How children become leaders of their own learning

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Children become leaders of their own learning through playful activities. It is through discovery and experimentation that children develop ideas and skills.

What is play?

"Play is the source of development and creates the zone of proximal development"

Play is considered to be a crucial part of a child's development, not only of skills but also their character. It is a natural process. These new skills will be invaluable to a

child when they grow up, the things that they learn through play are the basis of the

skills they will need in future settings, when they move on to secondary school and

even in a job. Even though children learn whilst playing it is not apparent to the child

or even to many adults as it is one of the most common features in a child's everyday


However, the fact that play does not need to be worked at, that it comes so

naturally, seems to make it less valued by society than other activities especially

created for learning. As the benefits of play do not seem apparent many parents are in

fact tempted to prevent children from playing and "wasting time"(Dixon 2010), particularly during time in school.

There are some very important points that need to be considered when thinking about

a child at play. A child is allowed to be in charge when they play, it is a child-lead activity, and normally they have no control what so ever, they are constantly being told what they should and shouldn't do but during play, they can choose. Play is very good for teaching children about where they come from and giving them more information about the world, they are able to explore and discover, they can put any theories they may already have to the test. Play is also a good tool for building up self-esteem, it is good for children to do activities they know they are good at and it is more likely to hold their interest.

Play is not only something that is witnessed in children but within the animal kingdom as well. For example, many, if not all, young animals learn through play, lion cubs practice their hunting technique, young birds swoop through the air, they are all vital skills learnt through play. If this is true for animals then it could also be for human children (Dixon, 2010).

Types of Play

According to the results of a study by Mildred Parten carried out in the 1920s there are six different types of play (Psyblog, 2008).

During unoccupied play the child is relatively stationary, they make some movement but not with any apparent purpose. This style of play is not frequently seen.

Solitary play involves a child being completely engrossed in their own activity and doesn't notice any other children, this type of play is most commonly seen in children aged two and three years old.

During onlooker play a child takes an interest in what another child is doing but will not participate, the most they may do is ask questions, they prefer to watch.

Parallel play involves one child copying another; e.g. both children play with the same toy, but will not actually play together.

In associative play the children become more interested in one another. This type of play is the first to involve strong social interaction.

The sixth type of play is cooperative play, this involves the children's play having some sort of goal and it is often seen that children will take on roles and act out stories together.

Parten tended to find that children would shift between the different types of play but mostly would take part in the last two rather than the other four. This may be because the final two types involve more interaction than the others (Psyblog, 2008).

The first four types of play can be put into the category of non-social play, as there is little or no direct interaction. It is often considered that it is less beneficial than social play, as it is regarded as the "least mature level of play" (Luckey and Farbes, 2005). However, I would like to argue that, in fact, non-social play also has many benefits:

There is less risk of a child being singled out because they cannot do something as well as other children and consequently feel inadequate.

Children sometimes find it easier to play alone, it releases them from the "socially and self-imposed pressures" (Luckey and Farbes, 2005) they may feel when in the company of others.

Intra personal activities allow children the time to work things out by themselves and gives them greater control over the choice of activity.

Therefore we should take note of the quality of social interactions when they occur rather than worrying about how often they happen.

The way that children develop and learn through play has been investigated by many theorists and influenced documents used in the teaching of children.


In order to evaluate the impact of play on the learning of children it is important to investigate the ideas about children's cognitive development. Both, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, have contributed theories that have been influential in education.

Both support the idea of constructivism:

Constructivism is a way of teaching and learning that is based on the premise that cognition is a result of "mental construction", where children fit together what they already know to any new information they take in. It is believed by constructivists that a child's learning is not only influenced by what they already know or believe but also by which context it is taught in.

In addition the two theorists believe that any social influences on children greatly affects their cognitive development.

However, apart from this the two theorist's key ideas were quite different.

While Piaget believed that development was something that took place after the learning process, according to Vygotsky development and learning occurred in the reverse order. Also, although Piaget and Vygotsky both felt that children learnt through interactions with their surroundings, only Vygotsky believed that the input from other people had any importance.

In Piaget's theory he talks of four main phases of development, known as the four-stage theory, conducted after observing his own children.

The four stages consisted of:

The sensorimotor stage. This involved children from birth to around 18-24 months. Piaget's theory states that children at this age are only aware of their sensations; meaning they tend to experience the world through tasting things, listening and touching.

