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Practitioner roles in supporting learning through play

This essay will identify how adults can support learning through play and will analyse the value of this approach. It will consider historical and current perspectives of child development. The key areas of discussion will be learning through role play and supporting children with additional needs. It will recognise the importance of symbolic play, contingent response and the use of sustained shared thinking. Historically children were perceived in different ways, from ‘evil and wicked’ to ‘innocent and easily corrupted’. Childhood has been constructed and reconstructed. (James & Prout 1997:7) The behaviourist approach, views the child as a ‘blank slate’ conditioned through external factors and places an emphasis on step by step learning. Psychologists such as Watson and Skinner considered children to learn by experiences given by adults to ‘shape’ or ‘mould’ them. Practitioners need to explain the boundaries for behaviour to children for them to encourage self control and enable them to think about their behaviour. Giving ‘time out’ has been seen to discourage this. (Bruce 2005:47)

The Nativist approach believes that children are ‘pre programmed’ and will ‘unfold’ in their development. (Bruce 2005:3) This approach sees the adult role as a facilitator offering help but not controlling learning. Rousseau’s approach can be seen in today’s view of adults observing and monitoring the early learning goals. He suggested that play was ‘instinctive’.

The interactionist approach views children as partly pre programmed and partly blank slates. Kant originated this approach, and believed the adults’ role in supporting learning was to provide a suitable learning environment to explore. He also states that adults should supervise and assist when required. This view can be seen through the curriculum today which offers both adult led and child led activities. The importance of interactions between children and adults, through sustained shared thinking, is highlighted in projects like EPPE (2003) as discussed in child and childhoods.

The different approaches discussed can be seen to have had an impact in practice throughout today’s education, it is important that practitioners have a good knowledge of these approaches in order to understand how best to support learning.

Historically all children play unless there are factors that prevent them from doing so, such as children’s health or living conditions. During the 18th Century children were sent to work, so would have had little time to play, however, this does not mean they did not. Play in the 1920’s was a form of relaxation which was considered to be practice for life. (Bruce 2005). More recent thinking understands play as problem solving and creativity.

Play underpins the delivery of the statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, which aims to help children achieve the five Every Child Matters outcomes of staying safe, being healthy, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well being. (Dfes 2007:7) It suggests the role of the practitioner is one of observing and using the information gained to plan for children’s next steps in learning. Children need a challenging and interesting environment with a balance of adult led and child initiated activities, in order to problem solve and investigate through their play. It is the practitioners’ role to create and maintain this environment so that children develop their communication and creative skills. Children’s achievements are collected over time and learning diaries are produced, unlike the EYFS profiles (2003) these diaries have no emphasis put on testing children.

Montessori’s approach values the child, the environment and the teacher. She believed children were spontaneous learners needing adult support during periods of development. She stated the adults’ role was

“to ensure that the environment provides for the developmental needs of each individual child; observation serves as the key tool for establishing these developmental needs” (Isaacs 2007:13)

She believed in ‘scaffolding’ children’s learning. In her opinion the role of the adult was to consider health and safety in the provision and to provide defined spaces for learning experiences and problem solving activities. She considered the child could lose their freedom if adults were too communicative with them. She stated that practitioners needed to have a sound understanding of child development and an ability to understand the need for real life experiences. Although her approach gives time for children to explore with little adult intervention she considered play to be unnecessary, believing toys were tools to enable learning. Her approach however, contrasts with the views of the EYFS, which states the importance of learning through play and the significance of social interactions between adults and children.

Bruner suggests that good practitioners tune into the ‘incipient intention of the child and act accordingly’. (Bruce 2001:53) suggesting the child’s developing plan or aim should be observed and then supported and encouraged. He values play and considers that when children play with other children this emphasises the importance of social and emotional well being and interactions. He stresses the importance of turn taking and social rules. He states that in a role play situation children are able to use problem solving and increase in language acquisition. He experimented using two groups; one being taught, the other playing and concluded that the group allowed to play outperformed the taught group as they were able to explore and problem solve. He views the adult role as ‘scaffolding’ the child through their development by starting where the child is and supporting them to move on.

A more recent view by Moyles (2001) considers there are emotional, physical and intellectual values in supporting learning through play. She describes four principles of play, as being functional, constructive, rule governed and socio-dramatic. In a recent study she found that effective practitioners are able to use their knowledge to support children’s learning by building on what children can do and by evaluating the process of observations and planning for next steps. She states that children should be supported in their play and practitioners should value the input by parents.

It is important to be clear that play is not in place of planning, or indeed an easy option. ‘Teachers TV’ discusses how practitioners should inform parents about the importance of play and how children’s learning can be supported. Practitioners need to communicate with children in ways they understand, if children feel secure and relaxed they will become active learners who develop independence. Adult support in Early Years education is important in that it may be the first time a child has played alongside others, Key people offer support to children and their families during their time at pre schools and work in partnership to inform planning and extend a child’s interests and learning.

