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Theories surrounding learning through play

“Play is like a reservoir full of water. The deeper the reservoir, the more water can be stored in it and used in time of drought.” (Bruce 1991). In this literature review I will discuss the theories surrounding learning through play, a widely explored approach to learning and teaching within the early years setting. I will attempt to assess how it can be used to support the learning of children within the Primary Framework. Research into play based learning approaches relating to older children is more limited, although I believe there are some key themes that are relevant to teaching and learning for all children.

Before exploring the benefits of learning through play, it is important to grasp an understanding of play. It is difficult to define what play is. There are no less than 33 different definitions of the word in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. Play varies among activities, social contexts, and age groups. It might involve a game, but not always. Play can involve imagination, but it may also base itself on reality. Many theorists have endeavoured to make concrete attempts to clear the water on the definition play. Huizing (1950) states that if an activity is fully absorbing, includes an element of uncertainty and involves a sense of illusion then it is play. Groos (in Hyder, 2005) argued that play is a means through which children make sense of adult roles within society. According to Piaget (1969) play is a way for children to unify experiences, knowledge and understanding. Vygotsky (1966) considered play to be important for an individual's cognitive development. Smith (1998) believes a definition of play is important, while noting the quandary in attaining a single, all-embracing definition. Fisher (2002) supports this view, arguing as there is no single definition of the word then playful activities can be open to interpretations in different ways.

Goodale and Godbey (1988) define play more in relation to its opposite – serious work. However, Blanchard and Cheska (1985) assert that defining play as the opposite of work is mistaken. According to them the opposite of work is leisure and work has the potential to be considered as play as well.

Throughout life play is occurring with the form of play varying as a child grows. Children play every day. Play, in one form or another, continues from childhood into adulthood. People who do not take part in any form of play are believed to be more likely to suffer stress, depression and boredom. Bruner et al (1976) found that play reduces stress. They viewed play as a form of problem solving which required self-initiation, therefore increasing a child’s problem-solving ability. Additionally they argued that play enables children to focus and establish their own learning experience goals, thus enhancing learning attainment. In the same vein, Eden (2008) argued the benefits of therapeutic play being particularly beneficial for children who are experiencing stress as it allows them to become absorbed, putting aside any fears and frustrations and restoring confidence.

Play has an important role in the physical, social, emotional, language and cognitive development of children and in essence it is a learning experience. Play contributes to children’s general personality development, allowing them the opportunity to practice their linguistic, cognitive and social skills. Play is also associated with creativity, especially the ability to be less literal and more flexible in one's thinking.

There are four types of play that reflect increasing levels of children's social interaction and sophistication. Solitary play is a play that takes place alone, often with toys, and is independent of what other children are doing. Parallel play involves children engaged in the same game or activity side by side but with very little interaction or common influence. Associative play is much like parallel play but with increased levels of interaction in terms of sharing, turn-taking and general interest in what others are doing. Cooperative play occurs when children join and work together to achieve a common goal, such as building a large castle with each child building a part of the structure.

Play can be divided into two definite categories: free play and structured play. Free play takes place when the child is leading the play experience, setting out the rules and boundaries. This type of play will often hold the child’s interest longer and children can become engrossed in the activity because they developed it themselves. Structured play is adult led, guided and planned. Structured play tends to be more limiting and minimises the child opportunities to be inventive. Good quality play provision begins with providing activities to stimulate all areas of development. It is important that in a child’s development there is a good balance between free and structured play. (Too descriptive??)

There has been a strong case argued for play as a means to teaching and learning, moreover it is now widely seen as a child’s primary need.  The Charter for Children’s Play (2007) state that play is something that children want to do naturally and is the most effective way of learning as they can explore the world around them, develop their imagination, participate, share and socialise with others.

To appreciate the benefits of play, we must recognise that children learn better when they can experience, manipulate, explore and experiment from direct sensory encounters around them. Play allows children the opportunity to develop sharing and turn taking skills, whilst also providing an outlet for a child’s feelings to be displayed. Montessori placed emphasis on children's self-initiated learning stating that play supported the maturity and development of the mind, body and brain in terms of gaining greater awareness and sharpening abilities to gather and organise information. Montessori supported Gross in his view that when children play, it is their work.

In evaluating the value of teaching and learning through play there are a wealth of psychologists and theorists including Piaget, Bruner, Vygotsky, Isaacs, Montessori, Froebel and McMillan all documenting a variety of research supporting the effectiveness of play based learning. All see it as an integral factor in supporting and promoting children’s social and emotional development. Much recent research on play cite the work of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. Both Piaget and Vygotsky believed through play children can discover the world, formulate opinions and impart some meaning to their ever-changing view of the world. Piaget argues play parallels development, while Vygotsky puts forward that play promotes development. Piaget (in O’Hara and Smith, 2004) believed that children were actively in control of their own learning, with their major task being that to develop an ability to organise their experiences and learn from them, thus enabling children to make sense of the world. Piaget’s play theory reflects his focus on the intellectual development in children, concentrating on the child’s construction of reality rather than on the social context of learning. Piaget perceived play as a method which children use to develop their cognitive abilities and to practise their emerging cultivated capabilities. He also saw play as a child’s adaptation to the world around them through application of assimilation. Piaget claimed there are three stages in the development of play; imitative or purposeful play, imaginary play, and play with rules.

Vygotsky’s (1978) view differed from Piaget about there being stages in play development, however he agreed that play stimulates the development of abstract thought. Vygotsky advocated play based learning, not merely for younger children but those in late childhood too. He argued that through experimental play and experiences children are able to develop vital thinking thought structures.