The pre-operational stage involved children from around 18-24 months up to about seven years, he claimed that at this stage in a child's life they are able to process words, images and new concepts but they are unable to do anything with them.

The concrete operations stage involved children from the ages of seven to twelve, Piaget felt that children gained the ability to move around and manipulate objects but only if they were concrete.

The formal operations stage included children from twelve upwards. Piaget claims that children are now able to think in an abstract way, he believed that it was from around this age that children begin to think more like adults (Atherton, 2010).

In addition Piaget also theorised on Adaptation and Development. The Constructivist theory looked at the development of a child's cognitive skills and the three fundamental processes that were involved in it.

The three processes were

Assimilation: the involvement of new ideas and knowledge into the knowledge and understanding that already existed,

Accommodation: a change in mental structures that are needed in order to take on more information

Equilibrium: a balance between assimilation and accommodation. When children experience something new the balance between assimilation and accommodation is not equal, not until they are able to assimilate and accommodate the new information they were faced with will the child be able to attain a balance (Atherton, 2010).

Vygotsky's view was that there are no set stages in development at all.

The first part of Vygotsky's theory talks of "private speech", where children talk to themselves. Vygotsky felt this was a very important aspect as it allowed children to think things through and work things out, allowing them to come to a conclusion or think of a solution to a problem. Even as adults a form of private speech exists.

The second part of Vygotsky's theory is the zone of proximal development. This can be defined as being the difference between what a child knows and what knowledge can be attained with the help and guidance of someone who already has knowledge on the subject.

Vygotsky's theory suggested that problem-solving tasks could be split into three sections:

Those that are only completed by the child with no involvement of others,

Tasks that cannot be completed even if the child receives help and

The tasks that can be completed by the child if they receive help, this is known as "assisted performance".

By gaining guidance from teachers, parents and other children who have prior knowledge of certain areas children will eventually be able to form their own ideas and grasp the concepts for themselves without the help of others.

Bruner built on Vygotsky's zone of proximal development by introducing so called "scaffolding". Scaffolding can be described as the help given to a child that supports their learning, just as scaffolding around a building can be removed when it is no longer needed so too can the help given to a child. When the child has been shown how to complete a task they are able to do it by themselves and there is no longer a need for scaffolding (Davison, 2006).

Within a school system, a good example of Piaget's theory could be found in a pre-school or early years setting. Piaget views children in these early years as being in the pre-operational stage, therefore, it is therefore beneficial to speak to children at this early stage from their point of view as they are under the impression of any experiences they have as being the only experience.

Vygotsky's theory would be more suitable in a key stage 1 setting where students have already formed their own ideas and the children are generally at different levels of learning (Davison, 2006).


The aforementioned theorists have had an influence on the Early Years Foundation Stage (2008), which is used to support and develop children's learning from birth to five years.

The EYFS pulls together the documents Birth to three matters (2002), curriculum guidance for the foundation stage (2000) and the national standards for under 8's Daycare and childminding (2003) in able to ensure that there is good practice across the age range. From September 2008 all establishments that offer care to children between and including those ages have been working to the same framework and standards therein.

Children are recognised, by the framework, as individuals. It includes 4 themes and is delivered through well-planned play activities. Practitioners are able to help children to develop new skills through play experiences and they will be able assess which skills each child needs to develop further and where they may need support in their learning. The EYFS focuses more on the different stages of development rather than on age and it not only allows children to explore things for themselves inside but also encourages the addition of an outdoor space where the children are just as free to develop their skills. Many settings have similar activities for the children in outdoor areas as they do indoors but on a larger scale.

Another aspect was the introduction of 'key workers', who are people who get to know a particular child and their parents, through working with the child and helping them to develop new skills one to one.

The EYFS is a framework that is used in all early years' settings, so no matter where a child is being cared for or educated, the practitioners will all be following the same framework and the children are able to develop and learn through play based activities.

The activities the children are able to do will provide them with the skills necessary to complete, or at least work towards, the early learning goals that are set out in the following areas of learning:

Personal Social Emotional Development,

Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy,

Communication Language and Literacy,

Physical Development,

Creative Development and

Knowledge and Understanding of the World.

