The value of play is a highly recognized and researched subject; most work and information found on this will point in the same direction; that play is a fundamental, intrinsically driven part of a child’s life from birth. It enhances a child’s development and the enjoyment that children get from participating in play. But what is play, and why is it so important? According to Oxford Dictionaries (2014), play is an ‘activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children. A child can get involved in various types of play, such as active play, imaginative/role play, games with rules, and explorative and manipulative play (Sheridan, Harding and Meldon-Smith, 2002).
Each type of play provides different experiences and learning outcomes; for example, a child may become more physically fit and able to take more risks during active play, but it is through playing a game with rules that they will learn to adhere to social norms and values, learning to take turns and conforming to an agreed set of rules. Many Pioneers throughout the history of early childhood studies have published their theories and perspectives around the subject and have attempted to explain why certain types of play are so significant; according to Giardiello (2013), for Susan Isaacs: ‘…play should be truly open-ended, unpredictable and controlled and directed by the players- that is, the children’(p.120). The type of play Isaacs is supporting here is what Bruce (1991, cited in Forbes 2004 p.5) calls ‘free flow play.’
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This is where the child can choose the activity or game they would like to participate in with no adult involvement or control and with no end product or goal. (Forbes, 2004). This type of play has its benefits, which will be explored; however, categorizing just this one type of play and stating that it should be this way is restricting – not only for the child but also for the practitioner. Every child should be allowed to play, as article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child (1989) supports; they state every child has a right to play freely and engage in recreational activities appropriate to their age. This conveys the message that play is so vital in a child’s life that it is their legal right to do so. This right to play freely also supports Susan Isaacs’ counsel that the child should control and direct play. In allowing play to be child-led or undirected, children can discover and pursue their own interests, show off creativity and practise social skills.
If the activity were to be adult-driven, then children may try to concentrate more on conforming to the instructions or role given and pleasing the adult, which loses some of the benefits that child-driven play has to offer. (The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, 2007) This view is also advocated by Maria Montessori, who argues that each child should have the freedom and independence to choose what and when they would like to learn and should not be directed by the adult (teacher). Montessori believed that the adult or practitioner should stand back, be in the background and observe the child, allowing them to be spontaneous and do things for themselves. (Giadiello, 2013). Dewey (1897, cited in Fraser and Gestwicki, 2002) took it one step further and suggested that teachers construct their programs around the children and what they are interested in; however, he also recognized that the adult should maintain some of the control.
They were able to choose various experiences or tasks for the child to engage in, experiences that were usually relevant to the child’s life. This way, the child can play with what they are truly interested in but with some guidance from the teacher, as they were inevitably preparing for life after school. Child-led play and Montessori’s values are still seen in everyday practice; observation is an essential part of the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) Development Matters guidance material. It allows the practitioner to identify how advanced or lacking a child may be in their development pathway. This then sets the next stage of the practitioner’s role, to assess the child’s needs. (Early Education, 2012) While it is important to appreciate the importance of child-led play and how it is truly beneficial to both the young person and the adult, other play categories differ in structure and perhaps sometimes merge with child-initiated play. Still, offer offer offer other benefits and should not be overlooked.
Froebel, for example, argues that children need guidance, support and interaction from the teacher or adult, with discussions in the form of ‘Circle Time’ at least once per day. This allows children to talk with their teachers and peers about what they are going to do that day or discuss what they have been doing. Froebel preached, ‘Let us live with our children, play with them, direct them into this manifold life of the universe’ (Montessori and Froebel: A Comparison, 1912 p. 256). This method of teaching and play is still completely relevant and widely used today. White (1989, cited in Lown, 2002) says that circle time is a tool for improving self-esteem and learning. They can express emotional, spiritual, cognitive and moral concerns during this specially allocated time. Another Characteristic of Froebelian learning is the use of ‘gifts’ and ‘occupations.’
These were materials that teachers would use with children to help them discover concepts such as colours, or shapes, or sewing. (Fraser and Gestwicki, 2002) This form of play is adult-led but is fun for the child and allows them to develop cognitively. Through adult-directed play, a child can be shown what to do to imitate and perhaps learn something new. Then through free play, they can further explore that learning. Through current practice and through looking at the Development Matters document (Early Education, 2012), it is understood that some of both free play and adult-led play is needed to ensure a well-rounded learning experience. In the below table, we can see how an adult’s role can be key for facilitating learning. Although the child is in control and directs their own playing experience, the adult enhances the child’s understanding of the activity. This can be particularly helpful for the child if the activity is complex:
- Selects an activity
- It helps the child to select the activity and reduce its complexity
- Focuses on relevant aspects
- Exposes a child to the activity repeatedly
- Perceives and understands similarities and differences
- Transfers learning principle to the new situation
- ‘Bridges’ by connecting child’s past and present and future experiences (Sayeed & Guerin, 2000, p81)
This table outlines what is known as MLE (Mediated Learning Experience), where the adult is present during child’s play as a mediator and only intervenes to help the child with development areas such as confidence, competence, controlling behaviour, and sharing interactions with others. (Sayeed & Guerin, 2000) So although the adult is actively involved in the activity or game, they are not intervening; they only provide assistance and guidance. Not only is it the people who direct the play that can influence the outcome, but the type of play and the materials used stimulate further dynamics and advantages that free-flow play on its own might not provide. For example, playing a game with rules; is not open-ended and is not controlled by children all of the time.
