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The importance of play for a childs development

This literature review collates evidence on the importance of play for the child’s holistic development in early childhood. Concepts, theories, benefits of play, social policies, curriculum standpoints and the continuous conflicting debates which are related to this area were studied. A discussion of my personal experience which correlated to the literature review is also included. Selected literature was researched from peer-reviewed journals, books, articles and other materials relevant to this topic. The terms play, child’s development, creative arts, theories and curriculum texts were chosen to evaluate this theme.

Literature review

It is a well-known fact that since time immemorial children kept themselves busy in play activities. Historical artefacts which can be interpreted as toys were found in various places of the world, including Malta. The National Museum in Valletta, hosts stone balls and beads which are thought to date back to the Neolithic phase (ca 5200BC). This indicates that play was always important in a child’s life and as a consequence, educators delved into past studies of philosophers and early childhood education pioneers, who interpreted different views about ‘play’ ( Saracho, O. N. & Spodek, B. 1998; p.5, Wood, E., & Attfield, J. 1996; p.17, 20). This chapter will explore different views of key theories, and definitions to provide ample evidence from respected and liable sources.

Different theories and definitions of play

Early pioneers, scholars, and philosophers such as Plato, Comenius, Locke, Pestallozzi, Froebel, Steiner, Montessori, Freud, Erikson, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner all focused on the importance of children’s play and its relation to child’s development (Anning, 1991).

The first discussion of play appeared in the works of Plato (427-348 B.C.E.) the ancient Greek philosopher who concluded that one can get to know more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of discussion. He also acknowledged that play is an effective tool for children to develop their cognitive and social skills which would prepare them for their future life (Quinn, B., Foshay, R., and Morris, B.,2001). Comenius (1592-1670) in particular, believed in impulsiveness of play which boosted up child’s creativity, while Locke (1632-1704) viewed ‘play’ as a necessary and important part of personal development (Cassel R.N.,1973a 10(1), 42-45). Pestallozzi (1726-1847) believed that children learn through experience and activity (Wardel, F., 1995, v 50 n3 p.68-73). Similarly, Froebel’s (1782-1852) pioneering work suggested that children learn best through play, free self expression, social participation and creativity and saw play as a process in which children showed their inner self (Anderson, C., 2010, v65 n2 p54-56) while Montessori (1964) maintained that sensory stimulation during play helps the child construct and guide his own learning (Soundy, C., 2010, v22 n4 p18-25). Both Steiner (1861-1925) and Froebel (1782-1852) believed in free play, where the child had the opportunity to choose the topic of the play without constant interference or involvement by an adult (Brehony, K. J., 2001). But on the contrary to Froebel, Steiner believed that play was not limited only to toys but included cooking, painting, and action songs (Edwards, C.P., 2002, v4 n1 Spr 2002). However both Steiner and Montessori held similar views. They acknowledged that children’s play is vital for an overall development (Edwards, C.P., 2002, v4 n1 Spr 2002). In a similar fashion, studies reveal that educational theorists also recognised the importance of play. Their theories are an advocacy tool to use with policy makers and parents (Stephen, K., 2009 n186 p53-56).

As mentioned in the above paragraph several theorists acknowledged the value of play. According to Sigmund Freud (1920), children employ ‘pretend play’ to help them cope with everyday problems (Elkind, D., 2001 n139 p27-28). Play helps them change the ‘unpleasant’ situations that would overcome all their difficulties (Saracho et al., 1998; p7). On the other hand Erikson (Lillenry. O. F., 2009), described play as a primary motivation to develop socially and emotionally whilst Jean Piaget (1886-1980) viewed play as having a strong influence on the intellectual development of the child (Wood et al., 1996; p.20; Tyler, B.,1976; p.227).

