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Developmental Play article published

Caroline Essame (2020) Developmental Play: A new approach to understanding how all children learn through play, Childhood Education, 96:1, 14-23, DOI:


Developmental Play: A new approach to understand how all children learn through play.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” Richard Lindgard

Play is increasingly recognised as vital for learning and development. It is the language of childhood and what children do naturally. But often as adults we forget how we played, and associate play only with leisure and not with the development of the fundamental skills we need in adult life.

The Real Play Coalition (, launched in 2018 by the LEGO Foundation, IKEA, National Geographic and Unilever, recently put the role of play on the global agenda, and a report from the World Economic Forum concluded that “we must equip our children with the tools to address and embrace the new realities of tomorrow. To do this, we must allow them to develop through play. Fewer play moments mean fewer opportunities to develop the skills children need to thrive in the dynamic, challenging economies of tomorrow” (WEF, 2019).

Understanding this is the basis to ensure that all children get equal access to a world of play. The Developmental Play approach was born out of a desire to provide a simple, accessible approach that synthesises global best practice across different disciplines for the children who need it most.

What is Developmental Play?

The approach gives a framework for understanding how play works from early infancy, and how we can assess at what level children are playing, particularly if they are differently abled. (This is the term used in India for children with special needs; we use it reflect the roots of Developmental Play in India, and the way the inclusive nature of the term reflects diversity and difference rather than a disadvantage or inability.) The aim of Developmental Play is to support children tobecome happier and healthier, better learners and better friends. It brings together best practice in developmental psychology, occupational therapy, play-based education, neuroscience, attachment theory and creative arts and play therapy.

It began in a school in rural India for children who were differently abled, where we were training parents and teachers to support children’s development. Working through translators we sought to simplify the key points that really mattered in child development based on our 30-plus years of clinical and educational practice (Essame, 2016); and also to answer the question of how we can work with children through play if they cannot sit, cannot talk, or are not yet at the level of imagination, storytelling and role play, the ‘as if’ stage described by Vygotsky (1967). There seemed to be a dearth of literature about when and how the foundations of play are laid down, so Developmental Play was born in an attempt to articulate how play works before we develop language and memory.

It took inspiration from Neuro-Dramatic Play (Jennings, 2010) and extended it with sensory integration frameworks and research in play-based education from the Pedal Institute at Cambridge and the LEGO Foundation. It is best illustrated by the Developmental Play Pyramid.

Stages not Ages

In the pyramid, the early foundations of play link to our understanding of our bodies, the sensory body stage at Level 1. Children need to be able to make sense of the world through their senses; they see the world around them and gain a sense of space, distance and objects; they are rocked and held to gain a sense of their body in space; and they learn balance and co-ordination which helps build focus, attention and study skills later on. In occupational therapy, this is known as sensory integration or sensory processing (Ayres & Robbins, 2005). Studies suggest that 5-15% children have some kind of sensory challenge (Ahn et al, 2004) which can impact on higher development, so building a solid foundation in the body is crucial. In clinical practice as an occupational therapist, I see how sensory challenges impact on learning and social and emotional wellbeing, so strengthening sensory systems can support children to feel better about who they are and how they navigate their world. Level 1 is also the foundation of body schema, the ability to perceive yourself in your mind’s eye and to read other people’s physicality. Physicality is deeply linked with social and emotional wellbeing (Van der Kolk, 2015) so working through the body is essential for all children.

Level 1 of the pyramid also includes Attachment Safety Play, which is about the relationships a child has in early infancy, how they are loved, held, communicated with and kept safe. The book Why Love Matters (Gerhardt, 2004) articulates how much early nurture makes a difference; and this ties in with the WHO Nurturing Care framework which outlines the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. At birth, an infant’s bran is like a sponge with little hard wiring; love, attention and nurturing wires the brain, and is the foundation of social and emotional skills. Neglected and abused infants, by contrast, often have issues with social and emotional skills, so a solid foundation is critical. Developmental Play thus looks at the quality of relationships a child has. This has implications for parenting, the role of teachers and how as adults we relate with children – neuroscience shows how positive regard, attuning to the child’s needs and nurturing them, wires the brain for wellbeing and learning (Greenspan, 1999; Leong et al, 2017). Basically, happy brains work better, and this is a foundational principle for child development.

While the roots of this development are in infancy, we have found that often by revisiting these early stages with children who may have experienced trauma, neglect or have differently wired brains such as in the case of autism spectrum disorder, we see significant changes in behaviour, learning and most importantly self-esteem and happiness.

