Children in a pre school are aged around five to six years old. How can they learn something through play in Pre School? How effective is learning through play and its value to their development? With this kind of notion, it gives me the courage to explore on what play is all about to children especially for those who are in Pre School. Most teachers and parents believe that young children learn best through play. This is supported by the Early Childhood Education Reform (ECEF) (1998:52) that “children in the Foundation Stage learn best through play, experience and conversation”. In this essay, I will explore on different types of play, which are usually used in a pre school classroom. Most importantly, I will explore on how play relates to the children’s development in terms of their physical, cognitive, language, social and emotional development with the supports from acknowledged theorists. I will also point out the importance and benefits of play and how it can be effective with the help of teachers. Moreover, I will also give out examples from Brunei context based from my experience throughout my teaching in Brunei Pre School which relates their learning through play in their school curriculum.
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Definition of play
According to Isaacs (1954:23), he states that “play is the child’s means of living and understanding life”. It proves that learning through play is essential for young children’s development in which they can they can gain experience, and knowledge in this life as it enables them to make sense of their world as they learn through exploration and experimentation. Moreover, play can also make a significant contribution to the child’s mental health and social well-being (Miller et al., 2005).
Conversely, Dodds (2009) argues that many authors and researchers would agree that it is nearly impossible to try and explain the difference between work and play as well as to try and define the notion of play or even categorise different forms of play. Play is a non threatening thing. Bennett et al (1997:51) state that there is a contrast between play and work where “play is seen as being fun and enjoyable, whereas work is serious and even onerous”.
Meanwhile, Hughes (1999:3) states that “play differs in a number of ways from what is usually regarded as work”. Both play and work is enjoyable. However, play is intrinsically motivated while work is extrinsically motivated (Hughes, 1999). The Plowden report (DES, 1967) also states that adults who criticize teachers for allowing children to play are unaware that play is the principal means of learning.
Types of play
It is possible to classify different types of play which represent, and contribute to progress in different areas of development (Sheridan, 1999). As revealed by Miller et al. (2005), they argue that children can be seen playing in all types of different situations. Consequently, what they do when they play has many common features in spite of the context, materials and equipment available.
Therefore, in light of the above, they also believe that practitioners use a number of different terms to describe types of play. Although some may appear self-explanatory, but it is necessary to understand what each involves in terms of the relationships between them and the value of their contribution to the child’s growth and development both as an individual and a learner (Miller et al., 2005).
In a Pre school, teachers use different types of play which relevance to the school curriculum and have an effect to the children’s development. Basically, with these types of play, it can help teachers to observe and understand better what is happening to the children when they play. Play is often categorised in a number of ways but is normally grouped into four different categories. There are creative play, physical play, manipulative play and imaginative play (Tassoni et al., 2007). Most of these plays are practiced in Pre schools.
Firstly, creative play encourages children to experiment and explore the world around them. If the children are given a wide range of activities, they can develop in all areas as well as gaining an immense deal of satisfaction from the play itself as it can actually increase their confidence and self-esteem. Although it also supports the children’s creativity, it is important not to make the children worry about the end product and there should not be any competition. This is due to the child’s sense of self-worth which can easily be destroyed if their creation is not praised or is questioned in some ways. They also supported that in that way, it will enable children to enjoy the process rather than the end of product (Tassoni et al., 2007).
As supported by Duncan and Lockwood (2008), they state that creative play is all about creative arts play such as painting, drawing, music, dance and model making in which are the ways of expressing ideas and feelings. They are also a form of communication. Basically, they also argue that children discover the medium in which they learn how it works and what they can do with it.
Secondly, Tassoni et al., (2007) believe that physical play encourages children to use their large muscles and exercises their body in which they learn to control their muscles and develop coordination. This is also supported by Miller et al., (2005:87), they define that physical play is ” rough and tumble which is a fun, free flowing and physical and children can develop their physical abilities and refine their motor control”. Meanwhile, Lindon (2001:42) who defines that rough and tumble is such “a close encounter play that is playful and obviously enjoyed by children.” It is actually a type of play that is not genuine fighting where children can use the involvement of touching, tickling and chasing in activities given. Moreover, Duncan and Lockwood (2008:99) argue that physical play is a kind of play that often predominates in outdoor provision”.
Thirdly, a manipulative play is a type of play which concentrates upon how a child uses his or her hands. Sight and touch are the essential part of this play with hand-eye coordination. It is primarily divided into gross and fine manipulative play whereas in the gross manipulative play such as throwing a ball, climbing or kicking a ball and in the fine manipulative play is where children discover to use their fingers independently such as unscrewing a lid and using a pencil (Tassoni et al, 2007).
