Devonshire House Experts’ Talks Series
By Morgan Smith, Nursery Lead Teacher
As an Early Childhood Educator, I have heard many misconceptions about play-based learning. Play can often be undervalued as “just play” or “being silly”, but play is a rich vehicle for holistic development and should form the foundation of one’s early childhood experience. Throughout my years of teaching, I have studied play’s value as a tool for fostering relationships, building communication skills, and leading cognitive development (Joseph & Strain, 2004; Axelrod, 2014; Bodrova et. al., 2019). Moreover, I have experienced how social play can offer children a sense of belonging and opportunity for inclusion. Throughout this piece, I will go through a handful of research findings that support the value of play, but I mainly write this article to help readers see the magic behind play and support children’s access to it.
The definition of play I will offer for the purpose of this article is “play is an active process of enjoyment in which children are granted the agency and freedom to create.” You may stop to consider your own child’s tendency towards nurturing a baby doll or imagining they are a dinosaur seeking out their next meal. What children choose to play with gives insight into their personality and current interests, but how children play will exemplify their habits of mind that will influence their learning trajectories.
In this piece, I will maintain focus on explaining the educational value within pretend play, scaffolded play, and complex play with rules and roles.
- Pretend Play
You may often find yourself being assigned a role and simultaneously being told you are not acting out that role appropriately. I’ve been in this position too many times to count. According to Ricardo Ottoni Vaz Japiassu (2008), pretend play is “an important tool – and an indispensable resource – for the cultural development of childhood” (p. 396). It is clear that child-directed pretend play can further complex cognitive development as seen in a child’s ability to imagine, symbolise, and create alternate realities. It is in their imagined worlds that children feel safe to seek out their voice and agency. The pretend nature of these play spaces also offers children the opportunity to test new roles within their chosen societies without any risks or consequences.
- Scaffolded play
I’m sure scaffolded play happens naturally throughout most of your time with your children, but scaffolding in a way that is truly educational is a delicate balance. This form of play can take shape in a number of ways, such as an adult supporting the development of a game with rules, a teacher providing provocations or invitations through a curated environment, or an older child acting along with a younger child in a dramatic play scene. Through scaffolding, more experienced adults and peers can support children to access their zone of proximal development. A child’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) is the point at which a learner can only achieve a task or challenge with a small amount of help from a guide. The challenge here is to truly know your child’s limits as you prepare to help them reach their ZPD. If an activity is too easy, your child will master it without developing, whereas if an activity is too difficult, the child may become too frustrated and the more experienced guide will have to dominate to accomplish the task.
- Complex play with rules and roles
This form of play is characteristically social and challenges children to navigate relationships and conflict. The advancement toward complex play with rules and roles is a key demarcation in the development of a child. Mariane Hedegaard, an educational psychologist, believes that children must experiment with rules in play and that it is a natural milestone in their development (Winther-Lindqvist, 2009). This kind of play introduces new social complexities and problems, thus also introducing the need to problem-solve, empathise, and negotiate with others. Furthermore, the formation of social identities and character traits, as well as issues of power and privilege, can arise through these forms of social interactions. As such, encouraging children to experience this form of complex play allows them to test-run the obstacles of life.
- Play in a school environment
For the aforesaid reasons, child-directed play should be the primary avenue of curriculum exploration, socio-emotional learning, and cognitive development for children across contexts. What does this look like in our school environment? Educative play is carried out through hands-on experiences and by testing hypotheses, observing cultural phenomena, and experimenting with multiple approaches to a problem. Open-ended materials based on student interest are used as they encourage imaginative and flexible thought. This style of play caters to multiple forms of learning and intelligence, ensuring each child can find joy while capitalising on their strengths and preferences. Throughout this process, teachers follow each child’s lead and provide appropriate levels of support through this time of growth. Thus, choice, agency, and freedom are granted to children as they play. Allowing this level of freedom forms a strong sense of mutual trust between students and teachers, making it clear that relationship building is also at the centre of this work.
I hope by now you agree that play is a powerful tool. One which can provide voice, agency, identity, and freedom, but also one that can highlight issues of equity and access. Play is a universal right of all children (Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989), regardless of ability or culture, and therefore the lack of enriching play in an early childhood classroom or home setting can be detrimental to the development of a child. We have established that play instills the habits of mind necessary for cognitive, social-emotional, and linguistic development, but it also instills a desire to imagine and discover throughout one’s life. Therefore, I propose that play should not simply be seen as an act of pleasure or even a source of education, but should be recognised as a fundamental right that makes life worth living.
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Axelrod, Y. (2014). “Todos vamos a jugar, even the teachers” -Everyone playing together. Young Children. 69(2), 24-31
Bodrova, E., Leong, D.J., Germeroth, C. & Day-Hess, C. (2019). Leading children in their “leading activity” – A Vygotskian approach to play. In P. Smith & J. Roopnarine (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of play: Developmental and disciplinary perspectives (pp. 436-456). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Buchannan, M. & Johnson, T.G. (2009). A second look at the play of young children with disabilities. American Journal of Play, 2 (1), 41-59.
“Convention on the Rights of the Child.” OHCHR, 1989, www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx.
Henricks, T. (2019). Classic theories of play. In P. Smith & J. Roopnarine (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of play: Developmental and disciplinary perspectives (pp. 361-382). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Joseph, G. E., & Strain, P. S. (2004). Building positive relationships with young children. Young Exceptional Children, 7(4), 21-28.
Japiassu, R.O.V. (2008). Pretend play and preschoolers. In B. van Oers, W. Wardkker, E. Elbers, & R. van der Veer (Eds.), The transformation of learning: Advances in cultural-historical activity theory (pp. 380-398). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Sutton-Smith, B. (2008). Play theory: A personal journey & new thoughts. American Journal of Play, 1 (1), 80-123
Winther-Lindqvist, D. (2009). Game playing: Negotiating rules and identities. American Journal of Play, 2 (1), 60-84.