There is a fixed idea of how the game should go, and the players need to adhere to these rules to play it successfully. Due to how a child must understand the concept of this type of play (like taking turns, fair play etc.), games with rules do not usually occur until a child is about 4 years old. The positive thing about this nature of playing is that children will learn how to respect others and take turns, they develop competitiveness which may later benefit them in their older years and also prepares them for the next stage of their childhood, which is school, where they are expected to adhere to instructions and rules. (Sheridan, Harding and Smith, 2002)
Outdoor play is very potent in early childhood settings, in the Development Matters guidance material, it would fall under ‘enabling environment’ (Early Education, 2012), as the outside world has endless possibilities in terms of space and materials, a child may run around and develop their gross motor skills or they may craft using natural materials ‘Arrange flexible indoor and outdoor space and resources where children can explore, build, move and role play.’ (Early Education, 2012 p. 6) A child could even lay back and listen to sounds, or observe their surroundings, having fun and learning about their world. It was Rousseau (cited in Wellhousen, 2002) who first suggested that children would learn better from a natural environment rather than a classroom. However, it was Pestalozzi and Froebel who were the leading pioneers in implementing the outdoor aspect of play.
Pestalozzi advocated children taking walks through nature to observe and understand their natural settings, which would allow them to learn more about plants and animals etc. (Wellhousen, 2002). Imaginative play or role-playing is one other way a child can have fun and learn. In this, a child may become someone else or imagine something whilst playing that is not real. This is a child’s fantasy world, somewhere he/she can make sense of their thoughts and perceptions of the world around them. For example, when he/she dresses up as a doctor, they can become this role and understand more about them. Maybe a child might face their fears during imaginative play; they might pretend something is happening that they would usually be afraid of, but because it is pretended, they don’t have to worry about it coming true. (Gordon, ND).
Role-playing can be initiated by the adult also, for instance, in a puppet show where to adult is telling a story and the child might perhaps create the characters and get involved in the show. This develops creativity in a child. These types of play mentioned are, amongst many others, imperative to developing the child emotionally, cognitively and socially, as well as building on physical strength. Most of these types of play may be adult initiated or supervised by an adult but are then directed onwards by the child and would be fun regardless of having an end product or goal. Although the play is fun for the young person, it is also suggested that we can tell a lot about a child’s emotional wellbeing by observing the subject whilst they are fully engaged in play – this is called play therapy.
Virginia Axline (1969, cited in Maynard and Thomas, 2009) used selected toys and involved various play tools such as puppetry, role-playing, drama, storytelling and art to emphasize the value of therapeutic relationships and the play process. She also used experiences such as multi-sensory and symbolism to support the child in acting out their role. The child will lead the session, and the therapist will see this as an ‘information gathering opportunity’ (Maynard and Thomas, 2009, p108). From this information gathering, the therapist may be able to make a clinical diagnosis about children’s therapeutic needs. (Maynard and Thomas, 2009) So play is not only a pleasurable experience for the young person, and not only does it help them acquire skills and advance, participating in play can allow us to see into a child’s world and discover feelings or issues that the child may not know how to express themselves through conversation.
Several different factors may inhibit a child’s right to play, or limit it, for example, cultural background or economic abilities. Even the national curriculum does not fully allow for play-based educational experiences. (Maynard and Thomas, 2009) Some adults basically take away the child’s right through neglect or lack of understanding about its importance. There may be other reasons holding parents back from allowing their children to access the space for playing, such as the panic that they may face the same fate as other parents featured on news headlines reporting abducted children (Play Wales, 2003) media can highly influence the feelings and decisions that parents make for their children to protect them from danger. Cultural differences, such as the separation of labour and leisure, may suppress young people from fully exploring play to its full potential. (Rogers, 2008)
All these factors can be responsible for allowing play deprivation to occur. During the first 7 years of life, a child will undergo significant neurological growth. Should play deprivation occur, a child may become developmentally lacking, aggressive, mentally unstable, and neurologically dysfunctional. It is found that ‘regular access to quality play experience eradicates the effects of play deprivation’ (Play Wales, 2003, p4). Exposing a child to different activities of play and sensory experiences every day will result in the young person developing their own confidence and interests to control their own learning/play experience. Thus, allowing normal brain growth and stimulation.
I have three different perspectives on this subject. Not only have I been a child myself who has experienced play, its never-ending capacities, and learning without actually realizing it; I am also a mother of a 2-year-old boy, plus I have worked in a nursery setting. I have seen first-hand how children learn, progress and improve skills through playing. For the first year of his life, my son did not go to nursery, so he and I would play at home. I assumed it would be beneficial to talk as though he knew what I meant and not over-simplify my whole vocabulary for him. Whenever he would look at an object or grab something, I would explain what it was or maybe what colour it was so that he would start to understand the world around him from an early age. If he were to show signs of moving on to the next developmental stage, i.e. crawling, I would encourage this by leaving toys on the other side of the room or laying him on his front while I would wave a toy in front of him.
