nursery girls playing outside

The Importance of Play in the Pre-school Year: Key Facts Every Parent Should Consider

01 Sep 2022
nursery girls playing outside

Do you have a child who is 3 or 4 years-old who will be entering their pre-school year in August?

Are you wondering what they should be learning in pre-school?

Developing and learning through play form the foundations of all our early learners’ experiences.

Why is learning through play so important?

Play in the Nursery

Play and early development

The importance of play in a child’s early development cannot be underestimated. Play is essentially a child’s ‘work’ and helps develop cognition while also being lots of fun. It is through play and play experiences that children develop independence and self-confidence. They learn about feeling safe, happy and loved. Play gives a child an opportunity to interact – verbally or non-verbally – with their peers which enhances necessary social and language skills needed throughout life.

Albert Einstein states: “Play is the highest form of research and this is true when we consider that when children play they are processing learning, developing deeper awareness of educational concepts and refining their understanding of the world.” This includes making important assessments of risk which in turn leads to individuals who are far safer in the long term. Play also inspires children towards physical movement and exercise which allows for development of both fine and gross motor skills. It is these attributes that are crucial in a more formal educational classroom setting as they enable children to be still and concentrate on acquiring knowledge while displaying muscular dexterity, such as balance and coordination, where necessary.

In Scotland, the most widely recognised definition of play is:

Play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child. Play can be fun or serious. Through play children explore social, material and imaginary worlds and their relationship with them, elaborating all the while a flexible range of responses to the challenges they encounter. By playing, children learn and develop as individuals, and as members of the community. (Raising the Bar)

It is widely recognised in education and health sectors that the amount of time children spend engaged in active, spontaneous, creative play is dwindling. Children in the 21st Century do not have the same play opportunities as their parents and grandparents. By providing access to regular play experiences, particularly in the outdoors and using natural resources, we allow children to develop and grow socially, emotionally and physically. Play can sharpen a child’s senses and encourage the development of imagination. We are helping to foster individuals who are in turn more resilient, more robust and more resourceful with a natural curiosity about the world.

Playing freely is a natural instinct for children – they are pre-disposed to run, jump, swing, climb and explore. It is where they learn about rules, turn-taking, sharing, co-operation and develop a sense of fair play. Part of an adult’s duty of care is to enhance and facilitate opportunities for spontaneous play. Early Years teachers and practitioners plan for play experiences and ensure there is continuity and progression of learning and skills. It is important for adults not to inadvertently curtail a child’s freedom to express with restrictions and disapproval, however unconscious or well-meaning. Rather, we should seek to encourage play in all its forms and educate children gradually and gently on making independent, beneficial assessments of risk and danger. The Former Scottish Minister for Education and Early Years, Adam Ingram, states that “we all have a part to play in promoting risk management rather than risk aversion”. Early Years specialists, therefore, look for safe ways to provide for and facilitate positive play experiences which may seem to the child to be spontaneous and ‘free’ yet have underlying - and often multi-faceted – layers of learning.

Play in our nursery

At St George’s, we adopt a positive approach to children’s play experiences. We seek to enhance learning at all stages of the curriculum and engage children in active – often outdoor – pursuits of knowledge. Nowhere is this more important than in our nursery. To focus particularly on our preschool children, they enjoy many opportunities to enhance their learning - developing social, emotional and physical skills - in both indoor and outdoor environments, using a wide range of natural and synthetic resources. We believe in the benefits of ‘real’ play using open-ended resources and loose-parts which promote language development and enhance creativity. Play can be physical, developing muscle strength and coordination while offering exercise opportunities. Play can also be expressive which allows children to process and understand their emotions and feelings – this can be developed through imaginative play or through musical and dance-oriented activities.

