I have written many columns sharing the importance of children learning through play.
Play creates the best context for learning because when children play they feel in control of what they are doing.
They can try something and fail and no-one tells them they are wrong or stupid.
They can experiment with different ways of doing things and figure out for themselves what they are good at.
When children are playing freely they are not stressed. We know that stress triggers a biological response in our bodies and that response can interfere with our ability to learn.
Stress is best minimised when we feel in control of what we are doing, when we feel we can make our own decisions and when no-one is monitoring what we are doing and making us fear failure.
Play, true free play, creates this context.
However, it is important that we recognise that true free play does not simply involve giving children complete free reign.
Rather, clever educators and parents shape the opportunities available so that children can make choices within the range of their capabilities and with safety in mind.
After all, we would hardly argue that we should leave 2-year old children to cross a road by themselves on the basis that they need to be free to learn when it is dangerous to cross.
Rather, we shape the environment around children so that they are offered challenges that encourage them to extend themselves without being so far beyond their capabilities that they fail dismally.
Families all provide different learning opportunities for their children based on what they think is important.
For example, some families teach their children to climb at an early age, so that by the time they are 4-5 they can safely scramble around in trees by themselves - they have learned how to maintain 3-point contact with the tree and reach out with the 4th limb in order to make progress up, down or sideways.
Other families provide different learning opportunities and their children might not be comfortable climbing trees for many years.
In addition to shaping the environment to create or to limit learning opportunities, we must remember that it is ourselves, adults and older siblings, whose words and actions make a huge contribution to learning.
For a long time, early childhood educators were a little afraid to engage in children's play because they felt that any adult involvement would mean that children were not able to play freely and therefore their involvement might impair learning.
However, we now know that there are ways we can engage with children whilst they are playing, ways that support their free play and learning.
That means we have to watch what children are doing and make a careful decision as to when it is best to engage and when it is best to leave children alone. If you observe educators in an early childhood session you might feel that there is quite a lot of time spent watching children.
This is such an important thing to do because it means that engagement is ten targeted appropriately to each child and to each play situation.
Our engagement must be to support what children are doing, not to direct them into doing something different.
For example, you might see children playing in the sandpit. Some are scooping sand into buckets and others are pushing trucks around.
You might want the children to practice playing together rather than playing alongside each other - after all working co-operatively in groups is an important life skill. With this aim in mind, you might initially sit down in the sand pit and begin to make a pile of sand near one of the trucks.
You could wonder what would happen if the truck crashed into the pile of sand then wait to see if any of the children wanted to engage.
Once a truck had crashed into the pile you could laugh and point out to the children putting sand in buckets that the truck crashed into your pile and wonder if perhaps it might crash again if there were more piles of sand.
The aim is not to direct children to dump a pile of sand in any particular place, rather you use your words to suggest an extension of their play (in the direction you want - that is for them to play together) and wait to see what happens.
Free play opportunities are so important for children's learning, but to the adults involved, free play is most beneficial when the play opportunities are carefully chosen and the interactions we have with children engaged in those play opportunities are carefully chosen and skilfully implemented.
Free play might look like chaos to an outsider, but that chaos is rich with learning when well planned and implemented.