Our understanding of children’ development and learning is complicated because of the numerous and varied factors that impact it. These include physiological, mental, emotional, social, linguistic, cognitive, socio-cognitive, and cultural aspects. Two of the most considerable theories on the growth and development of cognitive thinking in children were proposed by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. Both offered explanations for children’s cognitive learning styles and abilities; their explanations and ideas have significantly contributed to the field of learning and instructions. While they have different views into the cognitive development in children, Piaget and Vygotsky both emphasized that much of children’s early learning is achieved through play and symbolic play in particular. The objective of this paper is to examine the major constructs of Piaget and Vygotsky theories about cogitative development in children and to evaluate the implications of their theories for instructions and symbolic play practices for children in preschool (kindergarten) age.
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Cognitive Development Theories: Children Learning and Symbolic Play
Cognitive development refers to the development of the ability to think and reason. It is the transformation of the child’s undifferentiated, unspecialized cognitive abilities into the adult’s conceptual competence and problem-solving skills (Driscoll, 2005). For many psychologists, cognitive development answers the questions about how children moves toward reaching the endpoint of gaining the adults’ skills, what stages they are pass through and how do changes in their thinking occur and what role dose learning play?
Among many theories that are introduced to explain the children’ cognitive and knowledge development, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky proposed the most influential theories that contributes to this component of psychology. Their theories underlined that the way the children learn and mentally grow has a critical role in their learning progress and abilities development. Piaget and Vygotsky were considered as constructivists who believed that learning occurs as a result of “mental construction” and by fitting the new information into the cognitive structure (scheme) that the learners already have (Driscoll, 2005). Constructivism approach also suggests that learning is affected by the context in which knowledge transfer occurs and by learners’ beliefs and attitudes . Piaget and Vygotsky also agreed on the societal influences in cognitive growth; however, they differ in the learning progression process. Piaget believed that children learn by interacting with their surroundings but with no importance for the input from others and that learning occurs after development; Vygotsky, on the other hand, held the idea that learning happens before development and that children learn through history and symbolism and they value the input from their surroundings (Slavin, 2003).
Further, it is imperative for teachers to understand the progression of cognitive development and the constructs of the major theories in the field in order to be able to attend the unique needs of each child and to develop the learning program, instructions plans and classroom’ activities in a developmentally appropriate approach. Kindergarten program is an example of these learning programs that is of particular interest because it influences children in very young age and shapes their cognitive development journey. Kindergarten learning programs should be designed on the natural approach for children learning as suggested by the cognitive development theories. The natural approach suggests that the physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development of children depends on activity and interactions with others (Driscoll, 2005). This means the play is a key aspect of the Kindergarten learning programs and that is seen as phenomenon of thoughts and activity ‘growth (Piaget, 1951).
Play consists of activities performed for self-amusement that have behavioral, social, and psychomotor rewards. Play is directed towards the child, and the rewards come from within the individual child; it is enjoyable and spontaneous. Children engage in different types of play depending upon situations and different needs. Types of play range from physical play which involves jumping, running and other physical activities to the surrogate play at which ill children watch others play on their behalf. They also range from inactive observation play to active associative in group play that requires planning and co operation. Play types also include expressive play which involves playing with materials (such as clay, play dough,â€¦) and the manipulative play that gives children the measure of control over others and their environment (for example, to throw a toy out of a cot, watch a parent pick it up, and then throw it out again). Symbolic play (also be referred to as dramatic play) is another important type of play at which children enact scenes where they substitute one object for another (for example, a child will use a stick to represent a spoon or a hair brush to represent a microphone). This kind of pretend play takes on various forms: The child may pretend to play using an object to represent other objects, playing without any objects and pretending that they are indeed present. Or the child may pretend to be someone else and imitate adults and experiment what it means to be an adult in a role they are exposed to in their surrounding environment (for example, mother, father, care-giver, doctor and so on). They may also pretend through other inanimate objects (e.g. a toy horse kicks another toy horse). Symbolic play in children can usually be observed during the beginning of the second year of life and it has been linked through the studies and experiments to the cognitive problem solving skills, creative abilities, and emotional well-being.