Fourthly, an imaginative play is vital “for the development of cognitive competence” (Duncan and Lockwood, 2008: 98). They also believed that “children can go beyond the here and now; they can pretend to be someone else, to act out adult roles”. This is also argued by Bergen (2002) that there may be negative consequences for intellectual development in the long term if children do not have the opportunity of imaginative play.
Moreover, Tassoni et al., (2007) support that children can act out situations spontaneously by taking on the role of other people or situations. By providing provide a number of imaginative play activities and support by adults can allow children to safely explore their own feelings and the world around them. They also argue that there are four terms that connect with imaginative play, and there is pretend play, fantasy play, socio-dramatic play and symbolic play.
As for symbolic play, Miller et al. (2005:86) states that “it provides children with opportunities to explore and extend their world as well as materials and objects are used to represent all kinds of things and people”. This shows that in this kind of play, objects, actions and functions take on responsibilities. Meanwhile, Lindon (2001:42) states that symbolic play “allows children to exercise control and explore without the risk of being out of their depth”. For instance, a piece of wood may symbolize a person.
A socio-dramatic play “involves interaction and communication with others as children can act out stories on their own and with others”. This can actually allow them to explore the nature of the role, adapting and modifying it as a result of interacting with others (Miller, et al., 2005:87).
As for a pretend play, Tassoni et al, (2007:277) argues that it is a play that “considers how children act out in a range of ways such as going shopping or cooking a meal”. On the other hand, according to Miller et al., (2005:87), they define that a fantasy play is “a form of role play where children produce their own stories and challenge accepted norms and expectations which involves make-believe, where objects and people take on new, innovative functions and roles”. This is supported by Lindon (2001:43) by giving an example of children may fantasise about flying an aeroplane or being incredibly rich”.
The effect of play in children’s development
Learning through play can be influenced by all aspects of children’s development. This is supported by Tassoni et al. (2007) as they state about how children develop through play in terms of their physical, social, emotional and behavioural, intellectual and communication and language development. However, according to Duncan and Lockwood (2008:61), they state that “progression and regression in one area will impact on the others”.
As for the Physical development, children actually develop both physically and intellectually through movement that they make. As stated below, they argue that:
Through repetition of action, connections are made in the brain. The more complex the movement or pattern created, the greater the cognitive process. Children explore their environment, manipulate tools and learn new skills, with greater control and dexterity. Their ability to plan and organize their movements influences their ability to write, draw and manipulate fine objects as well as develop their gross motor skills. This gives them the opportunity to represent language in symbols for themselves. By repetition and practice children also master control over their bodies, thus developing physical competence and spatial awareness.
(Duncan and Lockwood, 2008:61)
On the other hand, in terms of the language and cognitive development, children express their ideas and feelings as well as describing their experiences through language. This is because that the role of language in the development of thinking in which they can use it to control the world around them, recognize meaning and represent their understanding. Moreover, positive relationships encourage communication and are the important factor in language development and thinking. Language accompanied by action helps children to understand what is being said (Duncan and Lockwood, 2008).
Lastly, the social and emotional development which also gives effect to the children’s learning. As stated by Duncan and Lockwood (2008), they argue that sociable children can interact properly in order to learn from their peer group, parents and other adults. This means they have the essential skills to cooperate in a group situation where they are able to stick to decisions made and take both a lead and subsidiary role in decision-making. They are sensitive of the needs of others and can understand different viewpoints and perspectives and how one event may affect another. They can also learn to develop socially acceptable behaviour in different circumstances. Conversely, Goleman (1996) argue that there are five abilities associated with emotional intelligence and there are self-awareness, managing emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others and handling relationships. Duncan and Lockwood (2008:63) also believed that “emotional upheaval at sometime in children’s lives may impact negatively upon learning, which in turn may affect their self-esteem”.
The influence of theorists about children’s play
Basically, no one theory has ever been able to explain completely the significance of play in children’s development. Hughes (1999:16) argues that “theories must be seen as only tentative models, helpful frameworks within which child development and behaviour can be better understood.” I will focus on three theorists in whom they think that play as part of children’s thinking and there are Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner. It proves how effective play is in the children’s cognitive development where they can actually understand ideas and learn to think.
Lindon (2001) states that the theory developed by Jean Piaget has been hugely influential for early years practice in United Kingdom. However, other theorist such as Lev Vygotsky has shown contrasting perspectives that can support adults in an effort to understand children’s thinking and how it relates to play.