Furthermore, Piaget argued that play gives fulfilment and allows development involving accommodation and assimilation (Taylor., J.B. 1996; v7v5 p.258-9). The theoretical model, which Piaget applied to his theories, was the concept of schema. Schemas are evolving structures which change from one stage of cognitive development to another (Nutbrown.C., Clough. P., Selbie. P., 1994). Piaget’s definition of the child during play is of a scientist working actively on tangible objects, imaginary events, in a stimulating environment, while processing, constructing knowledge and understanding (Wood et al., 1996; p.21). Piaget’s study implies that while the child is active in play he absorbs information, and cognitive development occurs (Blenkin et al., 1981; p.28). According to Smith, Cowie & Blades (1998), Piaget’s approach provided the most complete explanation of how play is the most significant factor in intellectual development. In a similar approach to all other theorists, Vygotsky (1896) also points out that play can serve as a powerful tool for learning and development (Nicolopoulou, A., Barbosa De Sa, A., Ilgaz, H., Brockmeyer, C., 2010, v17 n1 p42-58). In contrast to Piaget’s theory, Vygotsky implies that a child learns best through social interaction, while Piaget’s theory states that a child will develop intellectually as he interacts with the environment (Saracho et al., 1998; p.7). As studies reveal, Vygotsky placed more weight on play as serving an important role in the socialising development. His theory of the ‘zone of proximal development (ZPD) specifies that when guided by ‘experienced’ individuals the child moves on to the next level of cognitive functioning (Smolucha et al., 1998; p 53, Wood et al., 1996; p.55). This adult-child joint play activity fosters development in both adults and child (Ferholt. B. & Lecusay. R., 2010; v17 n1 p.59-83). The level of development that can be reached during play when accompanied by an adult, is far greater than what can be achieved when playing alone (Ford, 2004). Vygotsky also implies that while the child engages in play, the ZPD is created and “the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102). In contrast to Vygotsky’s and Bruner’s (1976) theories, Piaget’s studies took another different approach. In Piaget’s theory the teacher acts as the facilitator for the young ‘scientist’ (Blenkin et al., 1981) whilst Vygotsky and Bruner’s ideology is, that the child and adult work together in order to develop new schemas (Takaya, K., 2008, v39 n1 p1-19). Nevertheless, each of these different theoretical positions make an important contribution to our understanding of why these theorists work has become increasingly popular in today’s education (Wood et al, 1976; Crain, 1992; Broadhead, 2006). Having considered early pioneers and theorists, it is also reasonable to analyse views of recent educators.

Pellegrini (1991) and Saracho (1991) used Rubin, Fein and Vanderberg’s (1983) ideology to imply that play is dominated by child’s activity, while being spontaneous, free of rules, and controlled by the players themselves. An equally significant description of play is given by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English philosopher and sociologist, who defines play as a channel or vent to let out the surplus energy which reduces tension, whilst Karl Gross (1861-1946) in ‘The Philosopher of Art’, alludes to Plato, when he maintains that play is the process of preparation for adult life. Similarly, Tina Bruce (2001, p. 112) believes play to be “the highest form of learning and development in early childhood.” This point is also sustained by the work of Moyles (1989) who maintains that play is vital for the growing child as it is an excellent learning medium. Certainly there is no shortage of limitations and misconceptions within these views and definitions.

Although the description of play remains highly popular, it is however important to note that many writers encounter difficulties when it comes to find a precise and conclusive explanation of play (Moyles, 1989; Greig, 1998). Greig (1998) also highlights that the most difficult factor of defining play is due to the ‘ambiguity’ of the whole concept. As Smith (2000, p. 80) pointed out “the boundaries of play are fluid” and therefore it is difficult to provide a definite meaning. Similarly, Peacocke (1987) argues that the misconception of the word ‘play’ causes parents to have a false impression of its learning and developmental ability. Brierley (1987) maintains that, if a task is easy or unimportant, we as adults refer to it as ‘child’s play’. This was also supported by Moyles (1989) who argues about the importance of a different terminology for the word ‘play’, as it is usually used to signify something trivial, when in reality it is the core of learning.

