The excellence of play

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The importance of play and its effect on child development has been studied by many researchers throughout the years (Wood & Attfield, 2005). A child's waking hours are mostly occupied with play; even at school. Although there are many different modes of play: structured and free play are the most commonly observed and most studied. 'Structured play is adult-lied, guided and planned' (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005 p.3) and free play is when 'the child has the opportunity to choose the focus of the play without constant interference or involvement by an adult" (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005 p.3). Both structured and free play were observed in a primary state school and we critically analyzed the role of the educator and how children interacted with each other while playing.

Class Description

We went to school 'A' in order to observe class 'B' at 10.50am. Class 'B' is a KG 2 class consisting of 16 students about 4 years old. We observed four students (2 boys and 2 girls) during structured and free play.

In the class there were:

  • 4 round tables with chairs
  • home corner equipped with some clothes, some dolls, cash register, kitchen equipment etc.
  • A puppet theatre
  • an easel
  • different table top-toys and puzzles.

Prior - Planning

We planned to observe the students for 30 minutes doing structured play. For free play, we observed each student playing for 5 minutes. The teacher's desk was the best place from 4where we could observe the class. A checklist was prepared with all the things that we were expecting to observe.

For structured play the teacher planned to do a threading activity. She recited a story about a bear called 'Brown bear, brown bear, What do you see?' and together with the kids they started the activity by first discussing what they knew about bears and then they found pictures of different types of bears. The pictures were glued on a cardboard piece and cut. Then the children started to paint their bears according to their preference. Finally, the teacher punched little holes on the outline of the bears in order to do the threading activity.

For the free play activity, the children were free to choose a toy and play with it.

Observing a 'Structured play' setting

The two girls and the two boys that we chose to observe are sitting around the table. The educator is telling them about the bear whilst giving hints to the story. She is asking the children how their bear was painted. Boy 2 is telling her in a loud voice that his bear is 'kannella car' whilst Boy 1 said that he forgot how he painted his bear. On the other hand, Girl 1 told her 'tieghi skur', and Girl 2 told her 'anke tieghi'. The teacher gives them their teddy bear while explaining what is going to be done by showing them how to perform the activity.

The teacher asks the children to start the activity. Boy 2 is explaining to the teacher that his teddy bear is always playing with the play-station and that he is going to take him to the doctor. When the teacher told him why, he replied: 'ghax il-hin kollu fuq il-play-station u marad'. All the students needed help in getting started and the teacher is showing them how to do the knot. Boy 2 (Figure 2) seems to have engaged in this activity very quickly and so did Boy 1 (Figure 1) and Girl 1 (Figure 3). Girl 2 asks the teacher again how to do it. The educator is showing her again and asks her to do like her. The teacher is now asking questions about the story and the boys immediately respond. Girl 1 is threading without any help, and she is really interested in what she is doing. Girl 2, on the other hand needs a lot of encouragement from the teacher. She is now looking at the teacher, listening to her explaining again to Boy 2. Boy 1, 2 4nd Girl 1 are maintaining constant attention to the task while Girl 2 is easily distracted by noise. She is looking to the other boys in the class playing with the blocks while smiling at them. The teacher tells her to pay attention to what she is doing. She tells the teacher 'OK, sabih ser naghmlu'. The boys and Girl 1 are finished and the teacher is praising them and asks whether they have enjoyed the activity. Boy 1 and 2 replies that they really enjoyed doing it but Girl 1 doesn't seem to take any notice of what the teacher asked. The teacher tells them that they can go and play with what they want. Girl 2 (Figure 4), by being constantly prompted by her teacher is now working at a steady pace and is attentive to what she is doing. She is smiling.

Observing a 'Free play' setting

Boy 1 is playing with the cars. He is playing with two other children (Figure 5). After 2 minutes, we noticed that he sometimes just stares at his peers instead of playing with them (Figure 6). The educator sees this and directing to the other two students, asks them to let Boy 1 play with them. He is now playing again with the cars and with the others. Although he is playing with the others, he seems to be directing his own play and sometimes takes a different direction (Figure 7) and say 'sejjer id-dar'. Now he grabs the car and is going to the home corner where he looks at the other children playing there. This boy seems to be in the 2nd stage of play, that is, the onlooker play as he seems to look at others more than playing with his toys. He really observes others and is quite attentive to what the others are playing with.

