You may be familiar with the idea that ‘children learn through play’, although in ELT this isn’t as widely acknowledged as it is in many mainstream education contexts. However, I have found that integrating some of the approaches from the UK’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework has greatly improved the teaching and learning that takes place in my early years English classes. Adopting a play-based approach is one of them.

This blog post will give an overview of the benefits of play and suggest four simple ideas to integrate play into your lessons.

Learning through play

According to the EYFS Framework, play “is essential for children’s development”, and it encourages children to “learn to explore, to think about problems, and relate to others” (EYFS Framework, 2017, 9). It also states that play may become more adult-led as the children get nearer to the age when they start school, so it can support their transition to a more formal learning setting.

I have found that play allows early years children to explore, take risks, make mistakes, communicate with each other, and create tangible meaning. This obviously has implications in our classrooms in terms of language teaching, but also for interpersonal relationships and self-awareness. I also believe that play-based learning improves memory, as the positive, multi-sensory play experience anchors any target language in the children’s minds.

Of course, in early years ELT, we are dealing with more than simply language teaching. We may be trying to teach a language set which the children have not even experienced in their L1. For example, I recently taught a lesson about the parts of a flower. The children were not even aware of the names for stem, roots, etc. in their mother tongue! So as early years English teachers, we really are helping the children develop in a myriad of ways, including teaching them about the world around them. It just happens to be in English.

Types of play

I like to consider play in four categories. Adult-led play is completely planned and controlled by an adult (e.g. the teacher). The adult is fully involved, and there may be a specific ‘end-point’ the adult is trying to reach. In adult-initiated play, the adult provides children the tools to play, for example, a set of soft toys, or a doctor’s dress up kit. The theme is pre-planned by the adult, but the children are free to play as they wish. The adult may talk to the children as they play, for example, asking about what they are doing. In free play the adult provides children with a safe space and materials with which to play. They monitor, and may engage with the children, for example, by asking them about what they are doing (or trying to do). Finally heuristic play, which I think of as a type of free play. The children are given access to small objects (e.g. buttons, marbles, plastic shapes, pieces of string) and items such as cups or buckets. Again, an adult may talk to the children as they play, or choose to play along with them.

Classroom application – play stages

In your teaching context, you may be restricted by a language-led coursebook and/or a scheme of work. So how can we implement play-based learning in our ELT lessons? My early years lessons have become a lot more meaningful and enjoyable for the children since I started planning for a short play stage every lesson. Here are some ideas to try:

  1. Adult-led play stage

At the start of your lesson, why not use adult-initiated play to demonstrate the context of the language you are teaching? For example, in a lesson about different jobs, bring in a range of toys and dress-up materials related to jobs. Lay out the items during circle time and ask the children questions about the different jobs. Play with the children, allowing them to pretend to be racing car drivers, cooks, film stars, pop singers or fire fighters, for example! Ensure the children are hearing the target language from your scheme of work, but also make sure the language is coming alive and is meaningful for them.

  1. Adult-initiated play stage

After introducing the target lexical set from your scheme of work, you could include an adult-initiated play stage. For example, if the target language of the lesson is daily routines, set up an area of your classroom like a house, with images tacked on the wall to demonstrate the different rooms. Show the children how they can play in the different ‘rooms’ of the house, for example, by miming brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. Once the children have seen you model this play, they will eagerly join in.

Allow the children to play as they wish, within the context you have set up. For example, you may find they start playing ‘families’. Although this is not the aim of your lesson, it is demonstrating that they are developing an understanding of the meaning of your target lexical set.

  1. Free play stage

At the end of your lessons, consider including a free play stage. Put a collection of toys and dress up materials in a place where the children can access them, and when the children are ready (for example, they have tidied up or have finished another activity), allow the children to play freely. You will no doubt want to observe closely, and as a language teacher, you may want to chat to the children in English as they play or feed in useful language. The children may not respond in English, which is fine.

  1. Heuristic play stage

Prepare a bag or box with a collection of items of different shapes, sizes, and textures. I like to use buttons, string, cardboard tubes from kitchen tissue rolls, plastic jars, marbles, building blocks, and pieces of felt. At the end of my lessons, I give the children time to play with these items in any way they please. I talk to them throughout this stage, but there is no explicit language focus. I am just helping them explore, experiment, and develop.


L1 – It is important to remember that the children may not speak English when they are engaged with play. However, this does not mean it is not useful in the language classroom. Play can set a meaningful context for the target language which is essential in language learning for children. It also gives us the opportunity to teach words and phrases which the children actually need.

Parent / caregiver expectations – Bear in mind that parents and caregivers (or even your academic manager!) may not understand the value of play. Certainly, with parents and caregivers, it is worth communicating your rationale for integrating a play stage in your lessons at the start of the course. Helping them to understand how their children learn will help them feel confident in your teaching methods. It may even encourage them to play with their child in English at home, which will be beneficial.

Time – You may have little time with the children every week, or you may find ‘covering’ everything on the syllabus a challenge already. Why not see if you can swap some language-led (or worksheet-led) activities for some play-based ones? You will find the children will be actively engaged, and the only preparation required is for you to find some toys or objects related to your target language. It certainly is a more worthwhile use of fifteen minutes than giving them a worksheet to colour in!


Play is the way children explore, develop and learn. We can easily add a stage to our English lessons to allow for some play. Why not experiment and add a play stage to your next early years English lesson?

If you would like to find out more about the EYFS Framework, click here.


Statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, 2017. Retrieved from