Despite these limitations of the concept of play, its popularity in its beneficial contribution towards the child’s development remains high. Educators and pioneers who advocated the use of play in education, emphasise that children expand their knowledge and developmental skills as they play alone, with others or when they interact with the environment (Clover, 1999 in Ashibi, G.S., 2007, Vol.35, no2, p. 199-207 ). It can be said from the above analysis that all these theoretical positions make an important contribution to our understanding that play is vitally important not just to children’s emotional and social development but also to their intellectual development.

To sum up, this study seems to strongly indicate how the educators sought to establish the uniqueness and importance of play in childhood as a fundamental stage where they acknowledged its significance to learning and development (Wood et al., 1996; p.1). Further research in this study proved that all educators are consistent in their arguments and emphasis the power play has, on children’s physical, emotional, intellectual and social development (Saracho et al., 1998; p.7). The following section will also explore studies from various liable sources which acknowledge the merits of play in children’s lives.

The importance of play during childhood

Play helps the child flourish the skills which are very important to later growth and development (Leoeng, D. J., Bodrova, E., 2005, Vol.13, Iss. 1; pg.37).This study seems to strongly indicate that there is a connection between play and the development of cognitive, emotional, physical, and social skills that are necessary to learn more complex concepts. Play is attributed to the growth of memory, adjusting behaviour, language, symbolic recognition (Leong, D.J. and Bodrova, E., 2005, Vol.13, Iss. 1; pg37), literacy, problem solving, negotiation, turn-taking, cooperation, and social understanding (Ashiabi, G.S., 2007, Vol.35, no. 2 pgs 19-205). The intention of the following literature is to give substantial evidence that free play is the key to the development of physical, cognitive, and social skills, for all children.

Play and social development

A child attending kindergarten school initially tends to be unsociable. At this time he has to learn how to mix with other children and develop social competence. As Smith (2000) highlights, it is through play that children establish healthy relationships with others. Active participation in free play does not only support the child’s development of a sense of ‘self’ but also enhances the development of the child’s ability to team up with his peers (Gerhardt, 1976: p.236). In order to fit into society, children have to learn how to accept and get on with others (Reynolds, 1987; Woolfson, 2001).

Children experiment and practice new social skills and behaviours while engrossed in solitary, parallel or social play (Creasy et al., 1998, p126). Social competence is promoted further through the development and refinement of certain skills, such as helping to increase child’s ego, peer-group identity and build up abstract frameworks (Wood et al., 1996, p.145) test their assertiveness, tackle conflicts, take decisions, make choices and mistakes (Tyler, 1976, p.242), cooperation, sharing, problem-solving, and perspective taking (Creasy et al., 1998; p.126). Connolly and Smith (1978, v10 n2 p86-97) observed pre-school children during free play sessions and took in consideration the period of time the children had been attending the nursery school. They found that sociability in play was more correlated with time spent at the nursery than with the child’s age (Connolly, K., Smith, P. 1978, v10 n2 p86-97). Studies all imply, that play is an important activity of early childhood (Smolucha et al., 1998: p.42), where peer interaction is important for social-cognitive development (Creasy et al., 1998: p. 12; Soundy, C.S., 2008, in E.C.E. J.2009 36:381-383). Social and cognitive play is inter-related. Even in the simplicity of working together in sharing paper bits and pieces to make a collage, children do not just socialise but also develop intellectual skills (Seefeldt, 1976b; p.178). The following literature review collates evidence to help us understand better the influence play has on intellectual development.