Boy 2 is playing in the home corner (Figure 8). He is drawing with the colours while saying to another boy 'Dik mhux hekk trid taghmilha'. A girl approaches him and tells him to play with her. She is showing him the clothes. The boy smiles while taking a shirt. He is trying to dress himself up. The girl is trying to help him. He moves his shoulder and tells the girl 'Int ilbes tieghek'. The girl picks her shirt and she is dressing herself up. The girl seems that she has no problem in dressing up but the boy can't get the hold of it (Figure 9). Boy 2 and the girl are now playing together.

Girl 1 is playing with the pram and the doll in the home corner. She is wearing a handbag (Figure 10). Girl is putting a fleece around the doll (Figure 11) and now she is putting her in the pram. She is humming to the doll and leaves the home corner. The girl is going near the teacher. The teacher asks her where she is going. She replies that she is going to take the baby to the doctor because he is sick. Now she goes onto the carpet. She sits down and starts playing with the doll. After some time, she puts the doll back into the pram. She is now drawing (Figure 12). The teacher tells her to go and play with the others. She replies 'Qieghda ok hawn'.

Girl 2 is playing with a clock she found in the home corner (Figure 13). She looks at the girl next to her as if she wants to ask her something. The other girl notice Girl 2 looking at her and took the clock in her hands. She is playing with it and Girl 2 looks attentively to what she is doing. Girl 2 is smiling because the other girl is giving her the clock back. She touches the other girl's head and says 'thank you'.

Role of the educator during the play activities

The role of the educator during the structured activity was in helping the children by showing and guiding them throughout the threading task. She prompted and praised the students a lot which is really important for them. Also the teacher's role was to help the children recall the story of the bears which she recited earlier and to make them imagine by asking questions like 'do you remember any animals the bear met...?' It is really important for children, to have a teacher who can listen carefully to what they are saying and giving them hints on what can be done. This can help the children to feel that they are welcomed and their environment is safe and so they can make friends with each other and the educator especially at the beginning of the scholastic year.

In the case of free play, the teacher kept asking the students questions to prompt their imagination and to see what they were thinking. 'Children, like adults to help keep their play going' (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005 p.5) and when the children asked the teacher to play with them, she fully engaged herself in the activity. Also the teacher had everything organised and accessible to the students.

Vygotsky noted that the adults' role is very important. Adults can help children expand their ideas. Even Bruner agree with the help of adults in the development of young children (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005).

Children's reactions and their engagements in the play activities

During 'structured play', the boys worked at an even pace. They didn't withdraw from responding to the questions the teacher asked. They were interested in the activity and they were convinced in what they had to do. In free play, Boy 2 seems more confident than Boy 1. At first he was playing alone but instructed another boy what to do. When the girl came, she decided with what to play, but he didn't let her help him while dressing. Boy 1 seems very shy and in fact he sometimes stares at others. He may be afraid that the others will reject him. He was quite secure when the teacher told the others to play with him and therefore Boy 1 seems to rely a lot on his teacher.

In the first activity, Girl 1 was more outgoing than Girl 2. Girl 1 did not ask the teacher whether she is doing the right thing. She is very independent and self-assured. The teacher told us that Girl 1 likes to play and work a lot on her own. Even when she gives them something to do as a group, she either stares at the others or just does something herself but always on her own. On the other hand, Girl 2 needed a lot of help. She is shy and needs a lot of encouragement. In fact the teacher prompted her frequently. Low self esteem could have hindered her to act this way because even in free play, she was shy to ask the girl about the clock.

Benefits and skills acquired

Both types of play have their benefits from gaining certain important skills. During the structured play activity, turn taking and sharing of the same equipment/material is learned. Here, the children improve their listening skills and reinforce their eye-hand coordination. This strengthens the physical and the motor development. Another important skill for early childhood children is language and during structured play they acquire a lot of new vocabulary especially from the educator like string, wool and holes. Since this activity regarded bears, the children learned a lot of information about them. Also during this activity, children were able to express themselves, like Boy 1 who said that his bear is playing with the play-station. The teacher told us that he plays a lot with it at home. It is important to note that during structured activities children recall previously explored situations and real-life experiences. This kind of activity gives them pride when they finish the 'job' and their self-esteem boosts up knowing that an adult believed in them.

