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

4 Dilemmas and questions

4.1 The international perspective

Earlier in this course (Section 1) you looked briefly at cross-cultural approaches towards children's play and children's work. In many societies throughout the world it is expected that children, even very young children, will help with the family's work or contribute to the family income. In some societies the separation between the world of the child and the world of the adult is not as stark as in others. This could make us question the validity of the assertion that all children have a right to play. According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), however, all children have a right to play. Article 31 states:

  1. States Parties [governments and state agencies] recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

(Child Rights Information Network, 1990)

It is possible to argue that the image of the child and childhood underpinning the UNCRC is that of the white European or North American child (James et al., 1998, p.141), but many countries seem to acknowledge the importance of play. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) simultaneously acknowledges children's right to play and to be protected from economic exploitation and child labour while emphasising children's right to have responsibilities towards their families and society. What seems to be at issue is not children's right to play, but the role that play has in a child's life and the extent to which children are expected not to work (except in school).

Adult views about the value of play vary between cultures. Hyder (2005) refers to the work of Hyun (1998) to highlight how parents from European and North American backgrounds tend to focus on the importance of play for individual cognitive development. They also tend to relate this to objects or toys. This would seem to be reflected in the advertisements on television for babies’ toys, which tend to show one child playing with a toy, with the voice-over stressing the various ways in which the toy can help support the baby's cognitive development. There is a huge market for ‘educational’ toys in the UK, with companies such as Mothercare emphasising that parents can choose the ‘ideal’ gift for their child, ‘whether it's developmental toys for babies, pre-school educational toys or that all-important first bike’ (Mothercare, 2006). According to Hyun's research, parents from other backgrounds tend to place more emphasis on the social and emotional aspects of play (Hyder, 2005, p.21).

It would appear that play is a universal feature of most children's lives, provided the children's lives have not been disrupted by events such as war, conflict or famine. This is not to say that children's play is identical throughout the world. While children in different parts of the world may use similar objects in similar ways, and all children appear to engage in ‘pretend play’, who children play with, the extent to which adults are invited to participate in children's play, and the children's choice of play themes vary. Hyder argues that:

all children in all societies appear to engage in activities that would fulfil some of the criteria of play … That is, children explore and pretend as a way of engaging with the world. More importantly, play everywhere is an ‘enculturing’ process – that is, a means through which children learn about their cultures.

(Hyder, 2005, p.21)

This consideration of children's choice of play themes and the issue of ‘enculturation’ moves us on to considering issues of equity and play.


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