Children’s Play is More Than “Child’s Play”
By Adrienne Lomangino, Head Teacher
Bing was founded over 40 years ago as a play-based program. The founding director, Dr. Edith Dowley, held a strong belief in the value of play. To fully appreciate the Bing Nursery School approach to early childhood education, one needs to delve into the significance of play. This article explores the definition of play and the many competencies that children develop through play experiences. The presentation made at this year’s parent seminar, “The Importance of Play,” is based on this essay.
Although we consider Dr. Edith Dowley a visionary, various theorists, researchers, and organizations have emphasized the value of play. A few examples reveal the fundamental importance of play for children’s development. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) asserted, “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” (p.102)
Twelve years ago the National Associ-ation for the Education of Young Children established principles for developmentally appropriate practice. The authors assert, “Play is an important vehicle for children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development, as well as a reflection of their development.” (NAEYC, p.8) The last phrase in this statement, which could easily be overlooked, needs closer consideration. How is play a reflection of development? Across domains, solving problems and innovations involve play. While adults typically play with ideas, these skills and ways of thinking begin for children in more concrete forms of play. In 2006, The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report promoting the value of play entitled The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Emphasizing the need to view play as essential for growth and development, the report highlights that the United Nations recognized play as a right of every child (Ginsburg, 2006). At a time when children’s opportunities for play are frequently being restricted and children’s performance is being assessed at younger and younger ages, it is important to remind ourselves that “the spontaneous play of children is their highest achievement.” (Jones and Reynolds, 1993)
The importance of play in promoting human development is supported by work by the prominent psychologists Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky. Their work provides the following principles that guide the Bing School perspective on how children learn. Perhaps most important, children construct understandings of the world through experiences with the physical and social world. They do not simply soak in information, but rather have to build and refine their knowledge. Learning also involves culturally transmitted knowledge that is acquired during interactions. Vygotsky drew attention to the cultural knowledge children learn and explore through role play. Play provides many experiences for constructing knowledge through interactions with the physical, social and cultural world and is described by Vygotsky (1978) as “the source of development.” (p.132)
In order to promote optimal learning and growth in children, educators must attend to the fact that cognitive skills are intertwined with physical, social and emotional systems. In their principles for developmentally appropriate practice, NAEYC (1997) has asserted, “Understanding that children are active constructors of knowledge and that development and learning are the result of interactive processes, early childhood teachers recognize that children’s play is a highly supportive context for these developing processes” (p.8). Or, more succinctly: “it is myopic, if not futile, to dwell on the intellect and exclude its partners.” (Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2004, p.4)
What skills, knowledge and competencies do children develop in the context of play? To fully appreciate the importance of play, it is important to examine more closely its influence on social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Beyond children’s development across these areas, play also has a broader influence on children’s developing dispositions toward learning.
Social Development .
Children’s experiences in play promote various aspects of social development. Imaginative play involves communication of one’s thoughts and wishes. During pretend play, children learn to communicate through language, gestures and symbolic objects (Segal, 2004). During interactive play, children gain experience and competence at taking turns and collaborating with others. In the process of collaboration, they develop skills for reaching compromises, which often requires flexibility in children’s intentions, thoughts and behavior (Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2004, Gestwicki, 1999).
The interactive nature of play promotes the development of reciprocal relationships, which is essential for social development. Through their interactions in reciprocal relationships, children develop mutual understanding. By depending on others within play, and having them depend on one’s self, children develop trust (Kagen & Lowenstein, 2004).
Social development also involves developing an awareness of rules and the self-regulation to abide by social rules. The situations and scripts that children enact through sociodramatic play have inherent rules that frame children’s activity. They learn to follow rules in a context that is meaningful and satisfying (Berk & Winsler, 1995, Zigler & Bishop-Josef). During such play, children learn and practice social conventions, and perhaps test the boundaries of those conventions (Gestwicki, 1999). They explore the scripts that surround them in their social world, including family scenarios at home, weddings, trips and scenes from television and movies.