In the following sections of this paper, the major constructs and ideas proposed by Piaget and Vygotsky theories will be examined in relation to symbolic play for cognitive and knowledge development of children; and the implications of each theory for instruction and practice in Kindergarten educational settings.
Theories of Cognitive Development: Piaget and Vygotsky
It is a fact that most of the methods and approaches for teaching are driven from Piaget and Vygotsky ‘research studies. They both offer teachers good proposals on how to teach certain learning materials in appropriate approach that matches the child’ developmentally conditions.
Piaget (1896-1980) believed that children progress through an invariant sequence of four stages. Theses stages are not arbitrary but are assumed to reflect qualitative differences in children’ cognitive abilities (Driscoll, 2005, p.149). He proposed that each stage must represent a significant qualitative and quantitative change in children cognitive and that children progress through these stages in a culturally invariant sequence. Each stage will include the cognitive structures and abilities (schemes) of the previous stages (constructivism) which all will act as an integrated cognitive structure (accumulated knowledge) at that given stage (Driscoll, 2005).
These schemes can be alerted, changed or developed through assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation occurs when a child perceives new objects or events in term of existing scheme (Driscoll, 2005); in other words, within information the child already knows. Accommodation occurs when existing schemes are modified to adopt (or fit in) a new experience or information. If the new information doesn’t fit or it conflicts with the existing scheme then the disequilibrium occurs. Equilibrium, however, is the master developmental process which encompasses both assimilation and accommodation and prepares for the child’ transaction from one state of the development to the next (Driscoll, 2005). Piaget’ stages of development are: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations and formal operations.
Sensorimotor stage is over the period between the birth to two years. During this stage, the child experiences the surrounding world through the senses and movement. The child develops “object permanence” which refers to the ability to understand an object exist even if it is not in field of vision (Woolfolk, 2004). Toward the end of this period, children begin to mentally represent object and events but to that point they only can act and during the transaction to the mental representation, they may use simple motor indicators as symbols for other events (Driscoll, 2005). They also begin to understand that their actions could cause another actions developing a “goal-director behavior”; for an example, throwing a toy from the cot to make parents pick the toy and pressing the doll button to make the sound and so on (kind of the manipulative play).
Preoperational stage extends from the child’ second year to seventh year. According to Piaget, children have not yet mastered the ability of mental operation or to think through the actions (Woolfolk, 2004) but they acquire the “semiotic function” early in this period. This means that they are able to mentally represent the objects and events, as evidenced in their imitation of some activities long after it occurred (Driscoll, 2005). Hence, pretending, or symbolic play, is highly characteristic stage and the language acquisitions. One more interesting idea proposed by Piaget is that during this stage children are considered to be “egocentric” assuming that others share their points of view and which makes them engage in “self monologue” with no interacting with others (Woolfolk, 2004).
Concrete operations period that is from seventh year to eleventh, is characteristic to be the “hands-on” period at which children overcome the limitation of egocentrism and learn through discovery learning while working (operating) with real tangible objects (Woolfolk, 2004). They become more internalized and able to create logical-mathematical knowledge resulting in operations (Driscoll, 2005).
Formal operation occurs from eleventh year to adulthood and at which propositional logic is developed. Reaching this stage, children (who become adult) should be able to not only to think hypothetically but to plan systematic approaches to solve problems (Driscoll, 2005). The acquisition of the met-cognitive (thinking about thinking) is also an important characteristic of the formal operations.
Piaget also believed in the active role of the child during development. He proposed that children act on their own environment and cognitive is rooted in the action (Driscoll, 2005). He acknowledged the social interaction aspect of the children development but only to move the child away from egocentrism to develop the “social knowledge” that can be learned only from other people (language, moral rules, values..).
