What are Play Theories in the Early Years?

What is a Theory of Play?

A theory of play is a set of ideas surrounding how play relates to and affects cognitive development through childhood and beyond; this may be put forward by psychologists who have been studying how children’s brains develop and how this affects us as adults. Each may be slightly different, choosing to prioritize different experiences over others.

Many of these theories are not to be considered right or wrong, but looking at several different ideas and approaches can help practitioners and parents make informed decisions about what kind of play environment they create for their children. These theories have developed a lot over time, but all are focused on doing their best to help support young children as they grow.

What Play Theories are there?


Jean Piaget’s Theory of Play suggested that children’s play and intellectual development are keenly intertwined. Therefore, as children grow and develop, their play environment should, too; this is based on Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years) – Babies and toddlers live in the present and experience the world through exploration using their five senses.
  2. Preoperational Stage (2-7 years) – Young children will look at the world from their point of view. They can think about things not in front of them with pictures or words but are not skilled in problem-solving yet.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (7-11 years) – Children become more empathetic and can think about the world from other’s points of view. They are developing logic skills and can work things out in their heads rather than using physical representations.
  4. Formal Operational Stage (12+ years) – Older children can now talk more about abstract ideas and form arguments. Their logic skills are more developed, and children can now think more independently and offer their opinions.

Piaget suggests that all children will go through these stages in this order but will do so at their own pace. Some children may take longer to move to the next step than others, which is to be expected.

From research in the 1920s, Piaget concluded that children’s intelligence and logical thinking work differently than adults. So it’s not that children are less intelligent; they have different intelligence. It was also one of the first theories to suggest that children’s development stops and starts in stages rather than progressing more fluidly.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development suggests that early years children learn most effectively when exploring the world around them and using all of their senses. As a result, it supported the popularity of discovery learning and sensory play. These enable children to explore their environments and provide practitioners with ideas and suggestions for activities that stimulate the senses to help keep children engaged, involved, and learning.


Lev Vygotsky disagreed with Piaget’s four stages of development, suggesting that children learn continuously and independently of specific steps. He believed that everyone is born with four elementary mental functions:

  • Attention
  • Sensation
  • Perception
  • Memory

Through social interactions and cultural enrichments, we gain higher mental functions by engaging with others. Vygotsky proposed the importance of the zone of proximal development, which is the development of skills with help you can only get from an adult or friend, which Vygotsky termed ‘the more knowledgable other.’

Vygotsky gave a narrower definition of play than some theories, limiting it to pretend, make-believe, or imaginary play. His theory suggests that this imaginary play is vital to children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development and should be the main focus of helping children. This play, to be effective, should create an imaginary situation for children to take on and act out roles while following specific rules determined by those roles. Imaginary play lets children think about and work through ideas and concepts which they cannot see in front of them. The social nature is critical to helping children develop internal language and the ability to think for themselves.


Froebel’s play theory for early years focuses on child-led play, believing this to be the basis for physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual development. His belief that “play is the highest form of human expression in childhood” informed much of this theory and still much of teaching in nurseries.

He developed many vital principles for his theory:

  • Childhood should be valued as its stage, not just a stepping stone to adulthood.
  • Play is vital to helping children learn how things work and the world around them.
  • Children will all develop at different rates, and this should be respected.
  • Education should focus on what children can do, not what they cannot do.
  • Children’s emotional, mental and physical states are all of vital importance.
  • Children are heavily influenced by those around them, both adults and other children.

Froebel also proposed a set of gifts and occupations highlighting the importance of child-led learning in block play and sensory play. Each of these activities and provisions should be planned and chosen by the practitioner to be relevant while focussing on children being given the space to select their specific activity.


Dr. Maria Montessori started a school in Rome for young and disadvantaged children. Through her work here, she developed a style of teaching which focussed on the child-led play, supported by age-appropriate activities and provisions. A Montessori school provides various activities with simple rules and structures in which the children can direct their learning and play.

Dr. Montessori believed that “play is the work of the child.” She proposed that play was vital for helping children make active choices and practice and perfect actions or tasks. Through observing the children in her school, she theorized that children responded best to play based on reality and play that used real-life objects.

Montessori’s play theory for early years also focuses on the importance of sensory play for children. This input helps them to take in and enjoy their environment and get stuck in the reality of it.


Susan Issacs’ play approach can still be seen in many directions today. A prominent psychoanalyst in the 1900s, she built on Froebel and Montessori’s prior work to support the importance of play for young children. She suggested that play lets children engage in active learning and feel comfortable with their skills. Children can learn better through play by feeling at ease with their abilities.

In her theory of play for early years, Issacs also believed that play gave children a safe space for emotional development; it can be very passionate, whether getting into character during role-play or a super competitive game. These activities give children a safe and familiar environment to work through feelings. Then, by practicing and expressing them in their early years, they can experience new sensations and learn how to navigate them.

The social nature of play enhances this. Children bond with each other through space, learning how social interactions work; this helps them learn to manage social situations, either in actual conflicts or by playing pretend.

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