Explain the importance of play in early learning.

How can the benefits of play be most effectively maximised within the classroom environment?

This project is presented with a twofold task. First: articulate the benefits of play. Second: identify the ways in which play can be incorporated into a structured learning environment, or, more accurately, in which a learning environment can be structured around play. Either approach yields positive results, but this project argues that the most viable ethos for educators who wish to benefit from play is not to shoehorn play into their existing attitudes toward and plans for teaching, but to start with a play activity and explore the learning opportunities it presents.

Power and Park (in Laosa, 1982: 148) indicate that pre-school learning takes exactly this form. Parents are seldom qualified educators with a formal scheme of learning and development; they provide opportunities for play, engage in play, and promote learning indirectly. Historically, say Power and Park, researchers have suggested that this parent-guided learning through play develops children's goal-directed behaviour, object permanence and the acquisition of turn-taking skills.

More recent research (Fleer, 2010: 101) asks whether these play activities are motivated internally or externally, e.g. whether they arise out of biological imperatives in the individual parent or are inspired by social/cultural forces which define what a parent should do. In the Anglophone world, Fleer explains, research on play has tended to emphasise the biological imperative. Encouraging and engaging in play has been seen as something which parents do naturally, and therefore not part of a teacher's remit.

By contrast, social forces are more emphasised in Eastern European research by cultural and historical theorists like Vygotsky, Leontiv and Elkonin (in Fleer, 2010: 105). Elkonin (2005) observes that play has developed over time. What was a procedure of imitative learning in which children were involved in the work of keeping their communities alive became a process of teaching using scaled-down versions of more complex tools: play with toys was in Elkonin's view originally a form of learning. As work tools became even more complex or actively dangerous for children to use, the concepts of 'childhood' and 'play' (as discrete from work) as we know them today came into being. Teaching could not begin until the child was physically and cognitively able to understand what was being taught; a new stage in development emerged.

During this stage, children pretend to participate in the adult world in which they cannot be directly involved. This kind of play – role play and make believe – is socially necessary (children must be occupied, and they must understand concepts such as safety and co-operation in order to participate in the complex survival activities which have emerged). As a consequence, it is social in nature: play which develops the child's sense of interpersonal relationships.

If a synthesis between the two strands of thought is attempted, the benefits of play can be summarised as "preparation", i.e. introduction to the prerequisites of learning to survive in the contemporary world. These include technical skill (motor control and object manipulation), concept formation (object recognition, identification of and working toward goals), and interpersonal activity (turn taking, role recognition and interdependent co-operation).

However, according to Lillard et al (2013), pretend play has little impact on interpersonal skills but significant positive effects on development of language, narrative and emotion regulation, on reasoning, and on creativity, intelligence, conservation and mindfulness. The authors are careful to note that the personal and environmental characteristics in which the play occurs are likely to be the true causes of the positive effect, and it is easy to imagine pretend play with indifferent partners in a dysfunctional environment being a form of pure escapism rather than constructive development.

The comparison to parents involves more than just methodology. If childcare is increasingly a specialised professional function rather than the sole purview of parents, as suggested by Fonagy (2005: 125-126), it must be acknowledged that parents and childcare professionals need some awareness of early learning theory and practice, and vice versa. It is necessary for teachers and other professionals to adopt the "learning through play" paradigm practice by parents, since there is no guarantee that parents will have had the time to complete this stage of their children's development.

All of this indicates the sort of strategies which are ideal for maximising the benefits of play in the classroom. The desired outcome is development in language, reasoning and creativity. The desired activity is one which develops co-operation, concept formation and physical skill (since not all play can apparently be relied upon to develop these). The desired environment is one in which all participants in play – adults and children – are engaged and in which play is seen as functional and purposeful. It remains to identify and discuss examples of practice in these terms.

