Abigail Smulders28 June 2024 | 12:16

ABIGAIL SMULDERS: Reimagining early childhood education - the power of play and innovation

Adopting a play-based approach is not just beneficial, but imperative for preparing children for the future, writes Abigail Smulders.

ABIGAIL SMULDERS: Reimagining early childhood education - the power of play and innovation

Picture: Pexels

As the newly appointed Head of Early Learning Services (ELS) and Junior Preparatory at Reddam House Bedfordview, I find myself fortunate to work in an environment that directly supports my belief in the power of play in early childhood development. 

Drawing on the wisdom of renowned psychologist Jean Piaget, who said, "Play is the work of childhood," and Fred Rogers, who emphasised that play is serious learning, I firmly believe adopting a play-based approach is not just beneficial, but imperative for preparing children for the future. 

The Reggio Emilia approach offers a powerful method that reflects much of the recent research into early childhood development.

From my experience and observation, the first few years of a child's life lay the foundation for lifelong learning, shaping their academic experience and social and emotional development. 

Research consistently shows that play is crucial for cognitive, social, and emotional development in early childhood. A 2022 study in Frontiers in Psychology highlights how structured play enhances executive functioning skills, such as working memory, flexible thinking and self-control - skills critical for academic success and lifelong learning.


We are preparing this generation for a job market that will be vastly different, due to technological advancements and the rise of artificial intelligence. 

Future jobs will demand not only technical proficiency but also strong interpersonal skills. Play-based learning environments naturally cultivate these attributes, helping children develop creativity, problem-solving skills, and the ability to collaborate with peers. 

A 2023 study in the Early Childhood Education Journal supports this, showing how integrating digital tools into play-based learning enhances educational outcomes by providing interactive and immersive experiences.


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on children's social development, with many experiencing long periods of isolation and increased screen time. 

As educators, we must adapt our approaches to address these challenges. While technology is undoubtedly a part of our children's futures, we must prioritise teaching human interactions alongside digital literacy. 

Research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in 2023 emphasises that play-based environments promote social-emotional learning (SEL) and help children develop empathy, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skills.


Neuroscience underscores the critical importance of the early years in shaping brain development. During the first six years of life, the brain develops rapidly and forms many neural connections. 

Educators can leverage this period to establish pathways that support lifelong learning and resilience. 

The Harvard Centre on the Developing Child (2023) highlights how unstructured play builds resilience, allowing children to navigate uncertainties and recover from setbacks—traits essential for adapting to future challenges.


Incorporating outdoor play into the curriculum is not only crucial for physical health and sensory development, but fosters environmental stewardship. 

A 2022 study in Nature Sustainability found that early exposure to nature through play helps children develop a strong sense of environmental responsibility, which is crucial for addressing future ecological challenges.


The Reggio Emilia educational approach offers a powerful model for early childhood education, emphasising the child as an active participant in their learning journey. 

By promoting autonomy, creativity, and critical thinking from an early age, children explore their interests and express themselves through various forms of art, building essential social skills along the way.


Early childhood education is no longer just a precursor to formal schooling – it is a pivotal phase that shapes a child's life trajectory. 

By embracing play-based approaches like the Reggio Emilia method, we can foster a deep love for learning and prepare children for a complex and interconnected world. It is our responsibility as educators to create environments that encourage curiosity, creativity, and collaboration, helping to cultivate the next generation of innovative thinkers and empathetic leaders.

The integration of play-based learning provides a holistic approach to education that prepares children not just for school, but for life. Embracing this transformative potential redefines early childhood education and paves the way for a brighter future.

Abigail Smulders is the head of ELS and Junior Preparatory at Reddam House Bedfordview.