Most of us can remember our first day of school (or have an embarrassing photo to remind us); uniforms slightly too big, school bags at the ready, that onrush of emotions, nerves, and excitement. It’s not surprising that starting school is so memorable; it is one of the biggest changes a young child will experience. With all the new possibilities and opportunities that school has to offer, there is a lot to be excited about, but starting school also brings its challenges.
It can feel like quite a sudden change when young children are faced with new teachers whose attention they have to share with new children, adjusting to new routines, rules, and expectations, and all in an unfamiliar place. This can be hard as at 4 or 5 years old, children are very much still learning how to talk to, share, and get on with others (social skills) and can find paying attention, following instructions, and stopping what they are doing when they are told (executive function skills) really challenging. Of course, being in school is the perfect opportunity for children to develop and practice all these skills!
A positive start in Reception can have long lasting benefits for children as they move through their school lives. It makes all the difference to children’s belief in themselves as learners, how much they like school, the quality of their relationships, and their academic achievement. While there are lots of different ways that all of us (early years settings, schools, families and communities) can help children transition into school smoothly, we want to talk about one way which is surprisingly overlooked. Something that has the potential to promote adjustment, build relationships, and ignite a love of learning: play!
The question is, how can play help with the challenge of starting school?
Young children are experts at play!
One of the natural skills and talents that young children often bring to school is their ability to play. Despite this, starting school can mean children do not get nearly as much opportunity to play as they’re used to which can understandably be a difficult adjustment. Bringing play into the classroom creates a perfect opportunity to draw on children’s existing skills, while they also get to grips with some of the new skills that being in a classroom has to offer. When children have the chance to play in school, this fosters their strengths and can make it easier for them to settle as play is such familiar territory. Children in reception classes have also highlighted themselves how important play is in helping them to adjust when they start school.
Play helps to build relationships
Strengthening the teacher-child relationship is important because children who have a warm, close bond with their reception teacher tend to have more enjoyment and success in school (often for years to come). Play is a great way for these relationships to begin to grow. Some research has linked play-based interventions to benefits for children, especially when a child gets to play one-to-one and regularly with their teacher.
For example, when a teacher follows the child’s lead in play, they learn more about what interests them and how the child communicates best. In playing with their teacher, the child receives positive attention during an enjoyable activity and the interaction can be used to support the child in recognising their own feelings and emotions. This combination can improve the warmth in the relationship and children may also show less challenging behaviour over time.
Play is relevant to friendships too, which is a significant part of children’s early school adjustment. Children say that play is really important in making new friends, as it provides a way in to initiate and maintain these connections. At the same time young children can find it difficult to know how to start, join, and sustain play with new friends and might need support from teachers.
Play sparks joy in learning
Play is naturally rewarding for children because it is fun and unlocks their drive to explore the world around them. Play can be a great opportunity for children to have some control in shaping their own experiences and discovering things for themselves (which they don’t always get the chance to do in other areas of their lives). When children use play in this way, they can become more confident in their own abilities and this can strengthen their motivation to explore and learn. In this way play can harness and develop children’s intrinsic motivation – if a behaviour is pleasurable and rewarding children are keen to do it again and again even when it gets challenging (for more on this and related ideas check out Soizic Le Courtois’ blog on Zest!). Children tend to be full of optimism when they start school although this can fall away as children move through school. Encouraging play could be a way to extend this enthusiasm for learning throughout children’s time in school.
Play can work for the curriculum
Adding in more opportunities for play can seem daunting when there is a busy curriculum to deliver. However, play and learning goals do not have to be separate. There is growing interest in how play-based curricula can be used to encourage playful exploration whilst still having clear learning outcomes. Guided play in particular takes this approach; the teacher has a clear learning goal in mind and is then on hand to guide and extend children’s learning as they lead their own exploration. This could be through co-playing, commenting on the child’s exploration, asking open-ended questions, or making suggestions about different ways the children can play and explore. More research is needed but it seems guided play may help to improve children’s academic and executive function skills during the first school year.
Putting play into practice in the classroom:
- Where possible (it can be hard in a busy school day!) find brief opportunities to play one to one with children in your class. In these moments, letting the child lead can provide lots of insight into their individual interests and helps to form close relationships.
- There might be opportunities to introduce guided play into your existing lesson plans. Consider what the learning goal is and whether play could fit into this. As the children play, you might find you can extend their thinking through open-ended questions.
- Children have a lot they can tell us about what helps them to settle in well to school. Checking in with children in groups or individually can help us to learn about their experience and how best to support them as they start in reception.
For more information on some of the factors which children told us are important for school adjustment, check out the resources linked below.
- Learn more about the transition to school from the Educational Transitions and Change Research Group
- Read more on how guided play promotes learning in the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development
- Reconstructing readiness: Young children’s priorities for their early school adjustment (O’Farrelly et al., 2020)
Find out about children’s own priorities when starting school by watching this short video from the Children’s Thoughts About School study.
Kayleigh Skene and Christine O’Farrelly
University of Cambridge Research Assistant and Research Associate