Every area is viewed as equal to the others and there is often an overlap between the areas in the activities the children do. For example, a role play area set up in a classroom will allow the children to be creative but there will also be aspects of mathematics and literacy. If the role play area is set up as a shop for example children can learn about how to count money and give change, how many items someone wishes to buy. They will also be surrounded by language used within a shop as well as numbers. The sand and water trays that are often seen within classrooms are another good example. They allow the children to build things, appealing to their creative nature as well as letting them explore and experience what happens when they put sand or water into a container, or even if they mix them together. So there is quite a large cross-over of areas within each activity.

Within the EYFS document the areas are split into stages of development and the practitioners are able to look at any resources needed or any learning opportunities for the individual children in the class depending on at which stage each child is. It also helps the practitioner to understand how they can incorporate play in the classroom and the children's learning.

The EYFS encourages, parents, teachers and carers, plus other early years settings to work together in order for the children to reach their full potential. The parents and carers are therefore able to give some input on how their child is developing.

If children have disabilities or special educational needs then there is information within the EYFS to enable practitioners to cater for those needs and to develop specific activities to help those children to progress.

Own Experience

My Experience has spanned across three settings, which on first viewing seem very different but when examined more closely are not so dissimilar.

The first setting was a school in the town of Speyer in Germany. On arrival my first observations were of the environment. As I entered the classroom I noticed the lack of colour. There were some displays of the children's work but nothing that the children could experience, no interactive displays for example. The tables were set out in a U shape with the teachers desk at the front, there was no carpet area, no role play area, no book area or even any books and no toys or anything for the children to play with. The lessons were very structured with the children having set times for things like Maths and (in their case) German lessons; they also had to learn English and handwriting skills with all activities being initiated by the teacher. The children got 3 15minute breaks within the day and this was the only time the children had to play. Even at that age the children all seemed quite mature and most of them took themselves to and from school, none of parents seemed to ever enter the building. There was a lot of equipment for the children to use outside but there was a definite divide between play and learning and in my view the children were in no way leaders of their own learning unless outside.

The second setting was a private school in Lincolnshire. The classes were relatively small and consisted of 20 children at the most. The school was very inviting, colourful and bright. The classroom had colourful displays of the children's work and also interactive displays of things related to the topic that the children were learning about. There was a role play area that was changed every term with costumes so the children could get into character, a book corner and games and toys for the children to play with. The children did get a lot of opportunity to play and discover new things but the structure was certainly not one I would have described as being "free-flow", nor do I think the children led their own learning, all the activities were chosen by the teacher. In addition, the children had to read an Oxford reading tree book everyday, which they had no choice over. They also had structured maths lessons.

The activities they did in the afternoon ranged from painting, making models and drawing. Occasionally a group of children was chosen to play in the role play area but they were not asked who would like to play in it, they were told who would be playing in it depending on who had not already had a go. Often the children enjoyed the freedom of choice and learning things for themselves, they felt a great achievement if they could tell you facts they had just read in a book or if they completed a puzzle. Watching the children at play revealed characteristics that were not so apparent when they were sitting at their desks. I was able to engage in conversation with the children and learn about what interested them. I remember having a conversation with one little boy who was very interested in history and sharks, he wanted to read me a book all about sharks even though he normally hated reading, this book however was about something that really interested him and so he became engaged in reading. For this child it may have been more beneficial to have more choice, especially in terms of literacy.

The third school I have visited was very different from the first two in that it promoted play and children being leaders of their own learning. In the classroom there were lots of areas for the children to go to and play in, there were lots of things for them to discover and explore. They had roughly five or ten minutes input as a whole class for phonics and then they were able to choose what they wished to do. At some point during the day there would be a focused activity with the teacher that all the children had to complete but it was done in small groups so as not to disrupt the children's play. If the children were interested in anything in the room they were free to access it, they could play on the computers, in the construction area, and they could paint, play in the sand or water or make models. The children were given a lot of choice. All the choices the covered areas mentioned within the EYFS. Sand and water areas covered mainly the PSRN aspect for example, whilst the construction area covered the PSRN and CD. Other areas were perhaps more obvious in the sections they covered. For example, they had a section with just scales and rulers and carpet number squares, this section was less frequently used than the other areas. Perhaps it was more obvious to the children that this was a maths section and it was more like doing work. When given a choice between what they saw as work and what they saw as play, they would choose play. In doing so, however, the children were still learning but not in an obvious way, not even to a lot of adults and most of the sections covered more than one aspect in the EYFS. It was interesting seeing the different types of play in action and the skills being learnt. The information gained by the teacher and TA during play was used in the planning so any interests the children had could be catered for, or if any children needed a little help developing certain skills then the necessary provisions could be made, therefore, even though the activities the children could do had been carefully thought out by the teacher the children still had some input as their interests were taken into account when planning for those activities. So in a round a bout way it is possible to say that the children were being leaders if their own learning as they had an impact on how they learnt.

