How important is play to children’s life? Is it just for fun, or is it actually a passage for children to learn? According to a research conducted in French and Canadian schools, children who spent one-third of school time engaging in physical activity were “increased in fitness, improved attitudes, and slight improvements in test scores.” And the outcomes correspond with nearly 200 other studies suggesting that “physical activity supports learning.” (Olga S, 2003.) In this essay, I am going to discuss the influence of play on children’s development and learning, by referring to Vygotsky and Parten’s theories and Te Whariki.
What is play? Play is a significant part of children’s development, and it is also a part of their nature. Children love to play, they are more motivated to learn during play, and they obtain all kinds of experiences and knowledge through play. Moreover, play provides opportunities for children to establish good relationships with teachers and peers. For example, in the first week of my last practicum, I helped a four-year-old girl to play number-matching puzzles.
We had a very good time playing together, and this girl stayed very close to me for the rest of my practicum. I have also observed in my practicum that children who played together earlier in the day tended to stay together for the rest of the day.
This emphasizes the important connection between play and social development of children. Moreover, according to Vygotsky’s theory, culture such as language, values and perspectives is transmitted through social interactions.
(The Mozart of Psychology Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, 2005.) He also believed that, children’s cognitive development is socially and culturally mediated, and it depends on and is affected by social interactions. (Berk, 2007.) Children interact with each other through verbal and non-verbal language, and play is a starter to these interactions. Throughout play, they obtain knowledge, practical skills, share ideas and experiences, learn about sharing and turn taking, right and wrong and boundaries and limits.
In 1932, Mildred Parten (as cited in R. Tomlin, n.d.) came up with the theory “Categories of Play”. It classifies children’s play into six categories that represent six types and degrees of children’s social behaviors and development. They are unoccupied play, onlooker play, solitary play, parallel play, associative play and co-operative play. The unoccupied play is a stage where the child does not engage himself in play, not with any other children or toys. The child is more like an ‘observer’ than ‘player’, he may watch other children play and take notice of the things that happen around him. He may stay in one location or move around randomly. During the onlooker play, the child is still more of a ‘watcher’ than ‘player’, he may engage himself with other children verbally during their play, such as asking questions, offer suggestions, but not engage in participating in the activity. Solitary play is a stage where the child plays by himself. There are no interactions with other children, and no interests of what other children are doing.
However, when a child plays alone it does not necessarily mean he is socially isolated, it can be that the child just needs some time by himself. Parallel play is a stage that occurs in all age groups. It is when children play with similar toys or engage in similar activities at the same time and location, but play separately. They are more focused on what they are doing than on other children. Associative play mostly occurs between three and four years of age. It is a stage about socialization. Communication and interactions start to occur, children start to learn to share, to take turns. The main focus is not on the objects anymore but on their peers. The last stage is co-operative play. It is a stage that children start to have a concept of ‘team’ and ‘team work’. Everyone is working together toward the final goal by fulfilling the roles they assigned to.
Play can be considered as an excellent tool to enhance children’s development. For example, in my last practicum, we often played a game called “The Rainbow”. It is to ask all the children and teachers to hold a large colorful fabric together, and the children are assigned to different numbers from one to three, then we start to sing a song, when the song finishes, we lift up the fabric, the teacher will call out the number, and the children who are assigned to this number will have to run under the fabric and switch positions.
This game offers an opportunity for children to exercise their body by running, lifting up their arms, to practice their thinking skills by understanding the rules of the game, to practice their language skills by singing the song, and to recognize numbers. The children have a really great time playing the game, their emotional well-being has been nurtured, and by playing the game with all teachers together, they would feel safe and protected from harm. Moreover, a sense of belonging has been developed by playing the game together with the whole team. (Ministry of Education, 1996.)
