Supporting a child’s holistic learning at home


During what is a very challenging time for families, Dr Glenda Tinney, a lecturer in Early Years at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) has been considering how simple play based activities can support children’s holistic learning in relaxed and fun ways at home.

Early Years / Blynyddoedd Cynnar

“Much of the research and theory in Early Years highlights how significant play is for young children’s learning, and this is reflected in much of the work of key thinkers and pioneers in the field such as Steiner, Montessori and Froebel,” says Dr Glenda Tinney.

“Play is also an underpinning principle in the Welsh Government’s Foundation Phase so at this challenging time, allowing children time to play and explore, offers opportunity for them to relax, enjoy and learn holistically,” she adds.

Here, Dr Tinney outlines some areas of play and the many ways in which parents can help encourage and support their children at home:

Imaginary Play

Children gain important skills from being able to role play and pretend, and this type of play does not need special resources. If anything, cardboard boxes, old containers, bits of material, teddies, dolls, blocks and any other resources you may have can stimulate a child’s imagination.

They may create tea parties for their toys, as long as they have a little space to act it out. A washing basket or box can become a boat, rocket or car.  They can set up a little den under a blanket hung over a chair or sofa and this can then become a hair dressers, garage, hospital or cinema, depending on the children’s own imagination.

Such play can stimulate children’s speech and support communication. It can help them repeat and practice every day life and develop excellent problem solving and creative skills.

Creative development is underpinned by imaginary play as it supports divergent thinking. A cardboard box can become anything they imagine rather than only being one thing and children often use their imagination to create complicated play worlds. Bruner (1961) was a theorist who considered children’s ability to imagine as very important to later learning. If a child can imagine a box is a rocket, or banana is a mobile phone, they are starting their journey to understanding representation where later in life letters and numbers represent the codes of literacy and numeracy.

How to promote imaginary play:

  • Have space so children can act out their imaginary worlds.
  • Have resources available to stimulate their imagination. Pots and pans and utensils cardboard, containers, bric-a-brac, toy dolls, teddies, or action pieces, any natural loose parts such as pine cones, twigs, blocks and bricks, material such as sheets or blankets. Old newspapers or note pads, pretend food.
  • Value their imaginary worlds and if invited to join maintain the play and imagination.
  • Allow time so they can fully explore and immerse themselves in their play.

Small world play

This is another type of imaginary play using small objects such as trains, cars, small action figures, farm animals, dinosaurs and so on. Children can create interesting worlds using the objects that they have around the house and mix conventional toys with other natural materials such as pine cones, twigs, stones. They can also mix different types of toys to create new worlds where the farm is invaded by prehistoric dinosaurs, or the race track cars are driven by different superheroes or farm animals. Again such play supports creative thinking and problem solving. Children create their own stories and in doing so they develop the skills of telling stories and creating dramatic plays using different voices to depict different personalities. Given some interesting resources children may naturally engage in play that develops imaginary small worlds, and with opportunities to repeat these activities can develop more complex ideas overtime.

How to promote small world play:

  • Have small play resources such as action figures available for your children to play with,
  • Allow children to mix different toys and resources together.
  • Allow them to leave some of their small world creations in place so they can return to play with these again and again

Small World Play / Chwarae Byd Bach

An example of small world play.

Construction play

Many children enjoy building. From building towers with bricks and blocks to creating the small worlds mentioned previously, construction play can develop all aspects of children’s learning.  Construction includes creating sand castles or building structures from recycled (junk material such as old yogurt tubs, egg boxes, cereal packets and sweet boxes). This type of play therefore develops many multidisciplinary skills such as language skills, physical skills, creativity, mathematics and science. Children have to count, balance objects, consider shapes, colour, area, volume and weight. They can also talk about what they have built. As they build they have to use fine motor skills when gripping small bricks or twisting things into place and gross motor skills when stretching, crouching or lifting. If you have space or a suitable outdoor area children can use logs, branches or other natural material to create a den. However dens can also be built indoors using sheets, cushions and other materials.

How to promote construction play?

  • Have a mix of materials children can use to play, such as bricks, blocks, clean recycled materials, natural materials, such as stones, twigs, pine cones, leaves.
  • Encourage children by creating a competition of who can build the tallest, strongest, widest structure.
  • Allow buildings to be returned to and built upon time and time again.

