"It's child's play" is a frequently-used expression, relegating an activity to a level children would refer to as "easy peasy".

But is that valid?

For children, what we call play, can be a very demanding and significant activity, requiring the mastery of unfamiliar skills. As we've said before, for children, play is learning; play is work.

This is worth considering next time you say to your child, "Oh, go off and play."

And what might they play?

A popular activity is what parents often call "dressing up" and educationalists call "role play". Do not be surprised if an imaginary situation that might absorb your child becomes a weeklong theme at a playgroup or nursery.

A typical situation would be a spin-off from the garden programmes that even tiny tots get drawn into, perhaps running a garden centre, a common place for family visits. An activity like this, when organised by a childcare professional, enables small children to play and learn in what educationalists call the six "areas of learning", all of which have a goal.

Creative development is one of these. The children might make their own plants, using sticks, cut-out pictures of flowers and so on.

Other activities could include the enjoyably messy ones of painting posters, making gift vouchers or decorating the garden centre with pots of dried grasses and treasures perhaps collected on a walk.

Then there is simple maths. The adult might suggest they fetch five plastic flower pots and put them on the display shelf and ask the children if more pots need to be counted. Off they then go, sorting the pots by size and setting them out for display.

Then, along come the customers asking for one, two or more plants. Gradually, all the activities are drawn into the web of meaningful numeracy.

Meanwhile, the range of activities will be helping the children to develop physically.

Cutting out pictures of flowers to make pretend plants, painting and writing simple words all help develop fine motor skills, while tasks such as carrying trays of pretend plants or pulling a baby-walker full of equipment help develop gross motor skills.

All the time, the children are working together, learning to co-operate (social skills), while the interplay between shop assistant and customer automatically leads to experimenting with language, a vital stage in the progress towards reading and writing.

Also vital are the pictures they draw and the photographic record they might keep of their activities - a preparation for written record-keeping when they are older.

That is five of the six earlylearning areas. But what of the final one: Knowledge and understanding of the world?

The whole exercise embodies that area but an adult can also use the role play as one of the ways of exploring biology. Increasingly, childcare settings are setting aside planting areas for children as an enjoyable activity and a practical demonstration of what some of us only read about in books - gardening.

For more information
about child care in East Sussex, ring Kites Childcare Information on 01323 737294. For details of provision in Brighton and Hove, ring Brighton & Hove Childcare Information Service on 01273 293545 or visit www.childcarelink.gov.uk