This playfulness was fun for him and valuable, as it played a part in moving him on to the next step of his life – making him more mobile. He did not realize this as he was laughing and having fun, but my role as an adult allowed him to accelerate to his next milestone. When I worked in a nursery recently, I was informed that it was a child-led nursery, which I was excited to observe. The children were freely able to play with whatever they wanted, and whenever they wanted, the practitioner joined in with the activity or made suggestions as to what to play next. If any child did not want to participate, they were not obligated to. There was still a focus on learning; red, blue and green were their focus colours for that month. If a child were to be engaged in an activity, the practitioner might ask them, “What colour is that?” or “Can you pass me the blue one?”
The child is totally unaware that they are being quizzed or taught; they are purely taking part because it is fun. If the adult were to get too involved or interfere too much, the child would get bored and start to rebel, wanting to play something else, so it was important to get the right balance. I remember myself when I was younger, having roller skates for the first time. I fell over many times to start with, but in time my brother, sister, and I would be having so much fun chasing each other around that the falls and trips happened less; we were learning about our centre of gravity, our balance. We were also learning about risk-taking and becoming more brave and confident. At the time was not educated in what free play was – or that play could be imperative to our development. We were merely having fun; the last thing on our minds was that we were maturing and progressing.
At first, Susan Isaacs’ idea that play should be ‘open-ended, unpredictable…. controlled by the players… children’ (Giadiello, 2013) seemed almost constricting and blind to the significance of various other ways of playing. However, after exploring the depths of play, including research, reports, history, and philosophies, I realize that they all denote the same, if not a similar, message. Children should direct and lead the way during play; an adult is merely a tool for further progression, this could be through supervising for safety reasons, playing a role in their drama, building blocks with them or encouraging some learning during the process. It seems to be agreed that you can see a bigger picture if you do not categorize play into sections. Some categories will merge and aid each other; role play can happen outdoors, games with rules can involve some imagination should the children wish to invent a game.
There is flexibility in how the child wishes to use them. It is said to be imperative that the relationship of the adult to child remains as an observer – a player so that we can notice what the child is particularly interested in, what they might need to develop on, what they are good at. Although the reasons a child may not get the opportunity to play have been acknowledged, it is said that no child should have their right to play taken away from them. Whereas a parent, teacher, practitioner or relative, the adult plays an instrumental role in providing the right environment and materials for young people to play. In conclusion, directed activities are too much like work; children do not want to work. It is in their nature to play, ‘The imperative to play appears to be a universal characteristic of early childhood within different countries and societies.’ Furthermore, children should be prioritized during playful activities, allowing them to direct the scenario; it may also be creative and unpredictable. It may or may not have an end goal, but it will definitely be fun and worthwhile.
- Lown, Jackie. (2002) Circle Time: the perceptions of teachers and pupils. Educational Psychology in Practice, Vol. 18 (2), pp.93-157.
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- Forbes, Ruth. (2004) Beginning to play: Young Children From Birth to Three. Berkshire: Open University Press.
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- Gordon, Diane. (ND) Imaginative Play in Early Childhood: An Overview. Children, Nature and you. [Online]. Available from:
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- Mary D Sheridan, Jackie Harding, Liz Meldon-Smith. 2002. Play in Early Childhood : From Birth to Six Years. London : Routledge, 2002.
- Montessori and Froebel: A Comparison. Stevens, Ellen Yale. 1912. 6, s.l. : The University of Chicago Press, February 1912, The Elementary School Teacher, Vol. 12, pp. 253-258.
- Play Wales. 2003. Play Deprivation. Play Wales. [Online] 2003. [Cited: January 22, 2014.] http://www.playwales.org.uk/login/uploaded/documents/INFORMATION%20SHEETS/play%20deprivation.pdf.
- Press, Oxford University. 2014. Play. Oxford Dictionaries. [Online] 2014. [Cited: January 19, 2014.] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/play.
- Rights, United Nations of Human. 1989. Convention on the Rights of the Child. [Online] 1989. [Cited: January 7, 2014.] http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx.
- Sue Rogers, Julie Evans. 2008. Inside Role-Play in Early Childhood Education: Researching young children’s perspectives. Oxon : Routledge, 2008.
- Susan Fraser, Carol Gestwicki. 2002. Authentic Childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the Classroom. Canada : Delmar: Thomson Learning, 2002.
- The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Ginsburg, Kenneth R. 2007. 1, January 2007, American Academy of Pediatrics, Vol. 119, pp. 182-191.
- Trisha Maynard, Nigel Thomas. 2009. An Introduction to Early Childhood Studies. 2. London : Sage Publications Ltd, 2009.
- Wellhausen, Karyn. 2002. Outdoor play, every day: Innovative play concepts for Early Childhood. Canada : Delmar, 2002.
- Zahirun Sayeed, Ellen Guerin. 2000. Early Years Play. London : David Fulton, 2000.