Discovery play

This is play that supports children natural curiosity to find out the ‘how and why’ of things.  Piaget (1952), another significant theorist, considered young children as ‘little scientists’ who learn from the world around them. At home allowing plenty of time for children to explore things is important. Treasure hunts indoors or out can allow children to find interesting objects. Providing materials for construction play that are difficult to assemble or can be built in different ways encourages children to problem solve and to make more complicated buildings.  Water or sand play is very good for discovery. A bowl of water and different materials can make children think about what sinks and floats or how different thing such as sugar, salt or chalk change in water. Children can make ‘magic’ potions by mixing different things and see how they smell, feel, look and to consider what happened when they were mixed together. Cornflour ‘gloop’ (water and cornflour), making playdough or mixing sand and water or soil and water to make mud also encourages children to experiment. The outdoors can also provide excellent opportunities for discovery.

How to promote discovery play?

  • Encourage children to explore and be curious
  • Encourage them to experiment with materials such as water, sand, soil, cooking materials. Let them ponder and wonder at what might happen
  • Develop opportunities to go on a treasure hunt or to find things that encourage them to ask questions
  • Encourage them to find out how things work or why things have changed?

 Recycled Material / Deunydd Ailgylchu

Treasure hunt using egg boxes to collect different colours - can be adapted to collect all types of shapes and properties.

Outdoor play

Although staying at home is the focus of current restrictions, if you do have access to an outdoor garden or yard, going outdoors to play can offer valuable opportunities for children to develop all types of skills. Building a den, creating a mud pie or potion from leaves, petals and other natural materials can also allow children to find out about the other living things and natural resources in their world. Nature hunts to find insects can be encouraged with children using a magnifier or tablet / phone to take photos of what they find. Children can also collect interesting things to show the family.

One way is to find things of interest which have different properties such as finding hard, soft, rough, smooth, shiny and dull things, or to find things of the same colour. With less traffic sound at the moment, children can sit either out in the garden or by the back door and listen to the noises they can hear. They may hear bird’s song, a barking dog, a humming insect or the breeze in the leaves. They could make a sound map drawing the sounds they hear and showing from what direction they can hear them coming from. 

How to promote outdoor play?

  • Encourage children to explore and to try out different materials.
  • Get them to look for the natural features or living things outdoors.
  • Use all the senses as appropriate to engage with the world.

Stories and rhymes

Of course there are many stories and rhymes that children and families can share. They can be fun and allow children to develop their sense of rhythm, develop vocabulary and understand how to communicate. Despite all the numerous books and rhymes which are already familiar, children can also be encouraged to take the lead and make up their own stories and rhymes. This can be encouraged through silly and fun rhymes and games. Using puppets, toys and other props can be a physical way for young children to create their own stories and with the help of adults they can record these to watch back. The family can join in and help create a new story or act out a familiar story such as Goldilocks, Going on a Bear Hunt or the Hungry Caterpillar. This can maintain important bonding experiences at what is a difficult time.

How to use stories and rhymes?

  • Share stories together in different formats.
  • Find out about everybody’s favourite stories and share these.
  • Repeat and return to favourite stories as these often provide consistency and comfort during a challenging time.
  • Encourage children to make up their own rhymes and stories.

Young children also have a natural curiosity and are eager to experiment and ask ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ – questions that again provide opportunity for play.  If you have a chance to catch your children engrossed in play the things they explore and find out can be amazing. More importantly play is acknowledged as an essential part of a child’s life and Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child providing ‘the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child’ underpins this. In uncertain and strange times most importantly play supports holistic wellbeing, allowing children to develop their emotional, social, language, physical and cognitive development all at the same time and should be encouraged.

Dr Glenda Tinney lectures on the Early Years courses offered at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.  Her academic interests include exploring research methods; outdoor learning; learning in nature; sustainability and global citizenship, and science concepts in early childhood.

Dr Tinney also has research interests in widening access and developing robust methods for attracting non-traditional students from different communities into higher education. This also includes exploring student attitudes to Welsh medium provision. In recent years, Dr Glenda Tinney has also been exploring early reading programmes in the context of shared reading with young children and families.

For more information about the Early Years courses offered at UWTSD, please visit:

Note to Editor


Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard Educational Review, 31, 21-32.

Piaget, J., and Cook, M. T. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: International University Press.

Vygotksy, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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