Experiences in play are also vital for children’s emotional development. Play provides meaningful opportunities for expression of feelings and building awareness of one’s own and other people’s emotions (Kagen & Lowenstein, Gestwicki, 1999). Imaginative play allows children the opportunity to replay events and to express and deal with fears, anxieties and frustrations (Segal). It allows children to express and cope with feelings in a safe and acceptable context, without harmful consequences (Gestwicki, 1999).
Optimal emotional development for young children includes gaining a sense of confidence. Play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges (Ginsburg, 2006). Imaginative play enables children to develop confidence and master reality. Play themes of protection, power and attack/destroy provide children a means of gaining a sense of mastery and control over their worlds (Gestwicki, 1999, Segal, 2004).
Perhaps, above all, play is simply a joy that is a cherished part of childhood. Many of our most treasured childhood memories are of play experiences, moments when anything seems possible.
During a range of play experiences, children also engage their physical selves. They use their large muscles to run, dig, push, carry, pound, swing and throw. They use their fine muscles to draw, paint, cut, pinch (for example, clay), sprinkle and pick up and piece together objects. Through such motor experiences, children develop dexterity, control and hand-eye coordination. In addition, as they move through space in play and coordinate their movements with those of their peers, children develop body-space awareness. Through repeated experiences in the physical activities of play, children develop physical confidence.
Pretend play is a cognitively demanding activity, requiring concentration, inspiration and symbolic thinking (Segal, 2004). Some of the many cognitive competencies children use and develop during play include problem solving, perspective taking, symbolic representational skills, memory and creativity (Kagen & Lowenstein, 2004, Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2004). Play also contributes to children’s ability to engage in flexible thinking, to play with ideas and solutions to problems. This is akin to “the way that adults talk through alternatives to problems they face and imagine consequences from varying perspectives” (Cohen et al., p.81). For example, if a child is building a house and wants a bed, but no bed is available, then he or she has to figure out how to create a bed with the available materials.
Piaget highlighted the many opportunities that play provides for cognitive tasks such as observing and testing cause-effect relations, categorization, generalization and concept acquisition (Kagen & Lowenstein, 2004). Experiences in pretend play also encourage discrimination of appearance and reality, which is a cognitive feat that preschool-age children are in the process of mastering (Taylor & Flavell, 1984, Gestwicki, 1999). As children transform objects during pretend play, they negotiate back and forth between what the object really is and what they are pretending it is (e.g., using blocks as “luggage”). Engaging in pretend play has been found to enhance children’s memory for narrative and lists of objects, as well as their ability to reason theoretically (Gestwicki, 1999).
Vygotsky particularly focused on the importance of sociodramatic play for fostering development of self-regulation. During interactive pretend play children share ideas, attend to other perspectives as they plan and negotiate conflicts, and create scenarios (Segal, 2004). They have to inhibit their impulses in order to follow the roles and script of the game. (If you are the bride in a wedding, you cannot also be the one conducting the ceremony.) Vygotsky describes children’s control over impulsive action in order to pursue plans and goals as, “the highest level of preschool development.” (Berk & Winsler, 1995)
Beyond these specific areas of development, play is important for framing how children approach learning opportunities. Building knowledge and skills is of little use if children do not have the disposition to use them (Katz, 1994). It is therefore essential not only to foster knowledge and skills, but also to develop children’s confidence and propensity to use and build on their knowledge and skills. Engaging in play promotes initiative, task persistence and openness and curiosity about new tasks and challenges. The spontaneous, open-ended nature of play promotes invention and imagination (Kagen & Lowenstein, 2004).
The meaningful, self-imposed goals and non-evaluative nature of play encourages reflection on one’s activity. Children can examine their activities and consider alternative approaches without fear of being evaluated as succeeding or failing. Developing competence at reflecting on one’s activity is essential for becoming a self-regulated learner who will adaptively and strategically approach problems (Paris & Newman, 1990).
Finally, play activity fosters and draws upon children’s intrinsic motivation to explore the world. They engage in play activity due to the satisfaction they experience, not because they are told to do so. They sustain attention on a task and work hard, not for stickers or stars, but for the pleasure of exploring, trying and seeing one’s progress and success. Through this process they experience working toward goals for the intrinsic rewards of gaining a sense of mastery and accomplishment. We hope this will set them on a path toward lifelong learning.
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