The 1967 Plowden report considers the individual child and building on what they already know and understand. It states practitioners should have a flexible approach to the curriculum and monitor the environment. It states that play is central to children’s growth and development. The report is critical of testing and figures, stating “not assume that only what is measurable is valuable”. However, in 1976 the curriculum was shaped by political forces which discarded the ‘child centred’ opinion of the Plowden report. The Thatcher years produced good test results in schools and with it the added pressures from OFSTED to use league tables and highlight results. New labour continued with this by introducing the literacy and numeracy hour. It was not until 20 years later that ‘child centred’ education was highlighted again.

The Rumbold report (Des 1990) states play as being an important part in children’s learning, and states that practitioners need to be sensitive and know when to intervene and become involved in children’s play. It states that children should be given time to play. Practitioners should watch children and use these observations to inform planning for assessment and extend learning. (Macleod-Brudenell 2004:227) In order to achieve this, the adult needs to plan the environment so children can explore, practice ideas, interact, take risks, think imaginatively, express anxieties or fears and communicate with others. Steiner considers the whole child, and believes that an important factor in children’s development is the social interactions children have with others. Through play he believes children can develop their feelings and ideas and make good relationships with others. He believes the adult should be supportive and not to use play as a tool to get a pre determined outcome as it will deprive children of freedom to choose open ended creative play. He states the adults’ role is to teach by example not instruction.

Froebel considered the natural, spiritual, emotional and intellectual aspects of child development and states the important factor is to ‘begin where the learner is’ (Bruce 2005 :26) He believed that through play the adult can observe what is needed to support and extend learning. However, Froebel’s work could be criticised because he limited his research to boys. He states that play is central to pedagogy. Froebel made a distinction between play and work and considers

“play is what children are involved in when they initiate the task and work is what they do when they fulfil a task required by an adult” (Bruce 2005:19)

Which shows that when a child is asked to do complete something by an adult, it means the child loses possession of their original idea.

Role play can happen anywhere and is unrestrictive and impulsive. It is important for children to be able to imitate and explore the world around them. Children can be imaginative and creative in their play and escape into fantasy worlds. Children interact with each other and often play above their actual age, as suggested by Vygotsky. (MacLeod-Brudenell 2004:213) Practitioners should offer props to promote role play and through observing and supporting will have an understanding of when to become involved in their play. Inclusive practice involves practitioners offering ideas and asking open ended questions to extend children’s learning, communication and language skills. Research shows that sustained shared thinking is important in extending children’s learning and by practitioners having a special partnership with children in their settings. (EYFS 4.3) Therefore in order for the children to learn through role play adults need to respect and value the children’s play and consider the child’s ideas and interests. As Inclusion is paramount to practice practitioners should be aware of discriminatory play and intervene sensitively if encountered. Sustained shared thinking is the process of working together to develop ideas and enable children to make connections in their learning. By using sustained shared thinking in play the adult can support the child’s thought process. Through an awareness of the child’s interests the practitioner can offer encouragement and ask open ended questions to support and extend learning.

Piaget, a constructivist, considered how children played for enjoyment, and believed children ‘assimilate’ or incorporate new knowledge with what they already know. This absorbing of experiences is described as ‘schema’, where patterns of repeated behaviour help the child learn. He believed children had to work through stages to learn, where they could experiment and explore. He suggested older children no longer need play as have developed abstract thinking. This view can be seen in today’s education associated with key stages, where more emphasis has been given to play in the Early Years Foundation Stage. The National curriculum and EYFS reflect the Governments strategies to enable all children to access a relevant and balanced curriculum. (Moyles 2007:4) Since 1995 the law states children have to be assessed at age 7 and aged 11 and throughout the Early Years practitioners complete assessment files based on the early learning goals.

Learning matters criticises Piaget’s approach by stating he may have lacked knowledge of the social impact, as children who are from different cultures, gender, race or social classes may need help to learn.

Recent research into perspectives used in Early Years education has shown that there is a significant lack of information concerning learning through a child’s viewpoint. Lindon, (2001) states practitioners should value the opinions of children and be more receptive to their views.

More recent thinking by Chris Athey (1990) a constructivist, considers that schemas help children think for themselves and can be used to support and extend learning through play. She states practitioners should work in partnership with parents in sharing experiences and children’s interests. She believes children are active learners.

http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/719740/Train-thought (15/1/10)

Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ considered that in play children behave beyond their age. He believed children learn more from child initiated play as he believed children set their own levels in control of learning (Bruce 2005: 64). He understood the need for an environment that had clear boundaries for children, with adults who respond effectively and help children to think for themselves. He suggests play to have the skills children need to reach their potential. He believes children acquire language and learn through role play and through social and cultural interactions, stating the role of the adult is through guidance.

Learning matters is critical of Vygotsky ‘s views of ‘zones’ as they consider them to be vague in their definitions. It is understood that the zones describe the adults’ role in supporting and extending what the child can do.

Research has shown that children develop through adult’s interacting with them. Adults can support learning through ‘contingent response’ where adults react sensitively to children’s behaviour. Children are seen to benefit from the social and emotional contacts with adults. Practitioners should actively respond to children’s positive behaviour and play giving praise and approval. Through the use of books, media and use appropriate language and communication practitioners support play and extend learning.