Play enhances Intellectual Development

Children have an innate capability for learning, and play is the medium through which most learning takes place (Manning and Sharp, 1977; Smith, 2000). During free-play children are confronted with high levels of cognitive tasks. As children enjoy playing it has been established that ‘pleasure’ is the factor which helps in absorbing knowledge (Bruce, 2001). Imposing rules on their play creates a conflicting anxiety, between doing what brings enjoyment and what decreases the rules that limit that pleasure and in this situation the child learns to deal with aggression, assumed leadership, respect, love, and anger (Pellegrini, 1998; p. 225). Children negotiate their way to enter a play-group and they negotiate the rules of their game. Negotiation is one such skill that children discover and ‘manoeuvre’ during peer interaction. Vanderberg (1998, p.320) calls the play of children ‘ one of the earliest steps in learning to negotiate one’s place with others in joint, cooperative involvements’. Lillard (1998, p 14) maintains that it is an important step forward in cognitive development. Socio-dramatic play also depends on negotiating. Children work together as a group, actively negotiating to create a play scenario. They practise making their intentions known and comprehend the intention of others, thus practising their skill at communicating, planning and negotiating (Roskos, K., & Neuman, S.B., 1998). Clearly this proves an ideal context to utilize learning skills and to master language. Socio-dramatic play definitely helps in developing the whole attitude, behaviour and personality of the child, boosting self respect (Rubin, K. H., & Coplan, R. J. 1998). Having gained self-respect will provide a valuable practice for the child in becoming a self-directed person, not having to depend on others (Tyler 1976; p.233). And in the process of being encouraged to think independently, the child will learn to build sensitivity towards others (Gerhardt, 1976; p. 268) and treat peers as individuals (Warwick, 1971; p 79).

As one can conclude, playing helps develop the child’s intellectual and social skills, however playing also involves vigorous movement. This helps the child’s physical development.

Play promotes Motor Development

In a society where families live in flats, the amount of space is limited. It is crucial that nursery schools provide play area and equipment for the child to develop his fine and gross motor abilities (Lester and Russell 2008). Psychologist Jane Healy’s study shows that physical play at school is essential for those children who live in restricted environments (Healy, J. in Schroeder, K., 2007. Vol 72, iss 5; pg 73-74) as play promotes a number of health benefits including organ growth, muscle building, hand-eye coordination, physical endurance and balance.

During physical activities, the children ‘understand and listen’ to their peers ideas, they reach mutual understanding (Gerhardt, 1976; p. 258). The child will develop a perception of friendship which will help him solve emotional problems (Saracho, 1998; p.240; Lillard, 1998; p. 14). For years, therapists have used play therapy as an alternative for helping children with emotional problems and this will be analysed in the following paragraph.

The use of Play in therapy

Play therapy is used with children from special areas, especially with children with disabilities or post-traumatic stress (Porter, M.L., Hernandez-Reif, M., Jessee, P., 2009, v179 n8 p1025-1040). Play therapy is based on Freud’s theories where he implies that ‘play becomes the mirror to the subconscious’ (Moyles J.R., 1994; pg 90). The way child plays, is a reflection of his unconsciousness, since through play the child expresses his deepest conflicts which may be the root of his present condition (Manning and Sharp 1977 p. 13). In addition to this, Smith (2000) highlighted how children suffering from stress would find interacting with others difficult and state that it is within play, that children come to terms with their own lives, and develop the ability to cope with stressful situations. The therapist uses play together with psychoanalytic techniques to help children express and overcome the feelings of fear, anger or stress (Smith, 2000; Bruce, 2001). This is not just beneficial for children with emotional problems but as literature also reveals for children with other diverse needs.

The importance of play for children with special needs

As mentioned in other paragraphs, play may enhance various skills, facilitate academic learning and be used as a therapy for all children (Myck-Wayne, J., 2010 Vol 13, n 4 p. 14-23). An equally noteworthy benefit of play is, helping children with special needs (Tuominen, W., 2005, Vol 35 Iss.10; pg 77). During play, peers serve as role models and these children learn to socialise and interact with others at school and in their community (Tsao, L., McCabe, H., 2010, Vol 13 n 4 p 24-35). Similarly, play can also promote interpersonal skills through observational learning and imitation ( Mastrangelo, S., 2009, Vol 42 n1, p 34-44). When play is integrated with music, drama, puppetry, miming and drawing, it will meet the needs of all the child’s developmental areas namely, communication, physical, cognitive, social, emotion and adaptive development (Darrow, A. 2011, Vol 24 n 2 p.28). Having considered all this, one has to conclude that since the establishment of Froebel’s kindergarten, and Waldrof-Steiner schools, play and expressive arts has been recognised as imperative needs for the child’s development (Pinar, 1998; p. 167).

