – in its absolute necessity for the child’s own development – is a type of play in that it is something they wholeheartedly and joyfully want to interact in.

In light of this it is important that the child is permitted to choose their own play – which to them is something serious – and is, further, allowed to make their own mistakes so that they can prepare themselves for adult work, learning that mistakes can lead to new pathways. In this moment of childhood, where – provided the child has a safe environment – mistakes are rarely detrimental to the situation at hand (i.e learning), much can be earned without risk. As such, a strong ability to manage uncertainties and disappointments can be fostered. Allowing a child to slip from one activity to another is also crucial as it allows a child to freely express themselves and show who they are and who they want to become.

In his famous TED talk, the educator Sir Ken Robinson spoke of the case of a dancer called Gillian, who at school was referred with her mother to a doctor because she couldn’t concentrate in class. After talking with Gillian and her mother for twenty minutes, the Doctor asked Gillian’s mother to step outside the room. Before stepping outside he turned the radio on and then, with Gillian’s mother, watched Gillian inside the room, who began to dance. The doctor then said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school”, (School Kills Creativity, 2006). What this tells us is that if students are strictly required to engage in on or other activity at a time and are punished for straying outside the strict confines of a learning or playing activity they be wrongly categorized as disruptive when, in reality, they merely wish to express their true aptitude for a specific field of work.


As has been argued, play is essential to education and children should be allowed to play freely with a minimum amount of monitoring in order to ensure that this play leads to a progression in learning, in line with the findings of Bruce. It must also be note, in line with Montessori’s findings, that there is a big slippage between play and work and that children should be allowed to flow from different types of play and from playful work to serious play and vice-versa. As such the free movement of the child’s imaginative impulses should be encouraged as part of the efs with a wide interpretation being given to the role of ‘progression’ through play based learning activities, so that maximum freedom can be allowed for. In this way the child can be allowed to develop according to their own specific needs and modes of expression.


Bruce, T. 2011. Early Childhood Development. Hodder Education

Bruce, T. Learning Through Play, last accessed 7th December 2014,

Montessori, M. 1978. The Secret of Childhood. Orient Longman, Hyderabad

Schools Kill Creativity, last accessed 8th December 2014,

Whitbread, D. The Importance of Play, last accessed 7th December 2014,

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The Educational Value of Play as Work and Work as Play. (2018, Nov 15). Retrieved from

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