Wood and Atfield (2005) present a series of strategic points for developing a pedagogy of play. Some are more specialised than others (any competent teacher should be observing in a specific and targeted manner, for instance) but some require a reassessment of the core processes instilled during teacher training. For instance, they emphasise sharing intentions rather than developing elaborate plans. Young children's agendas and interests change; play themes are discarded or retained 'early' or 'late' in a manner which can strike adults as arbitrary. There should be a planned outcome, but it should not be introduced in a forced way which disengages the children from play (Wood and Atfield, 2005: 160).

Wood and Atfield (2005: 165) also advise teachers to listen in different ways, since 'the meanings that children construct are not always immediately visible to adults'. Children negotiate the layers of reality in pretend play with a fluency that surprises many professionals, stepping in and out of character in order to structure, define, negotiate and direct the shared fantasy. This should not be seen as an undesired outcome or a failure to achieve – "breaking character", as a drama teacher might see it – but as a demonstration of social skills and reasoning, as well as a different kind of discipline in creativity.

The third lesson to take from Wood and Atfield (2005: 170) is the management of disputes and anti-social behaviours. Actively disrupting the play in progress disengages the children, and pretend play often engages with problematic ideas relating to strength and weakness, good and evil, justice and injustice, belonging and rejecting, and so on. Discriminatory and abusive comments can occur legitimately within a play context; likewise, it is easy for the patterns of teacher intervention to perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes (for instance, intervening in the noisy play of boys more than the quiet play of girls, thus leaving the stereotypes more free to take root with the girls).

Wood and Atfield's proposed solution (2005: 171) is to discuss the content of the play and the children's feelings toward it parallel to play, explaining the realities of the play's context without disturbing it as it happens. This exemplifies the practice of scaffolding, derived from the work of Vygotsky and defined by van der Stuyf (2002: 2) as instruction in which a more knowledgeable other provides supports to facilitate a learner's development. The scaffolds facilitate the learner's ability to build on prior knowledge and internalise new information, through activities which are just beyond the levels of what the learner can do alone.

In this case the scaffolding accepts that children are capable of role playing by the time they enter the education system but that thinking through the consequences and contexts is beyond their capability. Such a position is supported by Kavanaugh (2014: 274), who claims that role-play is an exercise in perspective-taking which by definition forces children to appreciate what someone else is doing and why they are doing it. 'Without an understanding of the play partner's view of the world the role play episodes cease to be productive', Kavanaugh (2014: 274) writes, and from an appreciation of a partner's point of view it is possible to build awareness of the points of view of others: 'a profoundly important step in children's understanding of the role of thoughts, beliefs and emotions in everyday life.'

However, it is important not to make assumptions regarding the ability of all children to participate in play of any sorts. Continuing with the example of pretend play, it must be noted that some children do not display the expected facility to play roles and make believe. This can be due to background factors, such as a domestic environment characterised by parental indifference to pretend play (Fleer, 2010: 102) or a cultural background which does not prioritise pretending or tolerate it at all (Fonagy, 2005: 125), or by learning difficulties which prevent play on a more fundamental level.

As Wood and Albright (2005: 171) note, children with special educational needs often take smaller steps in learning and playing, and need more time to build their skills and confidence. For example, children with autistic spectrum disorders encounter barriers which Soule (2015: 10) characterises as play-specific and play-external. Play-specific barriers are differences in skill development which prevent children with ASD from practical participation, while play-external barriers are situations where there is no practical factor preventing children with ASD from participating. Play-specific barriers include variety and purpose of object manipulation, struggles with symbolic thought and interpretations of the unwritten rules of pretend play (Soule, 2015: 11-12). Play-external barriers include the social initiation skills necessary to start or enter a play interaction, attention span to sustain it and skills in sensory and emotional regulation in order to participate without becoming dysregulated and experiencing a negative outcome (Soule, 2015: 13-14).

