Identify theories which influence play

Qualification: NCFE CACHE Level 3 Diploma for the Early Years Educator
Unit: Unit 3.3: Apply theoretical perspectives and philosophical approaches to play
Learning outcome: Understand theoretical perspectives which support play
Assessment criteria: Identify theories which influence play


A theoretical perspective is a set of assumptions, beliefs, and concepts used to explain and interpret phenomena. They provide frameworks for developing understanding of the world around us. Theoretical perspectives are often used in the social sciences and humanities to offer a basis for further inquiry into specific topics.

Theories that influence play can help Early Years practitioners provide play opportunities for children that support their learning and development. Some of these theories are explored below.



Jean Piaget’s theory of children’s play asserts that play is an integral part of cognitive development. Piaget believed that children learn through play and use their senses and imagination to explore the environment around them. For example, children can explore relationships between objects and people, practice problem-solving and reasoning skills, gain confidence in making decisions, and express creativity through play.

Through observing several children, Piaget recognised similarities in how children of certain ages play, and he used this information to develop his theory of the four stages of play.

0-2 yrsSensorimotor
2-7 yrsPreoperational
7-11 yrsConcrete operational
12+ yrsFormal operational

The first stage, known as the ‘sensorimotor‘ stage, occurs between birth and age two. During this period, infants explore their environment using their senses and motor skills to interact with objects and people around them.

The second stage is the ‘preoperational‘ stage which occurs from ages two to seven. During this period, children use imaginative play to understand their world by role-playing with dolls, constructing forts out of blankets, and engaging in make-believe games.


The third stage is the ‘concrete operational‘ stage which generally occurs between ages seven and eleven. This is when children begin to think more logically about problems and interact better with others.

Finally, the fourth stage is the ‘formal operational‘ phase which begins from age twelve onwards. During this period, adolescents practice abstract problem-solving and develop better social skills, such as expressing empathy towards others.



Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist and one of the most influential educational theorists of the twentieth century.

He believed that social interaction plays an important role in learning and that children learn best when provided with guidance from an adult or more knowledgeable peer.


His theory of the ‘zone of proximal development’ suggests that children learn by gradually mastering skills with the help of others until they can complete tasks on their own. Additionally, he identified the importance of scaffolding techniques (which involve presenting a task incrementally for learners to understand complex concepts) as well as collaborative learning, which allows children to explain their ideas to each other.


Chris Athey developed the theory of schemas, which are repeatable patterns of behaviour in children’s play. Children tend to repeat actions many, many times to gain mastery of a skill. The underpinning skill they are learning is known as a schema, and the repetitive behaviour supports a child’s cognitive development.


Some examples of schema are provided in the table below:

TrajectoryDropping, throwing, jumping
PositioningLining up items, sorting items
EnvelopingWrapping a toy up in a towel, hiding under a blanket
EnclosingSitting in a fort they have made, putting toys into boxes
RotatingPlaying on a playground roundabout, pushing wheeled toys
OrientatingLying backwards on a chair so that their head is upside down, putting toys in ‘high up’ places
TransportingMaking sandcastles, pushing a doll in a pram
ConnectingBuilding towers, sticking things together with glue
Athey’s Schemas

In the next two sections, we will discuss how these theories might impact your own understanding of play and how they might inform your practice.

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