The benefits of play and creative arts

As already mentioned in the above paragraph, play and arts have been a part of early childhood programmes since the establishment of the kindergarten by Froebel, and subsequently integrated in the early childhood curriculum of other theorists-educators (Saracho et al., 1998; p.4). There are no studies that suggest that growth, development, or learning are nurtured by a ‘serious’ climate (Tyler, 1976; p.241). A classroom is meant to be full of playful learning or ‘creative’ play (Tyler, 1976; p.241) and any school curriculum should be tailored to increase pupils’ enjoyment of learning (Guidance for Curriculum Managers in England, 1999; in Silcock et al., 2001; p.42). These statements augur that the teacher determines the creativity of play and expressive arts in a classroom (Tyler, 1976; p.238).

Expressive arts have always held an important position in early childhood education. The kindergarten of Froebel, and Steiner’s ideology which introduced children to a variety of playing activities, began a long tradition of including expressive art in the learning programme. (Nutbrown. C., et al., 1994) This powerful relationship between art and play help the child to strip away rules and restrictions. While experimenting with materials they find drawing, painting, singing, miming and puppetry intriguing and rewarding experiences (Seefeldt, 1976b; p.177). Literature and writings point out the relations between play and art and consider them as a link to child’s development. These interactive activities are important factors to help develop the ‘whole child’ (Wood et al., 1996; p.75). Furthermore, Sarachao et al., (1998, p.8) state that ‘through play and arts, children develop the ability to cope with the world and cultivate their creativity.’ Similarly Freud (1959; p. 143,144) believed that there is a specific link between childhood play and creative arts when he asks:

‘should we not look for the first traces of imaginative activity as early as in childhood? Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own?’

Getting acquainted to the arts enriches their intellectual development and reveals the unity of learning and cognitive development (Wood et al., 1996; p. 143). It also enables the child to identify, observe, discover, recall and compare; judge and imagine (Shelley, 1976; p.205) and helps the child manifest his emotional skills (Tyler, 1976; p.233). Recent research has shown that involvement in role play correlated positively with later success on tasks of mental representation (Kavanough et al., 1998; p,94). In role-play, creativity and imagination are both important procedures which help to direct, influence and generate the complexity of the activity (Wood et al., 1996; p.147). Similarly, when in music children clap, count or sing to themselves, they demonstrate the sensor motor intelligence where the repetition of action, guides the repetition of word or thought (Shelley, 1976; p.205). Eisner, (1979) argues that, far from being a ‘fringe’ activity, music makes its own unique contribution to the process of learning (Blenkin et al., 1981; p. 188, 189). It is however important not to over-emphasis the strengths of play. There appears to be a tendency that policy-makers sometimes, view creative arts in class as unimportant and not completely academically beneficial to the development of the child (Moelock, Bown, & Morrissey, 2003, p.41). Notwithstanding such criticism its worth remains beyond description as this research on policies and curriculum standpoints in various countries revealed.

Policy and curriculum standpoints about play in nursery schools

Following Steiner, Froebel, Piaget and other pioneers, play nowadays is an integral issue of the curriculum in an English nursery school. The English Curriculum encourages ‘self-initiated free play in an exploratory environment’ (Hurst, 1997; Curtis, 1998). One should also point out that Piaget’s theory somehow influenced the present Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS, 2007) LAST ASSIGNMENT curriculum, as this pursues a stage and age approach to learning and hands-on-activity or play. In a similar manner, Froebel (in Brehony, K. J. 2001. 6 vols) states that creative play is the ‘work’ of the child and an essential part of "the educational process." By the 1960’s ‘play activities’ had been formally approved in the United Kingdom as this extract from the Plowden Report (C.A.C.E., 1967, p.193) reveals:

‘We know now that play - in the sense of ‘messing about’ either with material objects or with other children, and of creating fantasies – is vital in school. Adults who criticise teachers for allowing children to play are unaware that play is the principal means of development in early childhood.’