Lack of access to play is arguably definitive of the autistic experience (Soule, 2015: 14), and yet access to play helps to develop the skills necessary to overcome these barriers. It is therefore important to develop an inclusive play-as-education practice which breaks this cycle and scaffolds children with ASD into groups with neurotypical children. Freeman, Gulsrud and Kasari (2015: 2259) identify several benefits to inclusive play groups and friendships between children with and without ASD, including higher closeness and lower conflict between peers (i.e. elimination of behavioural difficulties) and greater helpfulness displayed by all parties (i.e. more developed co-operation skills and awareness and mindfulness of difference). The early development of these skills may play a role in children's later friendship development and quality of relationships. It is therefore suggested that the 'managerial intervention' (Wood and Atfield, 2005: 169) by teachers in play involving children with ASD should involve managing these barriers, establishing activities and contexts and helping children with ASD to negotiate the social initiation and manage their sensory input without directing their participation in play.

Before concluding, it must be observed that while the examples presented in this project have focused on pretend play (with an implicit humanities/arts context), play has a place in learning and development for the sciences too. In this field it is often asserted that science concept learning should be addressed in the later years of schooling, with the result being a lack of emphasis on science teaching and learning in the early years (Blake and Howitt, 2012: 281). Blake and Howitt (2012: 281) suggest building on the instinctive knowledge acquisition of children, using sensory observation to develop classification, explanation and prediction – the core skills of the scientist. These skills should be built through dedicated unstructured play time, resources and adequate space to enhance logical thinking and science learning, and a significant adult to assist conceptual understanding.

The role of this adult 'should acknowledge an awareness of the everyday nature of science and the potential of every child to be a scientist', which is the ultimate spirit in which play should be deployed in education. The play should be seen as everyday, a normal activity for children to engage in, and an opportunity to develop everyday skills in an organic and unforced context. The potential of every child to engage in and develop through play should be recognised, and the initiative of children who initiate and engineer opportunities for play should be rewarded rather than restricted. Children play. The wisest practitioners in early years education let them get on with it, while keeping one eye out for the learning opportunities that are generated through the play as it takes place.

Works Cited

Blake, E. and Howitt, C. (2012). 'Science in Early Learning Centres: Satisfying Curiosity, Guided Play or Lost Opportunities?' in Chwee, K.; Tan, D. and Mijung, K. (eds.) Issues and Challenges in Science Education Research. Springer Netherlands. pp. 281-299.

Elkonin, D. B. (2005). 'The Psychology of Play', trans. Stone, L. R., in Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(1), pp. 11 – 21.

Fleer, M. (2010). Early Learning and Development: Cultural-historical Concepts in Play. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freeman, S. F. N.; Gulsrud, A.; Kasari, C. (2015). 'Linking Early Joint Attention and Play Abilities to Later Reports of Friendships for Children with ASD'. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(7), pp. 2259 – 2266.

Fonagy, P. (2005). 'Patterns of attachment, interpersonal relationships and health', in Blane, D., Brunner, E. and Wilkinson, R. (eds.), Health and Social Organisation: Towards a Health Policy for the 21st Century. New York: Routledge. pp. 125 – 152.

Lillard, A. S; Lerner, M. D.; Hopkins, E. J.; Dore, R. A.; Smith, E. D.; Palmquist, C. M. (2013). 'The impact of pretend play on children's development', in Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), pp. 1 – 34.

Kavanaugh, R. D. (2014). 'Pretend Play', in Spodek, B. and Saracho, O. N. (eds.), Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children. New York: Routledge. pp. 269 – 279.

Power, T. G. and Parke, R. D. (1982). 'Play as a Context for Early Learning', in Laosa, L. M. (ed.), Families as Learning Environments for Children. New York: Plenum Press. pp. 147 – 178.

Soule, S. E. (2015). Autism, play, and language output. Diss. San Francisco State University.

Van der Stuyf, R. R. (2002). 'Scaffolding as a Teaching Strategy.' Adolescent Learning and Development. Section 0500A, Fall 2002.

Wood, E. and Atfield, J. (2005). Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum. London: SAGE.