From these foundations, children go on to Level 2 of the Developmental Play Pyramid, which is creative explorative play, where from a place of security, body awareness and co-ordination, they start to explore the world around them. They kick a mobile, shake a rattle, crawl across the floor to reach a toy. They experience cause and effect, and a sense of control over the world around them; the world is a place of surprises and joy. This is often a place where children make a mess, they throw toys on the floor, they play with their food. Often –particularly with children who are older or differently abled – adults try to stop it; but it is a key developmental stage for building creative skills, flexibility, a sense of control, as well as risk-taking and entrepreneurial skills. It is the essence of free play and the foundations of joy in the world around them.

From here they will, when they are ready, move on to the stage of meaning-making play (Level 3). They pattern, sequence, compare and order, and begin to remember and sort their play. It is here that the foundations of language are set down as the child starts to understand symbols and uses toys in multiple ways that help build hypotheses about the world, and develop the 100 languages of children (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 2011). Drawing and symbolic representation begin here. Often they play the same game over and over, or repeatedly watch the same movie, so that sequence, pattern and meaning makes sense to them. Children who are unable to play at this level may struggle later with creative thought and even language development and self-control. If this is the case, they benefit from being taken down the pyramid to Level 2 to do more creative exploration, messy cause-and-effect play, hide-and-seek and concrete-object play; or back to Level 1 to build their body awareness through big body play, swinging, rolling, balancing or security play where they feel seen, safe and affirmed. Building foundation skills and strengthening them is the essence of Developmental Play.

Once all these three levels are firmly established, the child can reach Level 4, higher play. This is the level most educators look at, where children have imagination, they can create narratives and ‘as if’ scenarios (Bodrova, 2008; Bergen, 2013), playing at being a pirate, for example, or going on a journey in a cardboard box. They begin to be complex problem solvers and to understand rules and roles. They are social learners, ready for group learning, playing and relating. This is how we often define play because this is the kind of play we remember doing – but it only happens when there have been the firm foundations of the earlier levels. This is why the first three levels of the Developmental Play Pyramid are important, because if we want children to be creative and entrepreneurial, we may need to give them more exposure to Level 2. If they have not reached Level 4, we need to see where the gaps are, and take them back to the earlier levels to rebuild them.

This framework is also a model for inclusive practice. If pre-schools and primary classrooms offer integrated activities from each level of the pyramid, every child should take something away from the class. This means that we need to build positive relationships in the classroom, provide physical movement breaks, multi-sensory experiences, scope for mess, objects for meaning-making play that children can manipulate so that learning is tangible and concrete, and then they will be getting the exposure they need to build the foundations of higher play.

An Approach for Parents, Teachers and Clinicians.

Developmental Play is not play therapy. It is an approach that everyone can use, whatever their background. In Asia we are training clinicians, teachers and parents to be Certified Developmental Play Practitioners who have understood the foundations of play, looked at how to apply it in different contexts, and then have mentored experience to use it with children. As more practitioners train, we are researching the impact of the model, gathering case studies from India, the Philippines and Singapore, and we hope to do more research on the model with differently abled children in the near future.

We believe that play matters, and that for a sustainable, happy future for our children we need to give adults a clear understanding of how play works, why it is important and how to provide opportunities for children to develop through play. We hope that you will be inspired to join the play community we are building across the globe to share this model, as we have seen how powerful a tool play is for all children.

How to get involved and find out more:

For more information on placing play at the heart of childhood, and some great ideas on how to play:


Ahn, R.R., Miller, L.J., Milberger, S. & McIntosh, D.N. (2004). Prevalence of parents’ perceptions of sensory processing disorders among kindergarten children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58(3), 287-93.

Ayres A.J. & Robbins, J. (2005). Sensory Integration and the Child: Understanding Hidden Sensory Challenges. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Bergen, D. (2013). Does pretend play matter? Searching for evidence: Comment on Lillard et al. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 45-48.

Bodrova, E. (2008). Make-belive play versus academic skills: A Vygotskian approach to today’s dilemma of early childhood education. European Early Chidlhood Education Research Journal, 16, 357-369.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L. & Forman, G. (Eds.). (2011). The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation. ABC-CLIO.

Essame, C. (2016). Fighting the Dragon, Finding the Self: Why Art and Play Matter in Early Childhood. Singapore and London: CreateCATT.

Gerhardt, S. (2004). Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Greenspan, S. (1999). Building Healthy Minds. New York: Da Capo Press.

Jennings, S. (2010). Healthy Attachments and Neuro-Dramatic-Play. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Leong, V., Byrne, E., Clackson, K., Georgieva, S., Lam, S. & Wass, S. (2017). Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2017, 114(50), 13290-13295.

Van der Kolk, B.A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1967). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 5(3), 6-18.

World Economic Forum (2019). What the global ‘play gap’ means for our children’s futures. Available at

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