According to Piaget, children engage in types of play that correspond to their current level of cognitive development, in other words a child's play mirrors a child's emerging abilities. For example Piaget believed that a child aged from 2-7 years old is in the preoperational stage of their cognitive development and will predominantly engage in symbolic or construction play. Piaget contends that children are at a stage in their development where they can engage in abstract thought and become increasingly adept at using symbols in their play. For example this can be seen in Anecdote 1 where Michael and Jenny demonstrate behaviours that are no longer driven by objects, but rather by the children's thinking. Jenny is pretending to be the doctor (7) and Michael the patient (8). The children are provided with two small beds, two small chairs and some long strips of white material (3,4). Jenny gives Michael an 'imaginary tablet' (10), and 'points her finger towards Michael's arm' to symbolize a needle (22). Jenny uses objects or gestures as symbols to represent another object or idea not present in the situation. Symbolic thinking forms the foundation for intellectual development as symbolic activities rest on children's abilities to create meaning in their minds and to express that meaning through gesture (handing over a pretend tablet), language, and intonation (Be brave - it's just a little sting), and objects (using the long strips of white material as a bandage). Piaget maintained that play cannot contribute to new learning. According to Piaget, cognitive development takes place when there is a balance between assimilation and accommodation, that he term equilibration. Piaget (1962) believed that play is an imbalanced state in which assimilation overpowers accommodation. This can be explained by looking at anecdote 1. Assimilation allows us to make sense of an experience in light of what we already know. For example Jenny gives Michael a tablet when he feels sick. Jenny has most probably been given a tablet in the past when she has felt sick. This is an example of Piaget's assimilation. Jenny has applied her current structures of thinking to a new situation. This can also be seen when Michael, upon receiving the imaginary tablet who pretends to eat it, he says 'that's better'. Michael assimilates this schema (knowledge) to his existing schema about tablets and their relationship to making you feel better. He verbalizes this, "i was sick last week and Dad gave me a tablet. It makes you feel all better". This is all the process of assimilation, in which new elements of experience are incorporated into exisiting structures of thought. The accommodation process challanges us to change and adapt our mental structures in the face of new information. However the children in anecdote one ignore the real identities of objects and use them to suit their play purposes. Piaget suggests that because of this imbalance between external and internal reality play cannot engender new genuine learning (pg 41 Theories of play). In spite of this, Piaget, did however believe that play was a crucial context for learning to occur. Children in their symbolic play as seen in anecdote 1 are practising using high-level mental functions (abstract thought), and they are consolidating recently acquired concepts and skills (41).
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Vygotsky wrote very little about play and his theories are more evocative than definite (Newman and Holzman, 1993). However, Vygotsky (1978) did see play as "a leading factor in development" (p.101). He believed that play is inherently social and that a child's first encounter with knowledge is through social interaction with others. Vygotsky (1976) was most concerned with make-believe play or role-play and he thought that it was this type of play that has a key role in abstract thought. Vygotsky (1989) argued that at the basis of the "pretend play" situation is the tendency to realise desires that cannot be fulfilled in real activity, thus opening the way to imagination. Vygotsky stressed the possibility of separating the visual field from the field of sense. He states, "In playing the child creates "pretend play" situations. This is made possible on the basis of separating the visual field from the field of sense, which takes place at the pre-school age."(Vygotsky, 1995, p. 71).Â If we look at anecdote one for example, we can see that the the two children Jenny and Michael are engaged in make-believe or role play. Jenny takes on the role of the doctor (7) and Michael, the patient (8). Jenny uses the substitute object, being the long strips of white material, as a bandage (17) (even though they have similar properties), she also uses gesture (9,10) to create objects that are not there for example, the tablet (9,10) or the needle (22). If we look examine closely we can see that the children are thinking about meaning independently of the objects they represent, they are inherently doing what Vygotsky explained as separating the visual field from the field of sense. They assert that object and people in their immediate play space are other than what the child knows them to be. Vygotsky believed that all pretend play situations includes hidden rules. Children establish rules about roles, props, actions and behaviours, this can be seen in Anecdote 1 when Jenny sets out some clear rules about her role in the play and Michel's role she says "You have to stay in bed. I'm the doctor, and you are very sick" (7), another example is when Michael tells Jenny he needs a needle (20), Jenny agrees (22). Vygotsky would argue that Jenny knows by agreeing to Michael's rule she is helping to maintaining the play sequence and the shared fantasy. Jenny through play is also practising self-regulation. Finally, we are going to look at how Vygotsky believed play can create zones of proximal development for individuals or groups of children through their self-initiated activities. Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as the distance between a child's actual development and a child's potential development. Vygotsky (1978, p. 102) wrote: "Play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, ... above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself." Play, for Vygotsky, was a vehicle for a child to behave more maturely than at other times. In pretend play children address areas where they do not yet feel competent in their lives and try to act as if they were competent. Vygotsky regarded fantasy play as a window into the areas of competence that a child is trying to master but are still out of reach. For example in anecdote one Jenny may be trying to be a good doctor, she brings forward all the ideas she has about being a good doctor and applies them to the pretend situation. For example Jenny knows that to be a good doctor you have to be caring 'be brave - it's just a little sting', 'be gentle' as Michael tells her (19), you need to be able to diagnose a problem or illness, she tell Michael his 'sore arm is' in fact 'broken' (17) and you need to make someone better (solve the problem) i.e. she wraps a bandage around Michael's arm (17,18). Through role play, Jenny is in her zone of proximal development.
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