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The Six Principles of Play

The Statement of Play identifies six principles, with each one emphasising the value, balance, and capacity to develop children’s relationships with people and places.

Written by: Joanne Harris - Educational Advisor  

Play is synonymous with children, but when it comes down to defining it in a few simple words, it can prove quite challenging. There are many theories of play; Maria Montessori defined ‘play as the child’s work’, while Urie Bronfenbrenner developed an ecological theory in which he studied how children’s play can be influenced by the environment around them.

Jean Piaget’s focus fell on children’s cognitive development processes used in different stages of play. Today many educators and teachers regularly refer to the work of Mildred Parten’s social behaviour and stages of play including, solitary, parallel, and cooperative play. 

In 2019, Early Childhood Australia joined with national and international experts to contribute to the development of a Statement of Play for the early childhood sector.  As is their vision that every child is thriving and learning, the statement reflects ECA’s pledge to protect and promote the right of every child in Australia to play.

The Statement of Play identifies six principles, with each one emphasising the value, balance, and capacity to develop children’s relationships with people and places. It was designed as a practical tool for educators and teachers to implement within their daily teaching practice and as an opportunity to put the spotlight on the importance of play to the wider community. 

Play is essential and valuable in its own right

Beginning from birth, play is an intuitive instinct for all children. It is integral for social, emotional, and physical development. The interactions that are created between peers during play assist children in learning and growing their understanding as social beings.

When interactions with people and resources are scaffolded by adults and other adults who understand the importance of regularly accessing freely chosen and self-directed play, it empowers a sense of agency and competency.

Advocating all children’s right to play and inherent value allows for increasing the number of children who can attend and flourish within an exceptional education and care learning environment regardless of where they live in Australia, and beyond.

Every child has a right to a balance of play experiences

To ensure optimal physical and neurological functioning, leading to the developing structure of the brain, children require quality experiences from the time they are born and throughout childhood.

Essential to a positive sense of well-being that sets up the conditions for learning, play benefits children as they engage in a mix of indoor and outdoor activities.  When they are both supported and challenged within carefully planned activities and experiences, children can learn and refine lifelong skills such as problem-solving, reasoning, resilience, and confidence.

This occurs when educators and teachers use their expertise to carefully plan programs based on observation and reflection, that reflect the needs of individual children within larger group settings.

Play builds each child’s capacity for communication

Every child is born with communication skills, which, when nurtured by adult carers act as a mechanism to express having their basic needs met. As they grow, during responsive interactions in which adults shape both verbal and non-verbal cues, children learn the nuances of communication through this engagement.

Play happens in any language, both spoken and unspoken, providing a basis for children to develop their understanding through experience. It is a way to process what they see, hear, and feel in different situations and settings.

During play, there is an opportunity for educators to observe what children are learning, and what they are thinking during conversations made up of words, gestures, symbols, and body language. All of these are different ways to convey feelings, thoughts, and emotions as children process the experiences they are part of.

Through play, children develop emotional and social competence to participate in relationships

Relationships are integral to play as children engage with people and resources, in which learning and connection occur simultaneously. As they play, children develop social skills with the same or different ages of older or younger children. This may include opportunities to practice turn-taking and empathy.

Along with the opportunity to explore collaboration and partnership, children learn more about their learning style and with intentional teaching strategies in place, strategies that support children to allow them to express their individual needs.

Play connects children to their world and to other ways of knowing, doing, and being

Play is a process in which children make meaning of their outer world with materials and resources, including other children and adults. Children share insight into their perspective of the world through the interest shown in activities and the company with whom they most prefer to spend time.

Experimentation is encouraged as children explore different resources and with adult support, can develop their confidence and persistence in mastering different skills. Documenting the learning processes through play provides a platform for teachers and educators to share the value of play to learning with families, and the extended community.  

Children’s right to play is our collective responsibility; for every child, in every community

Whether drawing upon one or more theories of the past, in a modern world, when children play we bear witness to learning in action that occurs as they engage with resources, materials, and other people.

Although the purpose of play can change throughout the different stages of early childhood, the power of play is what makes it so important to learning and the learners involved.

One of the key elements of the Statement is to encourage deeper understanding and cooperation between families, policymakers and early childhood professionals, so that play experiences are available to all children across Australia – everywhere they live, learn, and participate in the community.

Bringing the Statement to Life

Play provides opportunities to understand how children may express themselves in a variety of situations, recognising that they have a right to participate in them all as the same person.  

A level of autonomy is reached as they develop a sense of identity throughout the various roles they are engaged in now and for the rest of their lives.   

Educators and teachers engaging in and growing their knowledge can help to develop practices that vindicate children’s right to play. This can lead to greater awareness and opportunities to advocate on behalf of children, supporting children’s right to play by prioritising it and putting their interests first.

For more information about the importance of play, including practical ways to utilise resources visit

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