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Imaginative Play Supporting Early Years Development

Supporting Cognitive Development Through Creative Outdoor Play in the Early Years #whatachildsees

In the Early Years, a child’s ability to learn is developing rapidly. Like busy little sponges constantly seeking out and soaking up new information, this level of cognitive development requires plenty of stimulus for investigating, exploring and thinking!

Cognitive development is the process by which the brain acquires and organizes information, and then learns how to retrieve and use that knowledge as and when required.

For very young children, cognitive development centres around improving their ability to process information - perceptual skills, language ability, decision-making, memory and attention span, and learning from new experiences. It’s a case of progressive skill-building through observing, exploring, copying, testing and trying for themselves.

Campaign photo of animated children on a climbing frame transitioning into a climbing frame on top of a mountain.

Unequivocally, one of the very best ways to support a young child’s cognitive development is through imaginative and creative play - and of course this can always be enjoyed in the freedom of the outdoors!

Imaginative play gives children the opportunity to think for themselves, figure out how things work, in essence performing all those essential tasks that exercise the brain and allow it to learn how to piece everything together.

3 children, 2 boys and 1 girl holding hands as they cross a zebra crossing which has been created using playground markings and placed in front of the school building.

“Why?” It’s a good question! The more imaginative play EYFS children can enjoy, the more they will generate their own ideas, developing the skills they need to find different solutions for solving different problems. They’ll want to test their own limits, tackle challenges and push boundaries, and ask those big ‘Why?’ questions that even as adults we don’t always have the answer for - but that’s exactly what learning in the Early Years is all about!

5 early years children playing inside of a low-level play ship whilst a teacher stands at the front of the ship putting a black and red pirate hat on. The ship has been installed onto blue safeturf.

Ideas for Encouraging Imaginative Play Outdoors

The outdoor environment in your Early Years setting can provide the most wonderful opportunities for imaginative play.

Through a child’s eyes, it’s a magical world of endless possibilities to be explored - one that often has all the space and the resources to get stuck into and make a mess to a level they might never have the opportunity for (or get away with!) at home.

Young children learn best when they can be hands-on and explore freely. The more interactive play, and the more they can be encouraged to use their imaginations and solve problems creatively, the better.

One young boy with blonde hair wearing a red long sleeve top and blue jeans looking at a large planter with a lime green trolley on wheels next to him.

Creating an environment that offers children variety and choice is essential - this is where independent thinking begins. Having a good selection of age-appropriate resources that allow children to investigate, to make their own decisions as to what to play with (or as!), and to be physically active in doing so, is key.

Time is of the essence - they need to be allowed plenty of it! Time to experiment and figure things out, to get out there, make mistakes and learn from them for themselves.

Two children, one boy and one girl playing with sand in a sand table which has been installed in front of a blue fence next to a red flower that says 'Sand Area' in it.

Messy Play...

Teachers can always help children to build on what they have discovered for themselves, and encourage decision-making and problem solving, by guiding them to try alternative solutions - for example, asking them to find different ways to make water travel down a Water Wall, different ‘ingredients’ and mixing tools they could use in their Mud Kitchen, or different ways to hide and dig up treasure in their Sand Box.

4 children, 2 boys and 2 girls wearing yellow school uniform and red aprons with multi-coloured shapes on playing with the water wall.

Children love the satisfaction of solving these problems for themselves, and gain confidence from their successes - especially where these are recognised and celebrated by their teachers who have afforded them the time and space to do it.

Campaign photo of water wall transitioning to a waterfall by a ripped piece of paper.

Pretend Play...

Happily, many preschool and reception children are naturally drawn to pretend play, which is a failsafe for building imagination and improving cognitive functions.

Opportunities to pretend to be something or someone imaginary, such as an animal or a superhero, are just as valuable as acting out and consequently establishing their understanding of familiar real-life situations, such as going to the supermarket or visiting the hospital.

Trying out different identities helps them to work out who they are and how they fit in, or indeed stand out, in the world.

2 children dressed in firemen fancy dress costumes and yellow safety hats playing with a yellow tube as a hose next to den making posts that have been installed onto artificial grass.

Building dens and role-playing in playhouses, or having fun making up and acting out stories on fairytale play towers, inspires children to try new things and builds on their language ability and social skills - one of the many reasons why we have designed our imaginative play products to entice and encourage even the most hesitant children to explore and to lead the way.

Fancy sailing around the world? Or racing around a Formula One track? No problem!