Although, Piaget’ theory of cognitive development proposed an integrated and beneficial framework for children learning that can be utilized by educators and parents to influence and enrich the learning process of the children; the theory has faced serious challenges and especially in the recent years with the contemporary research add to this filed. For an example, Piaget believed that all children, regardless of the culture, progress through four stages and once particular stage is reached, the regression to earlier stage can’t occur. Replications of Piaget’s experiments have shown that children in different cultures do not pass through the same types of reasoning suggested in Piaget’ stages (Driscoll, 2005). Moreover, there are people, in any culture, who fail to reason at the formal operation level; we experience interacting with these people in our day-to-day life in personal and professional levels. Also, Piaget claimed that there must be a qualitative discontinues change in cognitive from stage to stage; this has been questioned with the ability to accelerate development and the studies and experiments showed that that children can learn more than Piaget thought they could (Siegler & Svetina 2002 as cited in Driscoll, 2005). One more is that children don’t exhibit the characteristics of each stage; for example, children are sometimes egocentric beyond the proportional stage and the preoperational children are not egocentric all the time (Driscoll, 2005).
However and despite these challenges, understanding Piaget’s proposed stages and development sequence suggests useful and effective certain learning and teaching strategies at each level. Example of these strategies as implications of Piaget theory will be discussed in the next section.
Vygotsky (1896 -1943) proposed an alternative to the Piaget’ stages of cognitive development, he stated that children learn mainly by social interactions and their culture plays a major role to shape their cognitive (woolfolk, 2004). He believed that “individual development could not be understood without reference to the social and cultural context within which such development is embedded” (Driscoll, 2005, p.250). His theory suggests a co -constructed process of social interactions at which through children move toward individualized thinking. When a child receives a help through this process, her or she may be able to develop better strategy in the future to deal with a similar problem. This co-constructed channel of communications between the child and his culture will lead to internalization and eventually to independent thinking (Woolfolk, 2004). A good example to understand social dialogue and internalization is what introduced by Vygotsky himself and cited in Driscoll (2005) “One a child stretching out her hand for an object she can’t quite reach, an adult interprets the gesture of pointing and responds accordingly. Until the adult responds, the child is simply grasping for an object out of reach, however, the situation change with the adult respond to be a social exchange and the act of grasping takes on a shared meaning of pointing. When a child internalizes the meaning and uses the gesture as pointing, the interpersonal activity has been transferred into intrapersonal one.” (p.252).
The zone of proximate development is another principle introduced by Vygotsky. He agreed with Piaget that there is knowledge and skills associated with the child developmentally range of understanding, but he believed that with given help and support, children can perform problems that Piaget would consider out of their staged mental capabilities (Woolfolk, 2004). Scaffolding is the technique proposed by Vygotsky to support the discovery learning through social interaction and in the zone of approximate development. Scaffolding entails providing the child with a hint or clue for the problem solving and encouraging child’s thinking in order to allow him or her to better approach the problem in the future.
Further, Vygotsky highlighted the importance of the “mediation cultural tools” to support learning and higher-level processing in children. These cultural signs and tools involve technological, symbolic and any available resource that aids in social communication (language, signs, symbols, media television, computer, booksâ€¦). Although the tools at hand may include sophisticated toys, children are successful at creating imaginary situations with sticks and other common objects in their environment. This leads into the symbolic play as a strategy for children teaching. Driscoll (2005) noted that “in play, Vygotsky argued, children stretch their conceptual abilities and begin to develop a capacity for abstract thought; the signs they establish in their imaginations, in other word, can make up a very complex symbol system, which they communicate through verbal and nonverbal gestures”(P.259).
