How can I ensure children are challenged in play?

This question has probably been asked of me more than any other over the years I have worked with schools, helping them to incorporate play more effectively into their classrooms.

The assumption tends to be that children don’t naturally challenge themselves in play which leads to the belief that worthwhile learning can only occur during play, if adults have planned for it in minute detail. An example of this might be setting clear objectives or making signs telling children what they must do and how they should do it in order to achieve those outcomes. The play then becomes totally lost and so do these benefits that the agency and choice involved in play brings to children’s learning:

3 benefits that play brings to children’s learning:

  • Deep engagement
  • Activation of the brain’s reward system
  • Focus, drive and desire to repeat experiences

When adults try too hard to manufacture challenge for children in their play, (usually to try and please or convince someone else) it’s so easy to fall into the trap of accidentally putting a ceiling on learning instead. Ironic isn’t it?

Over the 30 years I’ve worked to support children in learning through play, I have learnt that perhaps the greatest thing we can do is to support children in seeking to challenge themselves instead of telling them what they will be challenged with and how.  Young children have a natural growth mindset – they are constantly seeking to challenge themselves. Our job, as educators, may be to focus less on growing a growth mindset and more on not knocking it out of children in the first place! Key to this is agency. When we move from ‘adult suggested to adult insisted’ as Professor Julie Fisher* describes it, we lose the agency of the child, and therefore we also lose the engagement and as a result, much of the learning.

So how, in a climate focused on accountability and attainment, can we ensure that every child is constantly challenged to the maximum of their ability whilst playing?

The simple answer is that we can’t. What we can do is provide conditions which will support children in becoming self-regulating learners who seek to challenge themselves. Over the years of introducing play into classrooms, I have learnt that four aspects are key to this. I call these the RITEs of play.


John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, wrote that ‘Life is best organised as a series of daring adventures from a secure base’. A child of any age has to feel safe and connected in order to be able to relax and become deeply involved in play. Without that deep involvement, minimal learning will happen.


When adults join children in the places they choose to play, follow their lead, and have quality back and forth conversations with them which add information and extend their thinking, children make huge leaps in their learning. Similarly, children learn enormously from the exchanges they have with each other during free play as they imitate and stimulate each other's ideas


When children have extended periods of time to play, they can become deeply absorbed, which facilitates the development of executive function and self-regulation skills. If children are frequently interrupted in their play it can prevent it moving on to a more complex and cognitively demanding level. 


when resources provided are interesting, open ended and versatile, children tend to use them at many different levels, and often extend themselves in ways adults would never have considered.

When I work with educators on improving these elements of practice, I frequently see children developing a sense of excitement and agency linked to their learning and the level of challenge that occurs is indisputable.

*Professor Julie Fisher will be one of our valued speakers in the PressPlay community. She has had years of experience developing play beyond Early Years and will give us some starting points early on in our journey, to set us on the right path from the start.

Kym Scott

Hi I’m Kym, an established conference speaker, trainer and consultant in the field of early years education. I’ve been a passionate advocate of meaningful, authentic play experiences for 30 years now and have spent 20 of those years working in partnership with schools both in the UK and overseas, helping leaders grapple with effectively providing play based learning.