If they’re getting stuck, of course an adult can jump in to prompt new ideas with simple questions such as “What happens next?”. This will help with their language development too.

2 children stood on a performance stage wearing pink and purple princess dresses, one child sits next to them on the performance stage whilst 2 children sit on artificial grass topped seats in the audience.

A good selection of dress-up clothes and props work wonders alongside Outdoor Performance Stages for variety in role-play and language development, especially if children have the opportunity to make some of their own.

Incorporating weather-proof Playground Mirrors can help children visually with recognition and memory-making as they observe their own reflections during play.

2 children stood on a performance stage topped with blue safeturf and yellow stars in front of playground mirrors whilst 2 children and one teacher sit on artificial grass topped seats in the audience.

Music and sound…

Creative music-making involving rhyme, and actions to dance and move along to, are great for building cognitive skills - for example learning the alphabet, learning to count, or learning how to copy or follow directions.

5 children playing on yellow, red, blue, green and orange African drums, each child has their own African drum and is positioned in height order.

Maybe they see themselves joining a rock band and performing live on stage with Outdoor Musical Instruments!

These are ideal for improving perceptual skills and bring greater depth to learning in the playground - children love to create different sounds of their own to accompany their play.

3 children playing on a bongo panel post, glockenspiel panel post, and a shaker panel post which has been installed onto a timber performance stage.

Reading and Storytelling…

Reading is crucial for good cognitive development in children of all ages. A good book can be the flame that ignites their own imaginations and gets them thinking more than anything else.

The outdoors is a great place to foster a love of books, with options to create secret Reading Dens or Cosy Reading Corners, the fresh air wakes them up, heightens the senses and adds to the atmospheric experience of getting lost in a story. 

3 children sat on red cushions inside of a wigwam reading storybooks, wigwam has been installed onto artificial grass in front of the school building.

You can encourage creative storytelling by letting them make up jokes, take it in turns to add parts to a story, or asking children to finish a story you started. Our Storytelling Chair is one of our most popular products for EYFS playgrounds for this purpose.

1 child sat on a story telling chair reading a book whilst a teacher sits on an artificial grass topped seat reading a book to another child who is sat on her knee.

Making and Building…

Construction-based activities are superb for developing creativity and problem-solving abilities through trial and error.

4 children smiling at the camera stood at a mud kitchen whilst one boy plays on get, set, go blocks in the background.

This in turn helps to improve a child’s ability to pay attention and to concentrate on a task.

Building their own creations as they play with blocks, for example, sees them exploring language, maths and science concepts through colours, positions, shapes and sizes - and it’s good practice for fine motor control and hand/eye coordination too.

2 children stood at a construction table playing with a large metal bucket, grey pipe, 2 small metal buckets and some black stones. The table has been placed in front of the school building.

Taking construction play outdoors needs a good, sturdy and straight surface, and we have just the solution! Take a look at our Construction Table, and our flexible version on wheels.

Providing alternative materials for children to try building with, and using their own interests to encourage them to build something that appeals to them, are great ways to expand their development.

1 child stood at the construction table which has lots of multicoloured shapes and toys placed on top of the table, the table has been installed next to 2 large outdoor whiteboards.

Imaginative Active Play...

In truth, there are so many types of physical activity that are great for developing perceptual skills, and in particular body and spatial awareness and coordination,  the list is never-ending!

If we were to pick a favourite for EYFS children where both imaginative and active play are combined for cognitive development, it would have to be the challenge of taking on an obstacle course such as our Get Set, Go! Blocks.

6 children playing on Get, Set, Go! Blocks! with one boy sitting on a small slide as part of the obstacle course. Blocks have been placed next to a roadway that leads to other areas of the playground.

From babies in nursery needing support as they learn to pull themselves up to stand and walk, to reception children and beyond needing more of a run, jump and climb challenge - the fun of heading outside to bend and twist their way in and out, on and off, and all the way around a flexible obstacle course is there for all ages!

We build bespoke playground obstacle courses to suit different ages and abilities - and they never fail to get children using their imaginations to find new ways to take them on!

close up photo of a boy with blonde hair jumping off a get, set go! block! which has been placed onto artificial grass whilst 2 more children play in the background assisted by one teacher.

If you are looking for imaginative and creative play solutions to improve children’s educational experiences in your school or nursery playground, we’re here to help. Please Contact Us for a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our expert playground consultants.

We have a fantastic range of School Playground Equipment to fully support the curriculum outdoors. 

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