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The Importance of Creative Play in Early Years Education 

May 30, 2024
9 minute read

Kelly Hill, CEO & Founder of The Early Years Company

Creative play is the basis of early years education, providing a range of developmental benefits for our youngest children. National Creativity Day on May 30th presents a prime opportunity to reflect on and emphasise the importance of creativity in early years settings. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework highlights the value of creative play, advocating for environments that nurture imagination and expressive arts.  

This article will explore the significance of creative play, reference pivotal research, and offer practical strategies for nursery settings and parents to encourage creativity in young children. 

The Role of Creative Play in Early Childhood Development 

Creative play is essential in early childhood education, promoting cognitive, social, and emotional development. According to a comprehensive review by Susan E. Gathercole and Tracy Packiam Alloway, creative activities such as drawing, storytelling, and role-playing enhance children's working memory and cognitive flexibility. These activities enable children to experiment, solve problems, and express their ideas, which are crucial skills for lifelong learning. 

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework highlights the importance of creative play within its guidelines, emphasising the importance of expressive arts and design. According to the EYFS, "Children’s creativity must be extended by the provision of support for their curiosity, exploration, and play." This foundation encourages settings to provide a variety of materials and opportunities for children to explore their creativity. 

Cognitive and Social Benefits 

A significant body of research supports the benefits of creative play in early childhood. A study published in the Review of Educational Research found that early engagement in creative activities is linked to improved problem-solving skills and social competence. The study suggests that children who engage in creative play are better equipped to navigate social interactions and demonstrate greater resilience. 

Emotional Development 

Another research article from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) highlights the impact of creative play on emotional development. The study indicates that children who participate in imaginative play are more adept at understanding and managing their emotions. Through role-playing and storytelling, children learn to empathise with others and express their feelings in a safe environment. 

Implementing Creative Play in Nursery Settings 

Encouraging Creativity in Nursery Environments 

To build creativity in early years settings, nursery managers and practitioners can implement several strategies: 

  • Provision of Diverse Materials: Offer a variety of materials such as paint, clay, costumes, and musical instruments. The EYFS framework emphasises the need for diverse resources that encourage exploration and self-expression. 
  • Creating Flexible Spaces: Design flexible learning environments that allow children to move freely and engage in different types of play. Spaces that can be adapted for various activities support creative thinking and experimentation. 
  • Incorporating Open-Ended Activities: Plan activities that do not have a predetermined outcome, allowing children to explore their ideas and creativity. Examples include free drawing, building with blocks, and imaginative role-play. 
  • Encouraging Outdoor Play: Outdoor environments provide unique opportunities for creative play. Nature-based activities such as gardening, exploring natural materials, and outdoor storytelling sessions can stimulate children's creativity. 
  • Facilitating Group Play: Encourage group activities that promote collaboration and shared creativity. Group projects, such as building a large structure together or creating a mural, help children learn to work as a team while expressing their individual ideas. 
  • Practitioner Involvement and Guidance: While it's essential to allow children the freedom to explore, the role of practitioners in guiding, scaffolding and extending children's play should not be underestimated. Practitioners can introduce new ideas and materials to sustain children's interest, encourage deeper level reflection and challenge their thinking. 

Examples of Creative Activities in Nursery Settings 

Art Stations: Set up art stations with a variety of materials—paints, crayons, recycled objects, and natural materials—where children can create artwork based on their imagination. These stations should be easily accessible to children to encourage spontaneous creativity. 

Role-Play: Create open ended role-play areas, building on what children already know, their cultural capital. Be mindful of setting up themes, like a travel agent as children may not have had these experiences and may not know how to access and engage in the environment. Open ended role play allows children to use their imagination and past experiences to great role play environments based on their interests. These areas allow children to immerse themselves in different scenarios, encouraging both creativity and social skills. 

Music and Movement: Incorporate music and dance sessions where children can explore different sounds and rhythms. Provide instruments like tambourines, drums, and shakers, and encourage children to create their own music. Include ribbons, dress up clothes and other resources to encourage engagement and make sure a wide range of music genres are encouraged.  

Storytelling: Encourage children to tell their own stories and act them out. This can be done with puppets, dress-up clothes, or simply through verbal storytelling. Storytelling enhances language skills and allows children to explore different characters and emotions. 

