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Some have argued that play is children's work but I would say that it is far more than this. Play is their self-actualisation, a holistic exploration of who and what they are and know and of who and what they might become. (Broadhead 2004, p. 89)
Since nineteen century, learning has been constructed and reconstructed within the frameworks of three main theoretical perspectives, whether understood as adult-led process, child-led individual process of discovering knowledge, or socially constructed experience.
This essay will discuss in depth the contribution of play and creativity to young children's well-being and improving children's lives; what is play and creativity and why they are important; the three theories or instructions versus exploration are fundamentally diverse in their understanding about the development of children's cognition and application in learning environment, yet their persistence in contemporary school system is evident. An evaluation of the intervention of different theories will be based on the important work of Skinner, Piaget, Vigotsky etc. and different curriculum developed and used all over the world as TeWhaariki, Reggio Emilia and Early Years Foundation Stage. This essay underlines the importance of play and creativity of young children in their early years, considering historical point of view, theoretical and examples from own experience, practice and observations.
Within western societies, the optimal conditions for early learning are frequently viewed as environments where play, both unstructured and structured, adult-led and child-led, solitary and social, provides the majority of the learning opportunities (Wood 2010).
In the last century theories of play replaced or developed earlier learning theories and previous ways of thinking. Ideas taken of psychologists like Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner have lead to create educational framework and curriculum, as the High/Scope curriculum developed from the US Head Start project in the 1960s (Schweinhart and Weikart 2003), and the Te Whaariki curriculum developed by the New Zealand government in the 1990s (Ministry of Education 1996) . the last decade the Foundation Stage was introduced in England and Wales (QCA 2000) where play has been described as 'the key way in which children learn'. Recently, the findings of the EPPE project (Sylva et al 2004) made practitioners thinking how to get the right balance into the curriculu. The main object is how to implement 'potentially instructive play activities' which need to be supported by effective adult interactions into the learning process. In the meanwhile the debate on the value and nature of play for young children and for their development continues. The benefits of play for children and young people's physical, intellectual, social and emotional wellbeing are no longer questioned. The Early Years Foundation Stage stands up behind this philosophy which we can see from the Appendix 1.
Play is innate. Childhood play is an instinct that is pleasant and important when we look at the learning and development of young children (see Appendix 2). Play is different and flexible. Often we cannot use terms as 'right' or 'wrong' way when consider play. There are enormous ranges of different types of play. They can be active or subdued; they could involve imagination or exploration. Furthermore play could involve others or carried out alone. The essence of play is best described perhaps with the 12 Principles of play (Bruce, 2011). Those principles underline any present playwork practice which we could describe as good practice. Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally motivated and directed. Children and young people rule and control the meaning and fulfill of their own play, by listening their own instincts, ideas and interests. This is done in children's own way for their own purposes and reasons.
'All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and wellbeing of individuals and communities.' (Gleave, 2012)
Recent research shows that to be able to respond and function effectively in our complex society requires interactions with others. Those interactions need to be managed actively (Sawyer et al., 1997). In addition one of the beliefs which is used in therapeutic play is that imaginative play affect the aggression levels and 'promote emotional intelligence' as state by Holland (2003). Furthermore, the more play is cooperative, the more children might connect with/or understand other children's knowledge. This understanding is underpinned with their respond and emotional engagement with the surrounding environment. Interactions like those will increase children's understanding of other children's perspectives. They can become 'experts' for one another, 'scaffolding their own and their peers' learning experiences.
When children interact with peers they are more creative, the dialogue they build with each other or the play is like a practise to reality and helps them develop social skills. Their learning and creativity is stronger than when an adult tells then what to do, or leads them to a game, there is not as much personal/inner involvement when it's adult led.Â
Recently observations try to focus more on play between children, not on their interactions with adults. This is to recognise that into communication with peers which are equally engaged, exist the potential to improve children's learning development. It will arise along their actions and interaction. As an example see Appendix 2.