It has been suggested by Postman that Childhood is disappearing, children have less freedom and less places to play. TV and computer technology has advanced and children are encouraged by their parents to stay in because of parental fear for their children’s safety. However, the Government’s ‘play strategy’ intends to improve and develop play facilities throughout the country.

Practitioners should observe and use their knowledge to plan and provide for all individual children. Children who have any additional need which may include disability or a condition that affects their learning or development may need extra help within the provision. The Children’s Act of 1989 discusses that practitioners need to identify ‘in need’ children, support their development and enable all children to participate in all areas within the provision. (Bruce 2005:40). The Act states that, children ‘in need’ be categorised according to their specific needs. Early years Action is based on existing knowledge within the provision. If external support is needed the child is considered to be Early Years Action Plus. Therefore, practitioners need to be able to identify and support children. Individual play plans are useful in considering intended learning objectives and desired outcomes over a short period. Through play, practitioners can identify a child’s interests, adapt the environment and modify activities to support the child. With support from parents the child’s development can be monitored and reviewed. It is important to monitor and evaluate the curriculum linking this with children’s individual progress. Practitioners support children by formative assessment, whereby they collect information about individual children over a period of time, and summative assessment where they bring everything learnt about each child and decide on their next steps in learning. It is important that practitioners working with other professionals communicate and share information regarding children with additional needs.

Children with Autism need more adult support within a provision to enable them to learn through play. The practitioner can use ‘symbolic’ play to help the child develop skills needed to extend learning, as children with autism do not tend to use pretend play they use functional or repetitive play. The adults’ role is very important in helping the child to focus and become motivated. The practitioner can teach social skills by involving other children in play. It is important that practitioners offer resources that promote symbolic play throughout the provision. Play therapists use symbolic play to help children cope with fears or problems, as they are able to express feelings. Research evidence shows that children’s level of involvement in an activity is an indicator of their current levels of learning and development. (Moyles 2006) However, it is important that information is collected by multiple professionals before any judgements are made.

The reflective practitioner considered how an over stimulating environment as stated by Elizabeth Jarman has an adverse effect on children’s learning. Therefore practitioners need to provide an environment that is accessible for all children and is interesting and enjoyable. Through quality improvement the provision is monitored and checked to see if the Every Child Matters outcomes are covered in planning.

Practitioners who regularly reflect on practice and keep up to date with research can make improvements to how observations and planning is done and therefore extend children’s learning and development through play. Recent studies have shown how observations are useful in interpreting behaviours and understanding interests. (Maynard 2009:207) It considered what children like to explore and time spent at activities, as well as the social interactions and attachments made. Although target setting and literacy and numeracy strategies have meant there are more pressures put on teaching staff and children, it has been researched that less emphasis should be put on measurable results, tick charts and making children complete activities to get results. Practitioners now observe and use these observations to inform individual planning to extend a child’s learning through play. Good quality teaching occurs when there is a good knowledge of how to observe play, knowing when to intervene and how to interact to extend learning. Through quality improvement the provision is monitored to make sure the Every Child Matters Outcomes are covered in planning.

In conclusion play and the adults’ role in supporting learning through play has extremely important benefits for children’s happiness, physical, cognitive and social development. Childcare settings should be welcoming, have sufficient resources, practitioners should be good role models and allow children time for uninterrupted play. (Bruce 2001) Research has shown that interrupting children’s play affects cooperation and social interactions. (Broadhead 2004:3)

Play can happen anywhere and is unrestrictive and impulsive. Children concentrate for long periods in their play, if given time to do so. Through play children can relax and let their imaginations create anything they choose.

It is known children are active learners, who learn best when allowed to become deeply involved in their chosen activities. To become independent learners’ practitioners should let children investigate and problem solve for themselves. (Whitebread 2003:17) With highly qualified and experienced practitioners guiding and supporting them they can experiment and develop skills needed to help them move on in their learning. Practitioners should be good role models as suggested by Owen, who nurture children and provide a stimulating environment which is free flow. Trained practitioners are aware of the individual needs of the children in their care and understand the importance of play based learning. It is therefore, the role of the practitioner to plan, support, intervene when necessary and extend children’s learning. (Macleod-Brudenell 2004:50)

Practitioners who regularly monitor the provision reflect upon theories and choose which seem ‘fit for purpose’ as they extend learning as ‘learning matters’ describes, practitioners should consider

“sometimes pointing out new horizons, sometimes setting a challenge, sometimes gently guiding and sometimes leaving well alone”

Therefore, the practitioner has multiple roles in supporting learning through play. They are described as being ‘facilitators’ enabling learning to happen. They ‘scaffold’ and support learning and development. They provide an encouraging environment for learning to occur and are able to adapt responsively to the needs of individual children. However, they should have regard for maintaining a balance of adult and child led activities. It is important for practitioners to understand how children learn and the significance of theoretical approaches. They should also realise the importance of emphasising play.


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