The role of play in children's learning
The role of play in children's learning

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The role of play in children's learning

2.3 Why we value play

Play is notoriously difficult to define, but this in itself is not problematic. What is important is that practitioners, parents and children within a setting share their ideas about what constitutes play and that we, as adults, are clear about why we value play. In order to do this, you need to take a step back and think about what you think play does and, from there, consider why it is valuable.

In Activity 2 you thought about different play activities within your setting. The words you used may provide an indication of what you think the purpose of play is. Words and phrases such as exploration, fun, freedom, investigation, enquiry, learning, social development, coping with anxieties, making sense of the world and using up energy are some of the many descriptions and interpretations of play activities. Historically, researchers and writers have identified different functions of play, and, play has, therefore, been valued for a range of different reasons. Present-day discussions about the value of play often include ideas that have their roots in nineteenth-century society.

The purposes and reasons for valuing play have included the view that it:

  • utilises surplus energy;

  • is natural for children and part of the innocence of childhood;

  • helps children understand the social world;

  • helps children to develop cognitively;

  • supports children's developing communication skills;

  • helps children to cope with their feelings and fears and to manage their emotional states;

  • develops positive dispositions towards challenge, change and self-initiated learning.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, links were drawn between the play of animals and children's play. This link is still made with respect to gendered aspects of play, a point we return to in Section 4. According to theorists such as Spencer and Schiller, children had an excess of energy because they did not have to work. Play helped to dissipate this energy (Hyder, 2005). The notion that play is ‘natural’ for children has its roots in the European Enlightenment and Romantic eras and the writing of people such as Rousseau (1712–78), Pestalozzi (1747–1827) and Froebel (1782–1852).

The idea that play helps children understand the social world is still current today. Groos argued that play is a means through which children make sense of adult roles within society (Hyder, 2005). Montessori placed emphasis on children's self-initiated learning.

Piaget played a central role in the development of the view that play may be of crucial importance in children's cognitive development. Piaget's theories about learning emphasised the need for children to explore and experiment for themselves. For Piaget, play was a means by which children could develop and refine concepts before they had the ability to think in the abstract. Play was something that older children who have developed abstract thinking no longer needed. Those of you working with older children may wish to challenge Piaget's view. For Vygotsky, play was also important for an individual's cognitive development, but his view was somewhat different from that of Piaget. Where Piaget presented the child as a ‘lone scientist’, Vygotsky emphasised the social and cultural aspects of play. He argued that during play children were able to think in more complex ways than in their everyday lives, and could make up rules, use symbols and create narratives.

The ways in which play can support children's developing communication skills has been explored and documented by a number of researchers. Elizabeth Grugeon's research (2001), for example, draws attention to the way children in primary school playgrounds use language for a variety of purposes, including organising and structuring their games, imaginary play, and reinforcing social hierarchies. Quiet children in classrooms were sometimes shown to be very different when in a playground context.

The emphasis on the way in which play can help children explore and come to terms with their inner emotional states arises out of the work of psychoanalysts such as Freud, Isaacs, Klein and Winnicott. Play therapy arose out of the work of these and other psychoanalysts (Hyder, 2005).

Take another look at the activities you classified as ‘play’ in Activity 2. Do you think they all fall into one category (e.g. activities concerned with cognitive development), or do they cover different aspects of play (e.g. children exploring roles, emotions, developing social skills)? Can you identify what you seem to value most about play?

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