The development of language is another major principle that is proposed by Vygotsky’ s theory. Althoug didn’t address specific implications for instruction of language, he believed that language constitutes the most important sign-using behavior to occur during the cognitive development and this is because it frees children from the constraints of their immediate environment. The language of a certain group of people reflects their own cultural beliefs and value system and children initially associate the words meaning to their contexts and life aspects till they learn to abstract the word from a particular concrete context (decontextualization). This process of decontextualization “must occur with any symbol system if it is to serve higher mental functions such as reasoning” (Driscoll, 2005, p. 259-260). Once again, Vygotsky suggested that symbolic play is important for language learning in young children. He also emphasized the importance of the “private speech” as a self-directed regulation and communication with the self to guide actions and aid in thinking; this is in contrast to Piaget who viewed privative speech as egocentric (or immature) (Woolfolk, 2004).
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Undoubtedly, both Piaget and Vygotsky provided educators with influential insights and important views on the cognitive development in children. Piaget suggested that the children progress through maturation stages and discovery learning with minimal social impact. Vygotsky, from other hand, stressed the importance of the cultural context and language on cognitive development. The following will browse, in general, some implications of the both theories for instructions in different educational settings then more specific for symbolic play in kindergarten.
Implications for Instructions of Piaget and Vygotsky
Educators and school systems have been applying the cognitive development theories of Piaget and Vygotsky in classrooms teaching for some time. The most important implications of the both theories are that the learning environment should support the discovery-learning and that child should be effectively involved in the learning process. They stressed the role of peer interaction and the symbolic play. Both also agreed that development may be triggered by cognitive conflict; this entails adopting instructional strategies that make children aware of conflicts and inconsistencies in their thinking (Driscoll, 2005). A good example of this would be the “Socratic Dialogs” which fosters the critical thinking through a series of questions and answers that enable learner to develop the understanding of the learning materials.
However, Piaget and Vygotsky differ in the way to guide the children in the discovery learning. Piaget recommended a very little teacher interference while Vygotsky prompted the teacher to guide the discovery learning offering questions to students and having them discover the answer by testing different options (Scaffolding).
According to Piaget, teachers dealing with children in preoperational stage (like in kindergarten) are encouraged to incorporate the play as a pedagogic strategy; in play children are engaged in active self-discovery activities employing concrete object or symbolically. It also helps to understand that and since the children in this stage have not yet mastered the mental operations, the teacher should not only use action and verbal short instructions but also to demonstrate these instructions. Using visual aid is very important in this stage to create attractive and discovery-oriented learning environment (Driscoll, 2005). Moreover, is to pay attention to the “egocentrism” in this stage as suggested by Piaget and the teacher to be sensitive that children may not realize that not everyone shares their view or understand the word they invented (Woolfolk, 2004). It is important to in the stage to provide the children with a range of experiences and knowledge to build the foundation (basic scheme) for concept learning and languages those children are expected to master in coming stages. Teaching children in the concrete operation stage should involve “hands-on” learning at which children have the opportunity to test and manipulate objects, perform experiments and solve problems in order to develop logical and analogical thinking skills. Teacher should consider using familiar examples to explain the complex ideas and this is by linking to the existing knowledge of the learners (scheme). While teaching the students in formal operations stage requires teachers to offer student open-ended projects that enhance their advanced problem solving and reasoning skills. It is critical in this stage for the teachers to help learners understanding of the broad concepts and their applications in the real life.
The teachers applying Vygotsky’ teaching methods would be very active player in their students’ education. The most popular technique to be utilized is the scaffolding at which teachers will provide assistance and the feedback as the knowledge source to support learning of new information. The teachers then will not present information in one sided way but will provide the guidance and assistance required for learners to bridge the gap between their skills level and the desired skills; when they are able to complete tasks on their own, the guidance and support will be withdrawn (Greenfield, 1984 cited in Driscoll 2005). Also teachers applying Vygotsky’ theory utilized the “meditation” tools and teach students how to use these tools in their learning (computers, books,â€¦). Vygotsky emphasized the language and other sign systems (such as symbolic playing) as important tools for children learning. Language is the cultural communication tool that transmits history and cultural values between individuals and from parents and teachers toward children.