Jean Piaget believed that child as an active learner and proposed that children were active participants in their own learning. He also proposed that through a series of stages that unfolded in a definite sequence, the children’s cognitive development progressed. He also interested in children’s play activities in order to support his theory about their language and thinking. He did not focus on other aspects of children’s development such as communication, social interaction or emotional development. Piaget’s theory that children constructed their own understanding led him to emphasise that adults should create environments in which children could discover for themselves. Self discovery by children has sometimes been interpreted to mean that adults should scarcely intervene at all in children’s play (Lindon, 2001).
Moreover, according to Maynard and Thomas (2004), they state that Vygotsky was interested in a mastery play where children can take up information from the world around them and shape it to fit in with their own understanding and experience as well as changing their actions to meet the demands of their personal world. These processes are called assimilation accommodation. Similar to Vygotsky, he believed that by observing a child at play, the adult gained much knowledge of the child’s stage of development. He categorised three stages of the development of intelligence and there is sensory motor which corresponds to mastery play, pre-operational which corresponds to symbolic or pretend play, and lastly operational which corresponds to games with rules.
Since I am exploring about children in Pre schools, I would use the information from Piaget’s developmental model which argues on the stage of symbolic play which takes place between the ages of two and seven years which relevant with the pre-operational stage. This is where the children transform themselves or objects into something else. For instance, a child engaged in pretend play about pirates and may pick up a cardboard cylinder and use it as a telescope. For the child, it has become a telescope and the transformation is a very real one (Maynard and Thomas, 2004).
Basically, it shows that using the view from Piaget; pretend play emerged spontaneously at a stage well into the pre school period. However, according to Maynard and Thomas (2004), it is only relatively recently since the translation of Vygotsky’s work and through the writing of more recent researchers, that this view has been challenged and argued that pretend play is considered to be the product of social collaboration rather than a developmental process.
Meanwhile, in the contribution of Vygotsky to the children’s learning through, Lindon (2001:31) states that “he placed greater emphasis than Piaget on the social context in which children explored and learned”. He also focused on language as a vital social tool and described learning within social interaction. Lindon (2001:31) also states that Vygotsky “felt that early language, during the years when children speak out loud to themselves in play, was an important instrument of their thinking”.
Moreover, Vygotsky believes that in terms of the role of play, he emphasized:
The ingenuity of children as active participants in their own learning and creative users of play from whatever was available. He felt that play led children’s development. In their play activity, children could step outside the restrictions of their real lives and explore meaning free from the constraints of what was possible as a child. Vygotsky also believed that all forms of play had some imaginary component and that play was rule bound within those imaginary elements.
It shows that play is important for children’s learning, but of course there are barriers such as risk, safety and both the children’s social and emotional are needed to be focused on. As supported by Vygotsky, he did not see play as the only way that children learned and warned against the risks if adults focused too much on the possible intellectual content of play and ignored the emotional content (Lindon, 2001).
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Hughes (1999) also states that Vygotsky believed about the importance of the social context. He believes about his zones of proximal development. If a child is asked to work independently on a problem, such as sorting objects according to shape or function, he will display a particular level of performance for the child’s performance may not reflect his or her true potential. However, if the same child is allowed to work with other children on the problem or is given even a small amount of direction by an adult, he or she might perform at a higher level than when working alone and potential ability in a different social context is the zone of proximal development. Obviously, the social context can do more than provide information about development as it can also facilitate the development by allowing children to achieve their true potential (Hughes,1999).
In terms of play, Maynard and Thomas (2004) state that Vygotsky stresses that in children’s development in the earliest years of life, the role of pretend play is important. He placed play in the socio-cultural context where the context in which children’s play can and should be extended and nurtured by both adults and peers. This is also further supported that “pretend play provides an inimitable context within which children can reach for and attain increasingly higher levels of cognitive development” (Maynard and Thomas, 2004).
Vygotsky believed that pretend play is a major means by which young children can extend their cognitive skills, and they can also learn about the social constructs of their own culture at the same time by the encouragement given by adults for them to become active participants in the social world around them. He also believed that by identifying the main features of play, the observer is able to understand how it influences children’s development (Maynard and Thomas, 2004).
Lastly, about Jerome Bruner who was actually influenced by Vygotsky’s ideas and developed the idea for the concept of the spiral curriculum. According to Lindon (2001), he states that Bruner described how children learn through discovery with the direct help of adults and by repeating to the same materials or ideas. He also proposed that children were able to broaden their understanding over a period of years, and they could build on what they had learned previously and through sensitive help from adults in the later learning.
