Jay plays with blocks and builds a castle. Neha and Pinky play fire station and pretend to be fire fighters. Swati and Shreya play catch with a ball. Children playact with playmates in the playhouse. Playgroups on the playground choose players to play ball. As an early childhood educator, you probably use the word play a hundred times per day.
Research tell that children learn best in an environment which allows them to explore, discover, and play. Play is an imperative part of a developmentally appropriate child care program. It is also closely attached to the development of cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical behaviors. But what exactly does it imply to play and why is play so important for little children?
What Is Play?
Although it is simple to gather a list of play activities, it is much more hard to define play. Scales, et al., (1991) called play "that engrossing activity in which healthy young children participate with keenness and abandon" (p. 15). Csikszentmihalyi (1981) described play as "a subset of life..., an arrangement in which one can carry out behavior without dreading its consequences" (p. 14). Garvey (1977) gave a useful explanation of play for teachers when she defined play as an action which is: 1) positively valued by the player; 2) self-motivated; 3) freely chosen; 4) engaging; and 5) which "has certain systematic associations to what is not play" (p. 5). These distinctiveness are important for teachers to remember because imposing adult values, requirements, or motivation on children's activities may alter the very nature of play.
According to Webster's Desk Dictionary of the English Language, the word play has 34 different meanings. In terms of young children and play, the following definitions from Webster's are useful:
• light, brisk, or changing movement (e.g., to pretend you're a butterfly)
• to act or imitate the part of a person or character (e.g., to play house)
• to employ a piece of equipment (e.g., to play blocks)
• exercise or activity for amusement or recreation (e.g., to play tag)
• fun or jest, as opposed to seriousness (e.g., to play peek-a-boo or sing a silly song)
• the action of a game (e.g., to play duck-duck-goose)
Why Is Play Important?
As per new curriculum of teacher training courses, play enhances language development, social aptitude, creativity, imagination, and thinking skills. Frost (1992) concurred, stating that "play is the chief vehicle for the development of imagination and intelligence, language, social skills, and perceptual-motor abilities in infants and young children"
Garvey (1977) states that play is most ordinary during childhood when child's awareness of self, grasp of verbal and non-verbal communication, and considerate of the physical and social worlds are increasing considerably.
Fromberg (1990) claims that play is the "vital integrator of individual experience" (p. 223). This means that when children play, they draw upon their past experiences-things they have done, seen others do, read about, or seen on television-and they use these experiences to build games, play scenarios, and employ in activities.
Children use fine and gross motor skills in their play. They respond to each other collectively. They think about what they are doing or going to do. They use language to converse to each other or to themselves and they very often react emotionally to the play movement. The inclusion of these varied types of behaviors is key to the cognitive development of young children. According to Rogers and Sawyer (1988), "until at least the age of nine, children's cognitive structures task best in this combined style" (p. 58). Because children's play draws upon all of these behaviors, it is a very efficient medium for learning.
Parten's Five Types of Play
Play for young children assumes numerous different forms. Mildred Parten (1932) was one of the early researchers studying children at play. She focused on the social connections between children during play activities. Parten's categories of play are not hierarchical. Depending on the circumstances, children may engage in any of the different types of play. Parten does note, however, that in her research with two- to five-year-olds, "involvement in the majority social types of groups occurs most often among the elder children"
• Onlooker behavior—Playing passively by watching or converse with other children occupied in play activities.
• Solitary independent—Playing by oneself.
• Parallel—Playing, even in the center of a group, while remaining absorbed in one's own activity. Children playing parallel to each other sometimes use each other's toys, but always maintain their autonomy.
• Associative—When children share materials and talk to each other, but do not match up play objectives or interests.
• Cooperative—When children arrange themselves into roles with precise goals in mind (e.g., to allocate the roles of doctor, nurse, and patient and play hospital).
How Much Should Children Play?
Indoors and outdoors, children need huge blocks of time for play. According to Christie and Wardle (1992), small play periods may need children to throw out their group dramatization or productive play just when they begin to get involved. When this happens a number of times, children may give up on more refined forms of play and stay for less advanced forms that can be fulfilled in short periods of time. Shorter play periods lessen both the quantity and the maturity of children's play, and many vital benefits of play, such as determination, negotiation, problem-solving, planning, and teamwork are lost. Large blocks of time (30 to 60 minutes, or longer) should be scheduled for indoor and outdoor play periods. Christie and Wardle remind teachers that extra play time does not result in children becoming bored. Instead, it prompts children to become involved in more complex, more productive play activities.
The Teacher's Role
The early childhood teacher is the facilitator of play in the classroom. The teacher facilitates play by providing suitable indoor and outdoor play environment. Safety is, of course, the main concern. Age and developmental levels must be cautiously considered in the design and selection of materials. Guidelines for selecting safe and suitable tools for outdoor play environments are accessible through the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Handbook for Public Playground Safety and the Playground Safety Manual by Jambor and Palmer (1991). Similar guidelines are also available for indoor settings (Torelli & Durrett, 1996; Caples, 1996; Ard & Pitts, 1990). Once appropriate environments and materials are in place, regular safety checks and preservation are needed to ensure that the equipment is sound and safe for continued play.
Teachers also make easy play by working with children to build up rules for safe indoor and outdoor play. argument about the appropriate use of materials, the safe number of participants on each piece of equipment, taking turns, sharing, and cleaning up provides the children with information to begin their play activities. These discussions need to be ongoing because some children may need recurrent reminders about rules and because new situations may arise (e.g., new equipment).
Teacher training institute suggest by providing play materials associated to thematic instruction, early childhood teachers can set up links between the children's indoor and outdoor play and their program's curriculum. Thematic props for dramatic play can be placed in the dramatic play center or stored in prop boxes and taken outside to expand the dramatic play to a new location. An art center in the outdoor play environment may give confidence children to discover the possibilities of using leaves, twigs, pebbles, and sand in their three-dimensional art productions. Painting easels and water tables may also be moved outside occasionally for children's use during outdoor play periods. Finally, a collection of books stored in a wagon to be taken outside during play time may put forward some children a needed option to more vigorous play.
As facilitators of children's play, teachers should closely examine children during play periods not only for evaluation purposes, as stated before, but also to make easy appropriate social interactions and motor behaviors. It is important that children be the decision-makers during play, choosing what and where to play, choosing roles for each player, and choosing how play will proceed. Occasionally, however, some children will need adult assistance in joining a play group, modifying behavior, or negotiating a difference. Careful surveillance will help the teacher to come to a decision when to offer help and what form that assistance should take.
John Cruser is a senior Course coordinator for Early Childhood Education, For Vidhyanidhi Education Society
For Vidhyanidhi Education Society