Most importantly, is incorporating the group or peer learning as an important source of cognitive development. A good application of Vygotsky’ principles of social learning and the zone of approximate development zone is the strategy at which teachers encourage children with varying level of knowledge to help each other by allowing the child who master the skill to teach and guide his or her peer who still trying to master this skill. It is evident to be an effective learning strategy not only in children learning but also in adult learning. Piaget also believed that peer interactions are essential in helping children move beyond the egocentric and that children are more effective to provide information and feedback to other children about the validity of their logical constructions (Driscoll, 2005); hence the instructional strategies are favored that encourage peer teaching and social negotiation.
Applying Piaget or Vygotsky, the teachers main goal should be to support learners and to provide the assistance plan that fulfill the learner’ needs and promote his thinking skills and cognitive development. Teachers should also prepare the learning environment that attracts children attention and encourages their self-discovery. The instruction plan should be designed on the premises that classrooms have students with different cultural, linguistic and knowledge backgrounds. In preparing learning activities, teachers should be able to get children to play and learn collaboratively and enhance their understanding through teacher feedback, peer feedback and social negotiation.
Symbolic Play: Cognitive and Language Development
As introduced, the cognitive development theories encourage play and symbolic play-in particular- as a pedagogic strategy for active self learning and language development. In play, the children initiate and take control of their activity (Driscoll, 2005); and this very nature of play along with other criteria are what distinguish play from other behaviors: play is essentially motivated with self-imposed goals, play is activity of spontaneous and pleasure, play is free from imposed rules, player is an active participants in the play; play focuses on means rather than ends, play is characteristics by the “as if” dimension that encourages children to use objects and gestures as if they were something else ( Hymans, 1991 ; Fein & Rivikin as cited in Yan, Yuejuan & Hongfen, 2005; Piaget, 1951; Rubin, Waston & Jambor, 1978).
In symbolic play that starts in second year of life, children use tools of objects, actions, language, signs and roles to represent something from their real or imagined world of experiences. It enables the children to build and express their understanding of either individual or social experience (Driscoll, 2005; Hymans, 1991; Lenningar, n.d; Lyytinen, Poikkeus & Laakso, 1997; Piaget, 1951; Woolfolk, 2004). Symbolic play indicates that the child developed the two main cognitive operations: reversibility and decentralization; reversibility refers to the child awareness that he or she can come from the pretended role to the real world at any time while decentralization refers to the child understanding that the child in the play is still him/her at the same time with the person he/she is imitating (Rubin 1980 as cited in Marjanovic & Lesnic, 2001). The next intellectual skill noticeable in the symbolic play is conservation which refers to the “child ability to preserve the imaginary identity of the play materials despite the fact they are perceptually and could be functionally inadequate” (Marjanovic Umek & Lesnic Musek, 2001).
The social element of the symbolic play is also a very important aspect to be considered for the cognitive development in the children. According to Vygotsky, children learn to use the tools and skills they practice with social parents; he also emphasized that learning occurs in social interactions and it is affected cultural context it occurs at. He further proposed that social interaction could lead to developmental delays or abnormal development as well as to normal or accelerated development (Driscoll, 2005). Piaget also highlighted the importance of social interaction for the children to develop beyond the egocentrism that is a characteristic of pre operational stage. The impact of symbolic play in this dimension is supported by Smilansky (1968) studies at which she proposed that social activities influence the development of the child’s cognitive and social skills. When children are engaged in a role performance; they have to reach a agreement about the play idea, the course of actions and the transformation of roles and play materials and this can only be achieved when individuals come over their egocentrism and develop the ability to communicate and empathize (cited in Marjanovic Umek & Lesnic Musek, 2001). Smilansky then developed the Scale for Evaluation of Dramatic and Socio-Dramatic Play; the scale tracks the progressive development in the use of the objects in the symbolic play over five stages. The first stage includes simple manipulation followed by the stage of imitating the adults’ activities of adults by using the model of the object as adult do (as using the hair brush as a microphone). In the third stage, the object becomes an instrument for enacting certain roles while in the forth stage the use of object/toy goes together with the speech and gestures. The final stage focuses in the speech without using objects or gestures (Smilansky 1968; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990 as cited in Marjanovic Umek & Lesnic Musek, 2001).