In terms of play, whereas Piaget’s developmental theory minimalists the role of the adult in children’s development, Bruner similar to Vygotsky who considers the role of the adult in nurturing children’s development through play to be critical. He also argues that children learn from modelled adult behaviour rather than over-directed intervention (Maynard and Thomas, 2004).
Moreover, according to Maynard and Thomas (2004), Bruner identifies two major functions of play. First, play situations allow children to test out and modify the consequences of their actions which provide them with a meaningful situation in which they can learn about things without risk of fear and failure and second, it gives children an opportunity for them not to engage in behaviours if under adult pressure.
Like Vygotsky, Bruner also subscribes to a socio-constructivist theory of play in which he emphasizes the important of symbolic or pretend play. This is a type of play which enables children to work through difficulties, and fulfil secret desires at a make-believe level as well as helping children to learn how to cope with rules and social conventions at the same time (Maynard and Thomas, 2004).
Overall, according to Maynard and Thomas (2004), they state that Vygotsky and Bruner subscribe to the socio-constructivist theory of play that it needs to be scaffolded by sensitive and intelligent adult intervention. In order for children to progress to higher levels of cognitive functioning, there must be social interaction with peers. However, Piaget argues that that play was developmental and that it took place at a particular stage regardless of adult intervention. It shows that Piaget’s theory is in contrast to the socio-constructivist view of the play. Despite their differences, the classical theorists emphasise the vital importance of pretend play to children’s development. Since pretend play presents a much greater cognitive challenge than non-pretend activities such as puzzles and jigsaws, young children who have ample time to engage in it do enjoy enhanced intellectual development.
The importance and benefit of play
It is believed that play can help children to understand life and their surrounding. This is supported by Duncan and Lockwood (2008), they state that through play, children have a natural instinct to learn about the world. Moreover, Hughes (1999:20) states “cognitive theorists regard play a stool for facilitating intellectual growth”. In addition, play is spontaneous as children can engage in it from choice (Moyles, 1994).
This is further supported by Jerome Bruner (1972) and Brian Sutton-Smith (1967) cited in Hughes (1999:20), they state that “play provides a comfortable, and relaxed atmosphere in which children can learn to solve a variety of problems”. They also believe that “later, when children are confronted with the more complex problems of the real world, the learning that took place during play is of great benefit to them”. Play affords the opportunity for intellectual and social development as well as for emotional release (Hughes, 1999).
In the studies of Bruner (1960) cited in Maynard and Thomas (2004), he states that similar to Piaget and Vygotsky; he examines the way in which children are able to explore hopes and anxieties and trying things out safely in pretend play as well as attributing to it a cathartic function.
According to Maynard and Thomas (2004: 192), they state that when one observes children at play, certain common characteristics emerge. First, play is fun, children enjoy engaging in it. It maybe accompanied by laughter, talk, propose indeed, none of these things. It may be solitary or involve groups of children; it may also involve adult participation. Although an episode of play may lead to significant learning outcomes, these are not planned at its outset. True play is an impromptu experience and other than the intention of having fun, its outcomes do not exist in children’s minds when they initiate it.
However, parents often misunderstood about play and early childhood educators notice it as a natural part of childhood but one that has little developmental value (Hartley, 1971). Moreover, David (1996) cited in Nutbrown also highlights the way in which increasing fears for children’s safety is understandably causing parents to confine and restrict their children more. According to Hughes (1999), he argues that it is understood that children should play as it affords the opportunity for intellectual and social development as well as for emotional release.
Meanwhile, as stated by Gammage (2006) argue that children’s learning has led to some misunderstanding in which children are not just investments for the future, but they have a right to freely chosen opportunities for play and self-directed exploration as well as structured play activities rather than being made to follow a restricted or narrow curriculum.
Other feature of learning through play is that it helps the children to develop their language by expressing their ideas and feeling and describe their experiences (Duncan and Lockwood, 2008). Moreover, Moyles (2005:235) states that “children are in control of the way in which they want their play to develop and give themselves tasks in their play, not really for an outcome, but to shape the play-process itself”.
Hughes (1999) states that Vygotsky argued that there is a number of acquired and shared tools that aid in human thinking and behaviour-skills that allow us to think more clearly than if we did not have them and to better understand our own thinking processes. He also stated about the importance of the social context. This is his belief in zones of proximal development. If asked to work independently on a problem, such as sorting objects according to shape or function, a child will display a particular level of performance. However, Vygotsky believed that the child’s performance may not reflect his or her true potential. If the same child is allowed to work with other children on the problem on the problem, or is given even a small amount of direction by an adult, he or she might perform at a higher level than when working alone and potential ability in a different social context is the zone of proximal development.