It clearly implies that free play is the best method of development in the child’s early years and at the same time it concludes that:

"in play, children gradually develop concepts of causal relationships, the power to discriminate, to make judgements, to analyze and synthesize, to imagine and formulate".

There have been many debates about the education of young children in recent years, mainly due to the implementation of policies such as Supporting Families (Home Office, 1998), as well as initiatives such as the National Childcare Strategy and Sure Start (Pugh, 2005). Nevertheless, a review of literature reveals that play faces the problem of not being recognised within the curriculum. Studies also state that the commonly-held view that early teachers encouraged learning through play was more myth than reality (Wood et al., 1996; p.5).

Continuous policy modifications and the constant increase of additional material in the curriculum appear to hinder play (Bell, 2001; p.141). Policy-makers are still faced with many dilemmas in the manner they conceptualize play with its relationship to learning. The President of Alliance for Childhood, Joan Almon in Schroeder (2007, Vol.72, Iss. 5; pg 73-74) argues that policy makers are not fully aware of the significance of play, thus emphasising on formal methods of academic learning while suffocating the possibility of early learning experience (Schroeder, 2007, Vol.72, Iss. 5; pg 73-74). Similar views are expressed by Raban (2002, Vol.26 (3), pp. 7- 8) who states that:

‘pedagogy in early years settings has become more formal, not least, for example, as a result of doubt about the expectations of Ofsted inspectors and the impact of initiatives such as the Literacy Hour’.

Play and art activities are being segregated from school, as play is being given the implication that it is something supplementary. With increased prominence on academic skills, creative activities have become blurred (Leoeng, D. J., Bodrova, E., 2005, Vol.13, Iss. 1; pg.37). Myra Barrs (2002), the author of the article ‘Best for Bambini’ is aware of the pressure which exists in the introduction of formal education at a young age. She insists that the obsession of policy makers to begin formal education at a young age impose pre-school testing and assessments. Reeves from ‘The Guardian’ (2002, p .13) comments that:

‘trends in education policy are making things worse. The national curriculum is inflexibly enforced, is like an unreasonable edict from head office. The testing virus is out of control and emphasis is given to ‘proper’ subjects such as maths and science, while art, music and drama are further downgraded.’

Noting the compelling nature of this article this question remains controversial. While most early years organisations are in agreement that play should be valued in nursery schools there are others, who see an early start of formal education as a child’s potential advantage in today’s competitive world (National Education League 133 cited in Nutbrown et al.,)

In an article by Henderson, in The Times (1999, p. 12) relates that studies in educational achievement show that Italy and other European countries where the statutory education starts at six or seven, surpass those children who start formal learning at a younger age. A further research on this literature revealed that in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland although children are encouraged to learn through free play and not taught any reading or writing until they reach the age of seven, score in the top ten for reading standards (Synodi, E., 2010, v18 n3 p185-200). This approach is also similar in Hungary, Switzerland and Austria where there are strict guidelines not to start on literacy and numeracy until the age of six and seven. These too do twice as well in reading tests than children who are exhibited to formal teaching at a young age (Henderson, 1999, p.12).

In Singapore's educational policy, academic skills are given much attention and many parents are still uncertain of a play-centred curriculum. As a result, children are deprived of free play and many children do not acquire social skills (Tan et al, 1997). Similarly in Malta, parents do not value play, and regard school as a place for learning (The Times of Malta, Editorial supplement 2001). However, the main aim of the curriculum in the kindergarten level is to enhance the holistic development of the child where each area of child’s development is considered important (The National Minimum Curriculum.1999, pgs 34, 35). The N.M.C. document of the Maltese Ministry of Education considers play as a natural process and recognizes it as ‘the key pedagogical means’ (N.M.C. 1999, p.76). In formulating the document, creativity is not only linked to the expressive arts, but is also identified as the driving force that ‘should’ aid the teacher in devising classroom curricula. In the introductory message of the document the Minister of Education state:

‘the process (of change) will be one of creative changes in each school and with each teacher – as they develop their own more detailed syllabus, resources and methods guided and inspired by this document.’ (NMC. 1999, p.6)

Although the subject of child’s play is full of debates, it can be seen from the above analysis that educators have demonstrated that play is unquestionably part and parcel of life of a growing and developing child and as this study revealed, wrong concepts of play remain a growing problem.

