What is play and why is it so important?

Guide 5 - 11

Play is an essential part of a child’s development and is very significant in the Foundation Phase.

In its purest sense, play is an enjoyable activity that has no specific goal; it’s just for fun and is entirely under the control of those who have chosen to take part.
But not all play is like this. In fact, it can take many different forms – and this actually helps us to balance the necessity of play with the expectation that (in sport) a child should be ‘coached’.

In the video below, Pete Sturgess, FA national lead for the Foundation Phase, introduces the role of play and what it means to adopt a ‘playful approach’ in your sessions.


Promoting playful activities is a relatively new approach and may seem quite different to coaching of the past. However, the England DNA aims to develop players who are innovative, creative and exceptional decision-makers – and play helps to lay the foundations for these traits. In fact, it occupies a central role in the construction of knowledge and understanding.

To find out more about how you can use play in your sessions, expand the headings below.

In these activities you facilitate play, but remove yourself from the ‘organisational’ role. For example: you could provide your team with a space and some equipment, before letting them decide how to use it. Alternatively, why not ask your players what they want to do for the next fifteen minutes?

Deliberate play provides the opportunity for increased investment and ownership. Stemming from a child’s intrinsic motivation, it promotes creativity, adaptability and mastery. It also enables your team to play freely despite being in a ‘formal’ setting.

If you can help your team to engage with practices that provide the feeling of ‘play’ but actually target a specific goal, then this is highly skilled coaching. 
This refers to games that target a specific learning need. A coach who is comfortable including conditioned or constrained games in training (rather than the more formal and coach-led ‘drill’ activities) is moving towards a more playful approach. However, make sure you implement ‘rules’ that are appropriate for your players, e.g. dribbling games if your team need to build a connection with the ball.

These activities include ‘typical’ organised sport and its associated drills. This type of play may lead to short-term improvements in performance, but the key to long-term learning and permanent change is the use of game-like practices. Drills that lack an opposition or the opportunity to make decisions aren’t realistic – and are unlikely to prepare your players for matchday.

This refers to highly structured activities that are specifically designed to improve a particular aspect of technique, skill or performance. As a coach, you should be on hand to provide tailored feedback or (if the player is good at self-reflection) to act as a sounding board

Deliberate practice is usually associated with ‘elite’ performers and some athletes may not find it enjoyable (although working hard and seeing improvement can be very satisfying). As a result, your Foundation Phase sessions should focus on other types of play. However, if you feel that a child is ready and would benefit from deliberate practice, you could suggest an activity be attempted as homework.

Remember: play can help you to engage your team, increase intrinsic motivation and, as a consequence, promote learning. It's the perfect coaching tool.

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To learn more about Foundation Phase DNA, click here.

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