Often play goes hand by hand with creativity. As a concept "creativity" has been vastly researched for more than fifty years, and they still remain disagreements what creativity is and how it develops (Lynch & Harris, 2001). Part of researches underline that creativity involves process of flexible thinking and being original, also problem solving and being capable to redefine and elaborate (Meador, 1997). The other part of researchers point to personal characteristic which could help some individuals to become more creative, for example 'tolerance for uncertainty, willingness to overcome obstacles, openness to growth, possession of personal motivation, acceptance of sensible risk-taking, wanting to be recognized, and willingness to strive for such recognition' (see Sternberg, as cited in Lynch & Harris, 2001). Moreover, others support the thinking that people cannot be generally creative in all areas but more often into specific fields, as art, machinery or woodwork (see Gardner, as cited in Lynch & Harris, 2001). The cultivation of creativity is a base on which programs and strategies are produced for positive outcomes and underpin the well being of young children. Such programs which include creative problem-solving skills help children to become successful adults. Adults who will question the accuracy of information and put this information into constructive use (see Todd & Shinzato, as cited in Brockman,2012). Moreover, Sautter (1994) suggests that children being involved in creative activities improve their motivation. Practitioners in the mental health field discovered that creative activities can be used to protect children from stress (see Honig, as cited in Brockman). Creative thinking allows both young people and adults to "avoid boredom, resolve personal conflict, cope with increasing consumer choice, accept complexity and ambiguity, make independent judgments, use leisure time constructively, and adjust to the rapid development of new knowledge" (Strom, 2000, p. 59).Furthermore, in our century we are witnesses of rapid scientific and technological development, so people need to be inventive and flexible. Therefore, in order to keep up with nowadays accelerating developments, it is important for adolescents to be creative thinkers (see Fryer, as cited in Brockman).
In addition to the above, the study 'Trough a different lens' by Meynard (2010) shows that moving away from a 'subject-centered' approached, particularly when they are prescribed outcomes in the Framework, towards 'child-led' learning and play, may be extremely challenging for the practitioners. The project is based on Reggio Emilia pedagogy. 'While in England and Wales early years education policy appears to have shifted direction in relation to curriculum, pedagogy and underpinning theories of learning, by contrast the infant and toddler centres of the municipality of Reggio Emilia are rooted in a coherent, well-defined theory of knowledge which resonates with sociocultural principles.' In the Reggio Emilia approach it is important the collaboration between all participants. They believe that young children symbolically represent their ideas through, for example, drawing, painting, dance, singing, speaking, mime and play. Instead of curriculum lead activities, organic projects are used as a vehicle for learning. However, having used to lead children's play, the practitioners found it hard to not interrupt and their believes challenged. One of the teachers states:
Children who I initially thought of as low ability, fidgety boys I now feel have fantastic problem solving skills â€¦ this approach has made me question what I thought was a bright child and has turned on its head how I rate the children in my class.
From the above study is evident the influence of different approaches have on the adults role in relation to children's play.
For example learning for behaviourism is adult-led, emphasising on the external environmental influences on learning and outcome focused; the most effective teaching technique in class room in the sixties and seventies was the "programmed instruction", an operant conditioning method developed by Skinner in a behaviourist fashion which went in four steps. Giving a task to perform in their play, observing the child, if incorrect repeat again in an easier manner, if correct reward. This processes lacks imagination of the activity, leads children to understand learning as a stressful experience and create anxiety which in turn interferes with school performance and social and psychological development.(Gavrielle L.2008).
Although Skinner acknowledged children need to explore knowledge for themselves and that creativity is born within social interaction, it was not until the constructivist theory of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) when society and school acknowledge the need for children to explore knowledge for themselves. In contrast to behaviourist believes, Jean Piaget argued learning happens inside the child, should be child-led, with little if no emphasis on teaching. According to Piaget instructions were the inhibition for exploration. In a computational study, Bonawitz and colleges compared the outcomes of play with a same toy given by an experimenter in two conditions. In the first condition children were instruct how to use it, and in the second they were just given the toy to play with. The results of this study show significant differences between the times children of both conditions played with it. Also, the toy had more features then the one shown by the experimenter and the children in the second condition seems to show higher exploration in contrast to the first. (Bonawitz E., et al, 2010).
In a contrast, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was the one to outline the importance of some adult guidance in children's development; introducing Zone of Proximal development (ZPD) as the difference between what the child can not do by himself and what he can achieve with help from more able adult/peer; an adult-led theory in which the teaching and assisted performances were the key for successful development.
In conclusion, the importance of how play is used to encourage creativity was outlined; the implication of the above theories is evident in the present educational curriculum. The frameworks influenced by Piaget discovery learning theory have been revolutionary for educational practices. The above examples show the importance to find the right balance between adult and child-led play and creativity which are fundamental for children's learning and development.