My range of experiences has seemingly gone from one end of the scale to the other. In the private school a formal approach is their preferred method of teaching. The structured approach however may be strongly influenced by society and the parents. Parents are paying for their children to attend the school and do not expect to see their children playing all day, like most people they would not be able to see the benefits. Therefore, a lot of pressure is put on the school and the teachers to deliver good results and in a familiar way. In that particular area of the country the 11plus is still present so the parents, again, expect their children to do well as they are paying for the tuition. It is hard to say therefore, whether the school is bound by pressures of society and parents or if they believe that this is the best way of teaching. The final school, however, has embraced the free-flow method of teaching, which is greatly received by the children and seemingly accepted by the parents. After observing the children, however, I noticed that a lot of them will stick to one or two areas of the classroom so they are perhaps not developing as many skills as the children who spend a good amount of time in each area, perhaps for these children it would be more beneficial to have them doing at least some structured activities.

On first reading it seems that the German system is the most structured but we have to consider the age range. The children in Germany start school between the ages of five and half and six and a half. This would be the equivalent to the start of key stage 1 in England. Before children in Germany start in grade 1 they are in kindergarten from around two or three years of age. During their time there they are subject to play activities and very little else, it has been defined as the transition from home life to a more formal way of schooling where the children are taught or encouraged to develop basic skills and knowledge through play and through the social interactions with others. When considering this then it would appear that in this country we are asking more of our children at an earlier age than in other countries.

The role of the practitioner in a play based classroom is perhaps not as apparent as in a more formal setting. It is, however, quite a difficult role and questions are often asked over whether or not the teacher should intervene in play or if the children should be left to it. Should the teacher join in, and encourage? The role of the practitioner in this sense is quite hard to determine. It is more clear, however in other aspects, the teacher is able to observe the children during play, to get a sense of their character and the skills they already have, they are able to learn what the child is interested in and, perhaps just as importantly, what they are not interested in. They can figure out how to provide more stimuli for the child's interest whilst perhaps including within that stimulus something that will enhance any skills they are weaker at. For example, if a child is only interested in the reading area, so is enhancing their communication, language and literacy skills and perhaps their knowledge and understanding of the world, but they have no interest in areas that incorporate problem solving and reasoning, the teacher may be able to provide more reading material that also incorporates maths but not in an obvious way. They are also able to assess the children through observation; they can monitor a child's progress. And of course they have a huge task in providing these play activities that cover the areas of learning laid out in the EYFS. There is still pressure on the practitioners to allow the children to progress and so they must provide activities that will cater for all stages of development amongst the children.


Play is something that is experienced by children from a very young age. The introduction of play into the classroom has allowed children to decide for themselves how they would like to learn. Children still gain vital knowledge and understanding but theorists, past and present and the introduction of the EYFS, have altered how they obtain it in the classroom. Children have more freedom, they now have more choice and can decide which activities they wish to do whilst enhancing the important skills needed to progress. The fact that children learn through play is no new concept but the introduction of that knowledge into the classroom, rather than restricting it to play school or kindergarten, is to most people, a new notion. Practitioners still have the tough task of ensuring that all children are catered for and that they are all able to progress and be prepared for the future.

For children play is the most natural thing to do, as well as being the easiest. They do not see it as work. When forced to complete a task or listen for a certain amount of time, they lose interest and get easily distracted. If they believe they have a completely free choice and everything is seen as a game their attention is held for longer and consequently they may learn more, even though the learning is not so obvious to them. Things that are fun are more appealing. There is, however, value to both structured teaching and play based teaching and perhaps a balance is what is needed depending on the age and ability of the children, some children may benefit more from structured activities and need to be challenged where as others flourish in a play based environment.