During free play the children learn how to initiate, evolve and develop the play the way they want to. By free play the children will be given the 'opportunity to explore and investigate materials and situations for oneself' (Moyles, 1989 p.14). Their imagination and socialising skills was seen during this activity. Although there are different types of opinions, children learn to accept each others'. Free play encourages team-work as well. They learn about the sharing of ideas and sometimes they have to accept what the others are doing even though it's not what one wants. In free play, children show what they have learnt and what they see (by imitating). According to Bandura, children learn a lot through imitation (Moyles, 1989). Like in the case of Girl 1, she was imitating someone who is a mummy and has a child. From her, we can see that through acting, she understands more the situation. When children play with cars, they are learning about problem solving because they are realizing that not all cars and toys could for example, fit in a house. Here new vocabulary is also learned, this time mostly from their peers.

Analysing the 'play activities' giving importance to the adult's work

When we analyzed the threading activity, we concluded, that it was a well-planned and age appropriate task. The teacher knew how to proceed throughout the activity and gave the necessarily continuous attention to the children, especially the ones who needing some extra help. She visually demonstrated to the children how to thread, however, they were left free to perform the threading on their own, as they desired. She only intervened when the children showed difficulty at performing this skill.

In order to widen and develop this activity, she could have let the children cut the string themselves in order to work on their fine motor skills. Following the activity, action song was performed, helping them to become more physically competent and at the same time, emphasizing more upon the theme. The adult could plan an ICT painting activity, where children's knowledge and creativity in order to create their own bear will be shown. The activities should be repeated in order to make sure that the children grasp the knowledge and skills needed.

For the free play environment, the adult seems to have thoroughly investigated the children's interests, as the playing areas were all appealing to the children. In order to reinforce more the theme being done, the adult could have introduced books of information about animals, honey jars, little soft-toy bears etc. in the home-corner so that the children would be able to talk more about animals. With the intention to help out the children to interact and socialize more among themselves, the teacher asked several questions to the children according to what they were doing, or what they were planning to do next. She helped out Boy 2 by telling the other children to play with him. She also intervened, by asking questions to Girl 1, when she observed her playing alone with the doll on the carpet. Giving directions to children during free play will help them by widening their views and thus, helping them to evolve and to extend their play experiences.

Play Theories

According to Piaget play is being extremely important in the development of intelligence because it allows the child to actively repeat and experiment with skills at each stage of intellectual development. Piaget divides play into three types: mastery play, symbolic or makebelieve play, and play with rules. In our observation of 'free play' we noticed that the children are in the stage of symbolic play. According to Piaget, this type of play take place during the preoperational stage of intellectual development and this is a demonstration of pure egocentric thought. Basically in this type of play, children have the mental ability to change themselves or an object into something else (Wood & Attfield, 2005).

Froebel states that children need to move around freely while playing and children can play with their 'gifts' (items with which children played) either indoors or outdoors as they can learn in both situations. Like Froebel, Vygotsky stated that 'Symbolic and imaginative play is important and shows high levels of learning' (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005 p. 19). Susan Isaacs explained that children begin to learn about the knowledge of the world as they play. For her, children should be encouraged to play with whatever they want in order for them to be motivated to learn (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005).

On the other hand, Montessori was a bit doubtful about free play. She did not believe in it and therefore she did not encourage it. According to Montessori, play should have a learning focus and so since free play was not to be recommended (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005).


By playing, children are able to express their feelings and show what they have learnt. Regardless of the type of play which the child is using, Piaget believes that play assimilation is the most predominant intellectual process. This is so, since it involves the child taking in information about his environment and modifying it to fit in with his own knowledge and experience (Moyles, 2005).

By playing, children will be able to understand also the importance of socialisation. Play contributes to a child's development in many vital ways. It is a natural way for children to learn new concepts and to develop new skills which after all are the basic steps for future situations.


  • Moyles, J. R. (1989). Just playing? Open University Press: UK
  • Moyles, J. (2005). The excellence of play. Open University Press: UK
  • Tassoni, P. & Hucker, K. (2005). Planning play and the early years. Heinemann: UK
  • Wood, E. & Attfield, J. (2005). Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum. Sage: London
  • klist.pdf