Construction and Building: Provide blocks, Lego, and other construction toys to encourage children to build and create. This type of play helps develop spatial awareness and problem-solving skills. Include pictures of your local environment, the children’s homes and buildings in their community to inspire and encourage language, recall and recognition.  

Involving Parents in Creative Play 

Parents play a crucial role in supporting their children's creativity at home. Nurseries can guide parents with practical advice and activities: 

Sharing Ideas and Resources: Provide parents with ideas for simple, creative activities they can do at home, such as making playdough, creating art from recycled materials, or setting up a storytelling corner. 

Workshops and Sessions: Organise workshops or information sessions where parents can learn about the importance of creative play and how to facilitate it. These sessions can include demonstrations of activities and discussions about the benefits of creativity for child development. 

Encouraging Imaginative Play: Suggest that parents engage in imaginative play with their children. Activities like dressing up, role-playing, and building forts can be both fun and developmentally beneficial. 

Providing a Creative Environment: Advise parents on setting up a dedicated creative space at home. This could be a small area with accessible materials where children feel free to express themselves creatively. 

Shared Projects: Encourage parents to work on creative projects with their children. This could be as simple as cooking together, making a scrapbook, or working on a craft project. Shared activities strengthen the parent-child bond and provide opportunities for creative expression. 

The EYFS Framework and Creative Play 

Expressive Arts and Design 

This specific area of the EYFS framework focuses on enabling children to explore and use media and materials while being imaginative. The framework encourages activities that allow children to express their ideas, thoughts, and feelings through a range of materials and tools. 

Personal, Social, and Emotional Development 

Creative play significantly contributes to children's personal, social, and emotional development. By engaging in creative activities, children learn to manage their emotions, develop self-confidence, and build relationships with others. 

Communication and Language 

Through creative play, children enhance their communication and language skills. Activities such as storytelling, role-playing, and collaborative projects require children to communicate their ideas, listen to others, and develop their vocabulary. 

Physical Development 

Creative play often involves physical activity, whether it's dancing, painting, or constructing. These activities help children develop fine and gross motor skills, coordination, and overall physical health. 

Literacy and Mathematics 

Creative activities can be integrated with literacy and mathematics. For instance, storytelling can enhance literacy skills, while building blocks and pattern-making can support early mathematical understanding. 

Addressing Challenges in Implementing Creative Play 

While the benefits of creative play are well-documented, practitioners may face challenges in implementing creative play effectively. Here are some common challenges and potential solutions: 

Limited Resources 

Many early years settings may have limited resources to invest in creative materials and equipment. Nurseries can utilise everyday materials and encourage donations from parents and the community. Recycled materials, natural objects, and inexpensive art supplies can provide ample opportunities for creative play. 

Balancing Structure and Freedom 

Finding the right balance between structured activities and free play can be difficult. 

Practitioners should aim to provide a mix of both. Structured activities can introduce new concepts and skills, while free play allows children to explore and apply these skills independently. 

Space Constraints 

Limited space can restrict the types of creative activities available. Utilise outdoor spaces whenever possible and create multi-purpose areas that can be easily transformed for different activities. Flexible furniture and portable storage can help maximise the use of space. 

Parental Engagement 

Engaging parents in supporting creative play at home can be challenging, especially if parents are busy or lack confidence in their own creativity. Provide clear, simple guidance and emphasise the importance of creativity in child development. Share success stories and practical tips to help parents feel more comfortable and capable of facilitating creative play. 

Creative play is a vital component of early years education, with far-reaching benefits for cognitive, social, and emotional development. The EYFS framework provides a robust foundation for integrating creativity into early childhood settings, ensuring that children have ample opportunities to explore and express their imaginations. By implementing practical strategies within nurseries and encouraging parents to foster creativity at home, we can support the holistic development of young children and lay the foundations for their future success. National Creativity Day is a reminder of the importance of nurturing creativity from a young age, setting the stage for a lifetime of learning and innovation. 


  • Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T. P. (2018). Working Memory in Children: A Review of the Developmental Evidence and Implications for Early Years Education. Review of Educational Research, 88(1), 1-48. DOI: 10.3102/0034654318815707 
  • Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework. Expressive Arts and Design: Imagination and Creativity. Help for Early Years Providers 
  • National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). The Role of Play in Child Development: Evidence from Neuroscience. PMC10699610 
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