Young children have an instinctive drive to explore and investigate, from babies crawling intently towards a basket of soft toys to active school age children, running excitedly into a playground.

Children are naturally curious and find fascination with many things that we as adults, with our busy day-to-day lives can avoid or easily overlook such as puddles, zips on clothes, light and shadow. Children will want to take time to stay, watch and play and sometimes no amount of hurrying can distract them. Children’s focus is on the here and now and they can become completely immersed in their play.

Einstein is credited with saying that play is the highest form of research. Play is children’s way of making sense of everything around them.

They are infinitely curious about their world, wanting to touch and hold things, and asking questions with ‘why?’ and ‘how come?’ in their efforts to understand how their world works. And often children’s inquiring minds can have us reaching for the nearest device to research the answers to their questions! So why can we sometimes see the moon in the sky during the day? (it’s all about light and reflection), or why do the bees buzz? (creates vibrations to shake pollen). Their questions remind us how much they know and how eager they are to know and understand more.

Play is children’s way of making sense of everything around them.

Unstructured play time gives children important opportunities to experiment, to work things out in their own way, in their own time and develop early problem-solving skills.

Indoors or outside, they practice these skills through testing things out, managing the little mistakes and experiencing success.

Children develop an understanding of cause and effect, for example kicking a ball softly means it rolls along the ground but kicking it harder makes it bounce off the wall. How satisfying!

Making something happen motivates children to repeat their actions and keep trying – can I make it happen again? A baby is experimenting in the same way when they play with a toy where pushing on buttons creates a sound or makes an animal suddenly pop up. Experimenting in this way helps to develop their focus and concentration and adapt to change.

Children have an amazing capacity for noticing the smallest of details – tiny flowers in grass, that loose thread on the car seat. Nature has a rich supply of small details. The natural world beckons children – it is the ultimate unstructured play space, filled with play possibilities for curious minds. Stones, leaves, herbs, sticks, earth, water, sand, rocks, feathers and trees provide opportunities for children to explore with all their senses.

Children have an amazing capacity for noticing the smallest of details

Children can investigate different textures, colour hues, scents, flexibility and dimensions. They will delight in using real equipment as part of their play, for example magnifying glasses, bug catchers, microscopes and flower presses. Using these items encourages children to explore the finer details of their world and make new discoveries – what does bark look like up close, or a dandelion flower.

In the flurry of activity around the end-of-year celebrations, family events and shopping for gifts, simple play items can be a great stand-by to support young minds to think creatively and develop their imagination.

When considering what play items are suitable for children, simple is often the best way to go and usually easier on the budget as well. Basic everyday items support children to invent and refine their own ideas, look at different possibilities and develop more complex play.

Children are active learners and the more they can be involved with the ‘doing’, with being hands-on, the more engaged they are in their play. Playdough is a great medium for hands-on play. It can be manipulated into endless shapes and adding a few simple objects, such as gumnuts, leaves or even some spare Christmas tinsel will spur children to think in creative ways, talk about their ideas as they play alongside their siblings and friends and imitate other’s ideas.

And the old favourites still work! Cardboard boxes that are big enough for children to safely get into and out of, are a versatile resource where their imaginations can take over. Dress ups, bags and scarves are popular.  An old sheet or curtain draped over a table can become a secret world where creative play ideas will flourish. Being inquisitive, having a curious disposition and thinking creatively are part of the magic of childhood. 

By Sabina Klepp, Education Practice Partner, Story House Early Learning