Dewey (1966) supported this concept of experimental learning, maintaining that being able to experiment with and manipulate objects and situations is a significantly more effective teaching and learning method. He refutes methods that rely heavily on content and passive learning, where children are required to memorise information from a book or other source.

Gardner (1991) argued that all pupils do not learn in the same way, believing formal learning methods do not take into account those who have different learning methods therefore short-changing all but those who happen to match the teaching of the instructor.

Bruner and Haste (1987) argue that being active is what causes children both physically and cognitively to construct their own view of the world, to personalise the experience and to apply it in ways that makes sense to them. Fisher (2002) supports this view, believing that as children are active learners the most appropriate curriculum for them is one that offers experiences which enable them to investigate, explore and play. She further argues for a learning environment that offers relevant, meaningful and worthy of active involvement is necessary. In other words, according to Rieber, (1996) a learning environment that encourages children to play. Piaget echoes this belief, deeming the child learns through hands on experience.

Friedrich W. Froebel, (1782-1852) studied childhood play and developed the concept of focused early learning experiences, based on play. Through his studies and observations, he took the natural play of children and gave it status, making it of central importance in his philosophy for the education, care and development of young children. He considered free-flow play an important aspect, common to all human beings, and saw every child as a unique individual needing sensitive and appropriate help to develop and learn optimally. Over the years he developed a curriculum around children’s free play, which he believed was the highest form of learning, where the “children were encouraged to learn through playful activities and songs”. (MacLeod-Brudenell, 2004, pg 4)

McMillan and Isaacs were early play pioneers who recognised the importance and value of play for children’s development. In particular, Isaacs was so convinced of the value of play that she claimed “that play indeed is the child’s work, and the means by which he or she develops.” (Isaacs, 1929) MORE ON McMILLAN AND ISAACS

The Government is aware of how important and significant it is for children to have access to suitable and safe play opportunities and experiences, both indoors and outdoors and have included plans to create as many opportunities for this as possible within its document, The Children’s Plan.

The Government recognises play as “important for children’s development, build social and emotional resilience, develop social skills, strengthen friendships, help children learn how to deal with risks – and of course because children enjoy it.” (Every Child Matters, The Children’s Plan, pg 30 para.1.46) CHARTER FOR CHILDREN’S PLAY AND EYFS.

Macintyre (2001) documents young children’s desire to succeed and be right, often causing them to avoid certain situations, ones which they believe will result in them failing. Play has demonstrated itself as an effective method of developing self-efficacy. In the Early Years Foundation Stage children are able to experiment with no apparent fear of failure. Macintyre (2001) argues that this allows children to challenge themselves and embark upon experiences they might otherwise avoid. As children move into the subject based Primary Framework they are conditioned into searching for the right and wrong answers which Macintyre (2001) believes may make them begin to withdraw from certain learning experiences altogether.

Dewey (1966) believes that through a play based teaching and learning context children are given an opportunity to gain new information and concepts, thus enabling their intellect to be engaged and to support progression.

A direct link between play and learning is believed, however there are some theorists who criticise the use of learning through play, and disagree with the research findings. Anning (1991) assert little empirical evidence has been found for the pedagogical value placed on play. Bennett et al (1997) point out that whilst the case for play may be strong ideologically, it is debatable whether it provides a coherent framework to guide education practice. They argue that in the current climate of target setting and assessment play is hard to evaluate and may not produce any tangible outcomes. Meadows and Cashden (1998) consider children’s play to be brief and at times aimless and therefore not resulting to anything prolific. Smith and Cowie (1991, in Fisher, 2002) believe that the lack of confidence in the importance of play is due to the lack of any real evidence that play does or does not have the effect and benefits proposed. Meadows and Cashden (1998) believe that observing and assessing the implicit learning in play is not an easy thing to do, therefore the value given to an activity most likely depends on the understanding and observational skills of the observer. Fisher and Williams (2004) consider that if play is to serve as an educational tool it needs to be purposeful and requires the intervention of supportive, knowledgeable adults, who encourage children to think about what they are doing and provide them with opportunities to explore and experiment with ideas. Horner and Ryf (2008) consider the teacher’s role to be crucial in extending learning. Vygotsky (1978) emphasised the significance of an adult or more knowable other, assisting a child to acquire skills and understandings that they may not reach alone. He refers to this gap between what children can do alone and what they can achieve with help, as the ‘zone of proximal development’. Vygotsky (1978) maintains that when children play they give cues to adults about their readiness to learn new skills with assistance.Sylva et al (1980) advocate the need for teacher interaction and intervention at opportune moments to ensure optimum value in play can be appreciated. Brown (1998) stresses the importance of approaching children’s play with sensitivity, getting involved and possibly provided a new direction, but not taking over.

Dewey (1966) contends that it is not enough simply to introduce play, but that everything depends upon the way in which play is employed. Adams et al (2000) found positive gains through play when it was used as a teaching tool rather than being viewed as an addition to the ‘real curriculum’. Moyles (1989) argues the case for play to be looked at as a way of teaching and learning rather than as a separate entity. “Because of the relevance and motivation of play to children, play must pervade how teachers present potential learning activities, not sit as an uncomfortable and somewhat suspect activity in itself.” (Moyles, 1989, p.86)

Umek and Musek (2001) believe that when properly structured, play can enable teachers to see pupils demonstrating their understanding of a subject, thus making it a method of effective assessment. They argue that "Children can achieve higher levels of individual cognitive functions (conservation, one-to-one correspondence, decentration) in their symbolic play than they demonstrate when the same mental operations are tested and measured in formal, non-play, situations" (Umek and Musek 2001, p64).

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