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For young children, play isn’t just a fun activity, it’s a critical learning experience! With 80% of brain development completed at three years old and up to 90% at five, play is the foundation of this development.

For educators looking to enrich their students’ play time and create a play based curriculum, child initiated play is a key concept to understand. So what is child initiated play, and why is it so important?

In this article, we’ve put together a guide to child initiated play, covering the following topics:

  • What is a play based curriculum?
  • What is child initiated play?
  • Why is it important?
  • What are some examples of child initiated play?
  • How can you encourage child initiated play?

So if you want to learn all about child initiated play, play based learning and how you can encourage this type of play, keep reading!

What is a play based curriculum?

A play based curriculum is one where early childhood educators help to guide children towards their learning goals, by using open ended play rather than organised activities. In a play based curriculum, the room will usually be divided into sections, for example writing, literacy, science, blocks and building toys, and arts and crafts.

The classroom is organised in a way that encourages open play, with easily accessible toys and open spaces for creative games. Through play, children can find problems, explore solutions, and experience social relationships.

What is child initiated play?

The Early Years Foundation Stage Profile Handbook defines child-initiated learning as:

“A self initiated activity is an activity wholly decided on by the child and is the result of an intrinsic motivation to explore a project, or express an idea. In doing this the child may make use of a variety of resources and demonstrate a complex range of knowledge, skills and understanding.” (QCA, 2008)

Child initiated play is where children make their own decisions about what play or activities they would like to do, with the materials of their choosing. They are given ample time to explore, play and try different ideas, and they may need support from adults to engage with them, model and build on their ideas.

In child-led learning, children are encouraged to talk about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they might have discovered along the way. The key is to take the children’s lead, and follow their enthusiasm and intrigue.

Why is it important?

“Child-initiated learning enables the children to work with confidence, persevering for incredibly long periods of time and working at levels far higher than those sometimes identified in the planned curriculum.” (Corfield, 2005)

Children learn about the world around them through experience and through doing. When they are engaging in play they are motivated to explore, keep pushing ideas, and seek out new engagement opportunities, and they are able to go at their own pace, in a style that suits their needs and desires.

Child initiated learning encourages children to take initiative, develop their confidence and decision making skills, and explore creativity and innovation. Plus, lessons that children learn through their own experiences have been shown to be more memorable than lessons that are simply instructed to them.

What are some examples of child initiated play?

If you’re looking for fresh ideas for your after school care, the great thing about child initiated play is it can be anything and everything that children find engaging! Here are some examples great child initiated play:

Small world play

This is where children create an imaginary world which they fill with people, buildings and other items to play with.

As an educator you can enhance children’s small world play by making open ended materials available to them to play with. These items could include fabrics and other materials to dress miniature dolls in, strips of cardboard, paper or other material to create footpaths and roads with, or various blocks, shapes and other items to create ‘buildings’ and other structures with.

Exploring sound

In this kind of play, children are given access to a range of musical instruments but also other items that may make noise, such as pots and a wooden spoon or a fork running along the ridges in cardboard.

Children are also encouraged to explore the room and find other items that may make sounds, either on their own or in combination with others. In this kind of play, children explore and develop their creative skills, while also learning about materials and the effects that they can make.

Outdoor exploration

One of the best environments for encouraging child initiated play is in the outdoors! Set up a space for children to play in and allow them to simply explore the environment around them. They will be able to experience new textures, smells and sounds, and maybe new wildlife around them.

Children can find materials in the environment around them to use to construct forts or create artwork with, and describe their new experiences to each other and the educators. The rich sensory environment of nature is a fantastic playground for children

How can you encourage child initiated play?

It can be easy to get caught up in involving yourself in the child initiated play, by asking them questions or helping them with their activities, but the most important thing that you can do for children during this kind of play is - leave them to it!

By giving children the freedom and time to explore their own activities during child initiated play, they can develop their own confidence and initiative, as well as learn at their own pace and their own level.


Child initiated play is play where the child is able to determine what activity they want to engage in, for how long and with what materials. Child initiated play is key in allowing children to explore the world around them at their own pace, developing critical skills like initiative, self confidence and creativity.

To set your after school care up in a way that fosters child initiated play, make various materials, toys and resources available to the children and allow them to guide themselves in their play. You can encourage, engage and enquire about their experiences along the way to encourage them to share their learnings, and watch them flourish before you!