How our teachers encourage play

Our Early Years teachers and practitioners are skilled in identifying and facilitating engaging, safe play experiences which build children’s self-esteem and resilience alongside their physical, emotional and social skills. When we talk to children about their play we use a range of questioning and predicting techniques that allow us to better understand stages and schemas of development. We believe that it is a privilege to be invited to join the play activities of our young children. At St George’s we view play as a crucial partner in the many, varied learning opportunities that are provided for our preschool children in their daily quest for learning and, more importantly, in their desire to have fun.

There are several stages of play that have been identified by a variety of educational bodies. Each type of play is valuable and nourishes a child’s personal growth and development. Each child will progress through these milestones of play at their own pace.

Unoccupied play

Identified during the first months of a child’s life and involves random movements with no clear purpose.

Solitary play

Occurs until around the age of 18 months when very young children spend much of their time playing on their own with little or no awareness of other children nearby. At this stage a child is exploring the world by watching, tasting, grabbing and rattling objects. They are learning predominantly through their senses.

Parallel play

A development from solitary play, parallel play is when children play alongside others and are starting to learn about sharing, cooperation and turn-taking but without any consistent interaction or communication. At this time children may prefer to observe the play of others and may ask questions about activities but make no effort to participate.

Associative play

Around the age of 3, children become more interested in communicating and interacting with other children. They learn more about the social aspects of human behaviours and develop an awareness of empathy. Adults can encourage the development of language skills, inquisitiveness and a child’s understanding of sharing and turn-taking. Some types of play at this stage may involve dramatic play, constructive play or rough-and-tumble play.

Social play

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In this next stage children are becoming more proficient at understanding the rules which govern play and communication although will still require adult support. Play is often active, cooperative and helps to develop problem-solving skills, compromise and independence. We associate this stage most with preschool children. Exposure to a wide variety of play experiences, resources and environments is of enormous benefit to children at this time in their development.

In St George’s nursery, our preschool children have access to a range of play and learning zones. We encourage movement and transportation between these zones. Nursery teachers and practitioners carefully monitor the children’s experiences in each zone and tailor resources to suit interests and follow the natural direction of play. We track children’s interest in each zone and, where necessary, we gently and gradually guide children towards experiencing learning in every area. There are opportunities for small group play, teaching and interactions. During spontaneous play opportunities children develop their social, emotional and physical abilities while developing the essential skills and competencies to be ready for successful progression into primary one.

Outdoor Learning for play

In our indoor learning environment, we have the following zones for play:

  • Imaginative
  • Literacy and Numeracy
  • Construction
  • Art
  • Sand and Water

Through our close connection with the Junior School, we welcome specialist teachers in PE, Music and Ballet to our nursery. This allows for structured enhancement of physical, expressive and creative skills through play while also contributing to raising feelings of confidence and self-esteem.

As St George’s is located in a leafy suburb area of Edinburgh, we are fortunate to have acres of green space in which to play and explore. For our outdoor learning environment we have a lively nursery playground area, messy kitchen, Fantastical Forest and Wild Wood which the children have regular daily access to allowing for a variety of imaginative, spontaneous, child-led play experiences.

Our main nursery aim for our preschool children is to lay foundations for academic development through play while also ensuring that they are mature in their actions and reactions to a variety of situations. The nature of every child is to develop at their own pace, meeting important milestones when they are ready and often making mistakes along their journey. Our Early Years specialists understand this developmental process and model good choices, practices and compassion towards all our learners. Play is a powerful resource in this environment and our practitioners channel development through careful consideration of activities and resources available.

In his Child’s Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson leaves us with a poignant quotation on play:

  • Happy hearts and happy faces,
  • Happy play in grassy places –
  • That was how, in ancient ages,
  • Children grew to kings and sages.


  1. England Play Charter
  2. Early Years Framework
  3. Sue Palmer
  4. Curriculum for Excellence Early Levels
  5. Getting It Right for Every Child
  6. Care Inspectorate – My World Outdoors
  7. UNICEF – Rights of a ChildRaising the Bar

Want to find out more? Contact our admissions department T: 0131 311 8008 You can also browse our Nursery section.

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