Other types of play, such as pretend play, symbolic play also help children to obtain a higher level of cognitive competence. For example, in pretend play, children have to have “the ability to transform objects and actions symbolically” (Bergen, 2002) Through these various types of play, children start to make sense of the world, to separate fantasy from reality, to learn self-regulation, to practice their thinking skills. It also provides children with opportunities to revisit joyful experiences, or to deal and cope with negative emotions. In terms of making sense of the world, a child who pretends to be a bus driver, and sits at the front of the ‘bus’. The idea of where the bus driver is on a bus comes from the child’s real life experiences, where he gets on the bus with his parents and sees the bus driver sitting in the front, then he starts to release that is the way it is.
Also, when a child pretends to be a doctor, he has to understand its characteristic, such as costume, postures and vocabulary, in order to carry out the role. And an example of how children separate fantasy from reality is the ‘cooking’ game that I observed in my last practicum. The children used lots of containers, bottles, spoons and sand to ‘cook’. A four-year-old girl brought me a bottle filled with sand and said, “It’s milk, it’s for you.” And when I took over the bottle and start to ‘drink’, she said, “We are not really drinking it, we just pretend it’s milk, ok?” However, some other younger children would actually eat the sand, because they have not yet developed the concept of fantasy and reality. As previously said, pretend play and symbolic play help children to learn self-regulation, to practice thinking skills. They learn to control their emotions, to share toys and take turns, and understand the reason to do that. They learn that daycare is different from home, and there are different sets of rules to follow.
Children also love to re-act the joyful moments they had in previous experiences. For example, on a Monday morning, A came to my practicum centre telling us she had a great time on the beach during the weekend. Then later during the day, A and two other girls took bags, sun glasses and sunhats pretending they are on the beach. From these examples, we can see how children benefit from play. Play improves and enhances the holistic development of children, so for adults, it is important to encourage and enhance children to play, identify children’s learning and provide them with a safe environment, materials, various types of learning experiences and appropriate responds and assistance. Moreover, most importantly, “adults should make children aware of any hidden risks in physical challenges they set for themselves.” (Fernie, 1988)
The four principles of Te Whariki (Ministry of Education, 1996.), empowerment, holistic development, relationship and family and community facilitate appropriate curriculum for children’s development through play. The principle of empowerment ensures that children’s physical and emotional well-being is nurtured. This may include, nutritious meals, appropriate food for children with allergies, sufficient amount of outdoor activity and rest, and knowledge of their body, body function and self-help skills, awareness of harm and skills, sense of safety, and understanding of rules about harming others and the environment.
As for the emotional well-being, the principle of empowerment ensures that children take responsibilities of their own decision and actions, develop sense of self-recognition, ability of self-regulation and self-adjustment. The empowerment principle contributes significantly to the second principle, holistic development. It enables children to have a concept of the ECE settings, home and the world, and the links and differences between them, the knowledge of people, objects, communities and natural recourses, and interests in discovering them.
Also, it helps children to build confidences through participating in activities and social interactions, initiatives awareness of daily routines and tolerance of changes, enhances their ability to accept new things, and to understand boundaries and limits. The third and forth principles, relationships and family and community work together to enable children to develop communication skills, build confidences in communication and establishing relationships with people from different gender, age group and cultural background.
In my last practicum, one of the under two babies held a birthday party together with the over two children, the teachers and parents. The over twos also performed a song they had been practicing for the past two weeks to the parents. During the party, there were lots of interactions going on. The children were communicating with each other and adults verbally and non-verbally, they talks about the previous birthday parties, plans for their future birthday parties, they used facial expressions, gestures, postures and body movement to express themselves, some of the children showed their counting skills to the parent by counting the candles on the cake. The teachers and parents always respond to the children’s questions or needs, and encouraged them to bring their plate and water bottle to the kitchen branch by themselves and wash their hands after eating.
Play is an important and significant part a child’s life, it provides opportunities for children to take initiatives in learning. As adults, we should provide children with helpful and suitable resources, materials and assistances to enable appropriate learning to occur. Moreover, it is our responsibility to arm ourselves with skills and knowledge in order to assist children to achieve their goals. We should start to be aware of the value and the significance of children’s play, guide and teach them during their play. Family, educators and caregivers should be working together, to help children to grow up into successful adults, and to make our world a better place.