Modern issues and debates

Certainly there is no shortage of limitations within this topic and the intention of the following literature is to analyse and debate free play. As revealed in this study, cultural issues, socio-economic issues, and educational policies of a society influence adults' perception towards the value and purpose of play. According to Broinowski (cited in Bloch and Pellegrini 1989, pp.17-19), "free play" of childhood is "at risk." Parents perceive that play in itself serves no productive purpose and does not work towards any particular goal (Moyles, 1991, pp.10). Piaget often argued that ‘play’ is often neglected by adults because they think it has no significant function (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969). DISS sarah Many parents believe that making children learn at a young age will help them succeed at school (Schroeder, K., 2007. Vol 72, iss 5; pg 73-74) and participating in structured activities is more important (Ashiabi, G.S., 2007, Vol.35, no 2 pgs 19-205). As a result children attend various organised extra curriculum activities (Bloch and Pellegrini, 1989, pp. 28-29, Chudacof 2007) and consequently are being "hurried" to grow up or are growing up "without childhood" (Broinowski cited in Bloch and Pellegrini 1989, pp.17-19). Although these organised activities can enhance the inter-personal skills, (Eccles and Templeton 2002) Elklind (1980) challenges this by expressing his concern about ‘play’ which is relegated to structured activities. Sue Palmer (2007) expressed concerns that traditional play has been put aside to make way for entertainment technology although some contradict this and state that technology helps to build peer relationship (cited in Lester and Russell 2008). Play Nevertheless the issue of the value of free creative play remains a growing problem. Recent research argues that free creative play may not help to produce the maximum cognitive development. Sylva, Roy, and McIntyre (1980) in their report ‘Child watching at playgroup and nursery school’ state that during ‘free play’ there was a lack of challenging activity involving uncomplicated repetitive activities. Similarly, Meadows and Cashdan (1988) contended that during recreation, children seemed lost and inactive, while the conversation between adult and child was very limited. Meadow and Cashdan (1988) argued that ‘supervised free play has limited benefits for children and that a high level of adult-child interaction during play is necessary to optimize children’s learning’. However in Russia, play activities which are directed by adults involve role-playing real-life situations such as taking care of baby, serving at table, cleaning up, or caring for animals. In this country, children are learning something ‘worthwhile’ in the name of play (Bronfenbrenner, 1974, pp. 17-23). One asks are children being manipulated by adults under the false pretence of the word play? This can lead to a discussion whether ‘play’ is nowadays considered an exorbitant luxury for children.

Discussion

This study helped me focus on the holistic development of the child, with play as the main pedagogical approach. The kindergarten centres should provide the adequate environment that enhances child’s development. Montessori’s idea of lots of positive stimulation is consistent to what we are still learning today. Unfortunately children are also being exposed to negative stimulation. Parents buy televisions and video game machines for their children’s bedrooms. These technologies keep the child focused for a long period of time in a hyper-active stage but inactive lifestyle.

Upon reflecting, this study made me realise that adults always manoeuvred children’s free time. Before schooling was obligatory, children were expected to help their parents, and child labour was part and parcel of a child’s life. There was no space for play as child’s life was dominated by adult’s world (Meier, D., Engel,B.S., Taylor, B. 20011 Vol 29, Iss 3 p 28). However, nowadays parents also control the early life of the child as they consider extra curriculum activities ­­­­as free play and recreation. Parents and adults need to understand that unstructured play enriches the child’s repertoire of experiences and development. Play is an innate activity, but parents and teachers sadly use play as a reward or a bribe to coax children to finish their work. I have noticed that in Malta, parents who are college-educated tend to favour play activities and support the belief that play fosters child’s overall development, but parents who are less educated are more concerned about academic activities and school-related skills in the classroom. This study encouraged me to become interested in this topic as I always felt the need for more play activities and expressive arts within the Maltese curriculum.