Role of adults and their intervention to make a play to work effectively
Teachers need to be supportive as children should enjoy it. Lindon (2001) identifies some possible roles for Pre school teachers in play such as the teacher as companion, learner and observer, facilitator, provider, a model, mediator as well as safety officer. Miller et al., (2005:92) state that play is vulnerable that it is important to provide appropriate experiences, activities and resources that will help children to develop their ability to play and learn. Moyles (1994) argues that it is practitioners who are best placed to observe and channel the value of children’s play into powerful contexts for learning.
Moreover, by observation it is important for children’s learning through play. This is supported by Duncan and Lockwood (2008:21) who believe that “observation will give you information about children’s learning through play and about the learning environment”.
Johnston et al., (2010) state that through play, children can develop intellectually, creatively, physically, socially and emotionally. By providing well planned experiences in both indoor and outdoor which are based on children’s spontaneous play are an important way which practitioners support young children to learn with enjoyment and challenge.
Furthermore, observation also “gives feedback on management issues, the effectiveness of resources and the play environment and information about diversity, inequalities, prejudices and stereotyping” (Duncan and Lockwood, 2008:20).
There are many ways in supporting and reflecting children’s play in extending specific areas such as language and communication. As stated by Bruce (2001) in supporting play are to establish a conducive environment, an adult must have interest and be part of the play in a background way as well as to be alert on how to manage things during the play without intervene it.
However, those with learning difficulties and disabilities may need more specific and specialised help in playing and communicating with others. There is a place for scaffolding children’s understanding of and ability to play, just as there is for scaffolding their learning, to take account of their diverse life experiences (Bruner, 1972).
Moreover, Vygotsky stated on how adults could best help children to learn and on the other hand, he also believed that children could and did help each other through play. He used his concept of the zone of proximal development to explain how children’s learning could be supported. The zone of proximal development is the area of possibilities that lie between what individual children can manage on their own and what they could achieve or understand with some appropriate help. He also argues that focused help could come from wither an alert adult or from another child whose understanding or skills were slightly more mature (Lindon, 2001).
The impact of learning through play in Brunei context on Pre School children
Based from where I came from, Pre schools in Brunei also practice learning through play in part of the school curriculum. As stated by the Curriculum Development Department (CDD) of the Brunei Ministry of Education (2009), the Pre school syllabus emphasises on the implementation of the instructional activities which are provided following the educational field and skill levels as well as abilities in accordance with the development of their learning. The educational field is divided into five developments. There is personal and social development, cognitive development, the development of aesthetics and creativity, physical development and ICT development.
On the other hand, some teachers tend not to focus on the children’s learning through play as they believed that it is just a waste of time and rather follow in meeting the curriculum demands and syllabus given. This is argued by the Plowden report (DES, 1967) that although the play is the central activity in all schools but it often leads to accusations that children are wasting their time in school in which they should be ‘working’.
Principals in Brunei Pre Schools encourage Pre class teachers to modify and decorate their classrooms where they accommodate the class with varieties of learning corners areas such as a book corner, kitchen corner, block corner and drawing corner. This is suitable for dramatic play, books and literacy, block and construction play and manipulative play.Â These areas can help the pupils to develop their skills needed. The class teachers make sure that the play activities are relevant to the development of the pre school pupils. Most importantly, the teachers provide plenty of open space area for them to play independently. This can lead the pupils to be engaged in learning through play effectively.
Basically, class teachers in Brunei use primitive materials for some of the play activities such as sand, water and clay where it can attract the pupils and evoke their interest and concentration. This is supported by Hughes (1999:198) who highlights that a number of play materials and activities have been identified as being highly likely to stimulate intellectual growth”.
Hughes (1999:211) states that “certain types of play materials and activities have been found to be helpful in encouraging social integration”. Moreover, the use of materials in play can develop pupils’ confidence in learning with others. Moyles (2005) states that the activity which develop their confidence and actually demonstrate their understanding to groups of children even if they are unfamiliar with as they can start their conversation and friendship. Most importantly, the toys and play materials are kept on low sized shelves so that they can reach them easily.
Most teachers do use the outdoor play but this is only when they are having a Physical Education. Basically, children must also have opportunities to play out door since outdoor has a large space with nature. The pupils can play freely which can sometimes pose a threat for risk and accidents. As stated by Gill (2007:16), he summarizes that “by undertaking risky activities carries beneficial side effects for children’s health and development”.
Based from my teaching experience, the pupils in my class love to play during their Break time. It could be observed that it was the time when they are having fun especially at the playground. Although children play, they actually learn something. For instance, th
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