Smilansky’ scale supported also the role of symbolic play in the language development that was firstly proposed by Vygotsky and this language-play relation has been investigated all the way since then. The research studies discussed the component of the language in the context of symbolic play and mainly in the role playing part of it. In role playing, children engage in a communication dialogue with their playing parties. It is evident that the role playing and object transformations enable the childe to use lexicographic meanings and clear speech (Pellegrini & Galda as cited in Marjanovic Umek & Lesnic Musek, 2001). According to Lyytinen, Poikkeus and Lassko (1997); their study to observe and examine the relationship between language and play among 110 18-month-old children showed that early talkers of these children displayed significant more symbolic play than the late talkers ; a significant connection was found between the language comprehensive and percentage of symbolic play. This is supported by the study conducted by Marjanovic Umek and Lesnic Musek (2001) at which they compared three age groups of children in preschool settings with different level of play using Smilansky’s Scale for the Evaluation of Dramatic and Socio-dramatic Play; the observations and results proved stronger use of the language in the function of defining roles, scenes and materials that are required for the play context.
More interesting studies looked into the implications of symbolic play for the education of children with special needs and disorders such as Down syndrome and Autism. Example of these studies is the study conducted Stanley and Kinstantareas (2006) who investigated the relationship between symbolic play and other domains such as nonverbal cognitive abilities, receptive language, expressive language and social development among 131 children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The result indicates a significant positive relation between symbolic play and development of these domains in children with (ASD). The study also stressed that training in symbolic play will help to improve these children’ skills in other domains (Stanley & Kinstantareas , 2006). Another recent study conducted by Venuti, Falco, Giusti and Bronstein (2008) to investigate the impact of mother-child interaction in the play on the cogitative functions of children with Down Syndrome concluded that such interaction leads to enhanced cognitive functioning (Venuti, Falco, Giusti & Bronstein , 2008).
Symbolic play, then, inked through the literature to the development of cognitive problem solving skills, linguistic transformation and creative abilities. It also supports the emotional and social development. Role playing is evident to be a way of coping with emotional conflict through which children can escape into a fantasy world in order to make sense out of the real one. From different aspect, it enhances the child’ self awareness and self directed; when a parent or sibling plays a board game with a child, shares a bike ride, plays baseball, or reads a story, the child learns self-importance. The child’s self -esteem gets a boost. Parents send positive messages to their child when they communicate pleasure in providing him or her with daily care. From these early interactions, children develop a vision of the world and gain a sense of their place in it. In term of social development, the children enjoy playful interactions with others staring with parents through which they learn their culture values and aspects. Interaction with other children helps the children helps children to learn about boundaries, taking turns, teamwork, and competition. Children also learn to negotiate with different personalities and the feelings associated with winning and losing. They learn to share, wait, and be kind.
Some of the more common functions of play are to facilitate physical and moral development. Physical play develops both fine and gross motor skills. During play, children repeat certain body movements purely for pleasure, and these movements develop body muscles and control. Moreover, when children engage in play with their peers and families, they begin to learn the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. During playing with peers, they learn that taking turns is rewarding and cheating is not; they learn to appreciate teamwork, share and respect others’ feelings.
Therefore, models of children learning and preschool education in professional settings are mainly driven from different understanding and implications of symbolic play which are in turn based on the premises of different cognitive development theories.
Play and Learning: Educational Framework in Kindergarten Settings
“Children learn through play” is the golden rule that any educational frameworks in the preschool (Kindergarten) settings should revolve around. According to the theories and studies
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