The review of the literature depicts how play enhances the cognitive, affective and socializing domains in child development. The learning activities designed for 5, 6, and 7 year olds, should be concrete, relevant to the lives of young children and not of stereotyped quality (Bredekamp, 1987). Not all educators are ready to accept ‘unstructured programmes’ in their nursery classes. Teachers argue that they feel the need to direct and supervise to avoid disorder. A child-centred curriculum programme relies on the ever-present ‘presence’ of teachers. All activities will prove more worthwhile when they add the right touch of atmosphere and relationships within the learning environment. It has become increasingly clear over the years, that the teacher’s social response to the child is a key influence in his or her developing self-esteem and application to learning (Blenkin, G. M. & Kelly, A. V. 1981) This study however helped me believe that play offers children the opportunity to enhance their skills through informal self directed play. Building the right learning environment to stimulate play and creativity, educators need to be able to use these activities as a window into the child’s developing mind in order to understand the learning patterns of individual children (Wood et al., 1996; p52) while as a teacher building the right learning environment to stimulate play while providing direction and enrichment without interfering or controlling the children’s play (Smilansky, 1990, in Wood et al., 1996; p.90).Today I have greater awareness of dramatic play, and story enactment, which encourage children to use language and facial expressions to role-play their pretend characters. Through expressive arts, the child is free to express his or her feelings, ideas, and thoughts and help him or her build the tools that promote and improve oracy. Role play and other art activities provide opportunities for the enrichment of literacy by developing sophisticated levels in the cognitive and social domain. My role as an educator is to stimulate the visual, hearing and tactile senses of the child and proceed together at the child’s pace towards the acquisition of a holistic development. Not only do these settings and play activities stimulate and inspire children to enhance their language and literacy skills, but help develop awareness, empathy, and sensitivity to inclusion.

To sum up I am convinced that the arguments and studies I have presented suggest that play is indeed the cornerstone upon which physical, socio-emotional, cognitive, creative, and language development are built on. It is vital to the development of all facets of the young child - personal awareness, emotional well-being, socialisation, communication, cognition, and perceptual motor skills (Hughes, 1999, p. 62-64, 68-69, 81-109 - 111).

Conclusion

The topic of how children achieve their overall development is an ongoing debate and it has to be admitted that the current study is still far from being conclusive and further research will have to be undertaken to determine the merits and limitations of play. The arguments I have presented suggest that parents and adults’ conception of the virtues of play is still inconsistent. Academic commitments and busy lifestyle has hindered free play and this has affected the stability of child’s overall development. Children correlate free play with independence, liberty and choice, however this study helped me realise that play of this kind is limited. My interpretation is that organised play does not offer the same learning experience, as it is initiated and directed by adults. Paradoxically Vygotsky implies that adults should have an important role in play as their involvement can foster development.

Easy access to technology leaves children with limited time to be creative. The intent of my question is will young children, who were pampered with speeded up television programmes and hyper video games, find it difficult to be attentive to teacher’s monotone dull voice explaining lesson in upper grades? And to promote further thinking … I ask is it because children were exposed to these fast-forward programmes that nowadays attention deficit disorder reigns supreme in class!

The arguments I have presented suggest that research of theories and pioneers’ ideology have provided me clear evidence that children’s play is vital for their social, intellectual and physical development. Children correlate free play with independence, liberty and choice. Ginseng (2006) acknowledges the value of the academy in a child’s life and gives merit to extra curriculum healthy activities, but parents should find a balance between academic work, organised activities and unstructured play. And as Saracho et al., (1998, p 8) highlights, let ‘children continue to play because it is a most enjoyable experience for them’.


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