All children are engrossed in exploration and play in order to comprehend and make sense of the world around them. To analyse the importance of play during the early years I offer a brief summary in this reflection of mine.
Before the development of oral language children are engrossed in sensory and physical exploration as a natural process to understand their immediate environment. There are a number of definitions to define play and one cannot deny the significance in the learning that takes place through play. Theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky considered play to be an important part of childhood as a path to the learning process.
Learning through play for Piaget was defined as a movement through practice play, imaginative play, and continuing on to play with a set of rules. On the other hand, Vygotsky thought that children could be assisted in moving from their level of performance to a level of what they could have a potential of doing. Vygotsky believed the zone of proximal development was created through play which was when children could, “operate at their highest possible cognitive level” (Smidt, 2006, p. 46). As children make sense of the world around them Vygotsky thought that those who expressed themselves through imaginary play stood a ‘head taller’. This meant that in pretend play, “children reveal more about what they know and can do than in other activities” (Smidt, 2006, p. 46). Like Piaget he acknowledged that play developed into those with rules but highlighted the importance of the social nature of learning through play.
Vygotsky suggested that play is the main source of development in early years. “In play a child deals with things as having meaning. Word meanings replace objects, and thus an emancipation of word from object occurs” (Vygotsky, 1933, p. 11). However, there is a transfer of meanings as a child in imaginary play can think of a stick as a horse as he or she mentally designates the object or property as the word. “Play is the source of development and creates the zone of proximal development. Action in the imaginative sphere, in an imaginary situation, the creation of voluntary intentions and the formation of real life plans and volitional motives – all appear in play and make it the highest level of preschool development” (Vygotsky, 1933, p. 16).
Bruner also showed an interest in play which he described as an approach to, “doing something and not an activity in its own right” (Smidt, 2006, p. 46). This suggests that children can learn through the process of play which is not an activity in itself but a tool to comprehend aspects of literacy, numeracy, and anything in the environment around them. Bruner also believed that through imaginative play children substituted reality in a way, and with that approach created symbols. “In essence, in pretend play, the child stimulates an action in play as if it were real, or the child tries out new combinations and consequences in a what if fashion” (Smidt, 2006, p. 46). I would like to empasise that the lack of pressure during pretend play is of significance in the learning and development of the child.
Children also build on their fine and gross motor skills during play. Suitable outdoor play areas that are set up to encourage this development are essential in early childhood settings in my opinion. If these environments are not available teachers should explore nearby outdoor parks or playgrounds to promote play. Unfortunately a number of children today spend a great deal of time indoors as they watch television and should be encouraged to explore outdoor environments to play.
In Steiner kindergartens children are exposed to experiences that generally occur at home like cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening, and building. These activities provide a link to what happens at home and creates a sense of well-being and security for the children who can relate to those particular activities. Children are encouraged to use their fantasy in imaginary play and are exposed to resources that stimulate this type of play. Generally these resources are natural items and materials that are quite often unfinished. The logic behind this is that, “an ‘unfinished’ toy leaves children free to exert their imaginations, a ‘finished’ toy ties the child to a certain group of activities” (Trostli, 1998, p. 95-96). For example, if a child has a yellow taxi, play is limited to activities around taxis. Whereas, if the child had a plain wooden car, imaginary play could involve a number of endless possibilities from which the child can extend and initiate their own play. This is similar in concept to what I mentioned earlier with regard to a child imagining a stick to be a horse as he or she mentally designates the object or property as the word. Trosli (1998) also states that Steiner kindergartens, “allow the children’s intellectual faculties to unfold naturally so that by the time children enter the elementary grades, they are ready and eager to experience new forms of learning” (p. 97).
Smith (1998) suggests that there is a gender segregation in play from the early years. Girls tend to express themselves emotionally and develop nurturing skills whereas boys tend to apply and operate through rules and get on better with others that they don’t like. If children are left to themselves they generally form groups of the same gender but mix together and play when adults set up roles and situations for children to play in.
Research in the developed world that is spoken of is Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) that presents itself as the most recent knowledge about children. However, this research is only from the US and does not take into account any cultural values and perceptions of other groups of children. DAP’s outlook is ‘age and stage’ and strongly promotes play that is self directed and initiated. However, it doesn’t look at cultural and lifestyle issues as well as socio-economic factors (Smidt, 2006). DAP mentions the declining state of imaginary play as children are being led into more adult driven activities and media use and state that, “Active scaffolding of imaginative play is needed in early childhood settings if children are to develop the sustained, mature dramatic play that contributes significantly to their self-regulation and other cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional benefits.” (p. 15). DAP also suggest that, “Rather than detracting from academic learning, play appears to support the abilities that underlie such learning and thus to promote school success” (p. 15).
In conclusion, children learn through play that they discover for themselves in their own environment. Play promotes cognitive, social, and emotional development and is essential for physical development during the early years. Te Whāriki states that, “Children learn through play – by doing, by asking questions, by interacting with others, by setting up theories or ideas about how things work and trying them out, and by the purposeful use of resources” (Ministry of Education, 1996). Play eventually leads to creative thinking, and through what they are doing children can reflect on their own play to answer questions and solve problems for themselves to develop an understanding of the world around them.