Educational Function Of Children’s Play Research Paper

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Until recently, many writers have considered children’s play to be a trivial and inconsequential activity; they have also disagreed on its definition. Today, however, social scientists and educators appear voracious in their study of children’s play. To many researchers, play is viewed as a generative force in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development (see Rubin et al. 1983). The developmental and educational significance of play in childhood is discussed herein.

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1. Classical Theories Of Play

Contemporary research on the topic of children’s play draws heavily from early theoretical accounts about the functional significance of the phenomenon. The ‘surplus energy’ theory characterized play as ‘blowing off steam’. Schiller, an eighteenth-century philosopher defined play as the aimless expenditure of exuberant energy. He wrote that work satisfied the primary needs of the human species. Once these needs were met, the superfluous energy that remained resulted in play. Because children were not responsible for their own survival, they were thought to have a total energy ‘surplus,’ which was depleted through play. Schiller raised a number of contemporary issues in his writings. First, he considered play a symbolic activity through which the participant could transform and transcend reality and thereby gain new symbolic representations of the world. Second, he distinguished between forms of play—material superfluidity resulted in physical play, esthetic superfluidity culminated in dramatic– symbolic play. Collectively, these notions reappear in the later writings of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Buhler.

According to the relaxation theorists such as Lazarus, the purpose of play was to restore energy expended in work. Thus, labor was viewed as energy consuming, resulting in an energy deficit. This deficit could be replenished through rest or sleep, or by engaging in play.

Subsequently recapitulation theorists posited that cultural epochs were repeated sequentially in children’s play; the animal stage (children’s climbing and swinging); the savage stage (hunting, tag, hide-and-go-seek); the nomad stage (keeping pets); the agricultural–patriarchal stage (playing with dolls, digging in sand); and the tribal stage (team games). They also believed that play served as an outlet for the catharsis or release of unnecessary, primitive racial instincts, thereby preparing individuals for the intellectually advanced activities of the modern era. For example, Patrick suggested that contemporary occupations required abstract reasoning, concentrated attention, and coordinated eye-hand activities, all of which were presumed to be relatively recent evolutionary acquisitions. Because this worked tapped recently acquired skills, it was more taxing than physical labor. As such, relief from fatigue could be gained through play, or the practice of ‘racially old’ activities (e.g., hunting, fishing).

According to pre-exercise or practice theorists such as Groos, the period of childhood existed so that the organism could play. Humankind’s relatively long period of immaturity was considered necessary to allow for children to practice the instinctively-based complex skills that would be essential for survival in adulthood. Thus, the adaptive function of play was to prepare children to perfect skills that they would require in adulthood.

Of further interest, Groos noted that children’s play comprised ‘don’t have to’ activities—while playing, children are more interested in the processes rather than the products of the behavior. In this regard, recent speculations concerned with effectance motivation can be traced back to Groos’ writings.

Importantly, Groos noted that children’s play changed with development. First, there was experimental play, which included sensory and motor practice activities. Such play evolved into constructive play and the practice of higher mental powers. The purpose of such activity was to aid in the development of self-control. Second, there was socionomic play, which included fighting and chasing, as well as imitative, social and family games (dramatic play). This form of play was thought to aid in the development of personal relationships.

Despite obvious limitations, not the least of which are limited supportive, empirical bases, these early theories continue to have an impact on how many people think about play today. For example, parents and teachers are often heard to express reservations about poor weather conditions that might keep children indoors all day. The traditionally held belief is that such restriction constrains the expenditure of surplus energy.

2. Modern Theories Of Play

Several common themes run across modern twentieth-century interpretations of children’s play. These include the belief that: (a) children need to play in order to express themselves or to relieve themselves of anxieties and fears; and (b) play both causes and reflects developments in social, cognitive, and linguistic prowess.

2.1 Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud (1961) believed that play provided children with important avenues for the expression of wish fulfillment and the mastery of traumatic events. He argued that play allowed the child to transcend the rigid sanctions of reality thereby serving as a safe context within which the child could vent socially unacceptable impulses. Freud addressed the mastery aspect of play through the repetition compulsion, a psychic mechanism that allows individuals to cope with traumatic events through a compulsive repetition of components of the disturbing events. Children were thought to use play to become active masters of situations in which they were once passive victims. For example, if her mother, for not tidying up her room, scolded a young child, the child may re-enact the scene numerous times with a doll, casting herself in the role of angry mother. More recently, psychoanalytic theorists have expanded on Freud’s conceptualizations of play. For example, with regard to wish fulfillment, Peller noted that children’s choices of roles are often based on feelings of love, admiration, fear, or anger for a particular person. Such roles allow children to fulfill the wish to be like certain others. With regard to mastery, Erikson believed play served to allow the child to integrate biological and social spheres of functioning. Through play, children create model situations in which aspects of the past are re-lived, the present represented and renewed, and the future anticipated.

2.2 Piaget

Piaget (1962) suggested that play represented the purest form of assimilation. In assimilation, children incorporate events, objects, or situations into existing ways of thinking. Thus, as ‘pure assimilation,’ play was not considered an avenue to cognitive growth, but rather as a reflection of the child’s present level of cognitive development.

Borrowing largely from Karl Buhler and Spencer, Piaget described three stages in the development of play. Practice play first appeared in infancy, consisting of sensorimotor actions (e.g., clapping hands). Through this ‘functional exercise,’ Piaget believed that children acquired and honed the basic motor skills inherent in their everyday activities. Symbolic play, appearing around the second year, required an implied representation of absent objects (e.g., pretending to bake a cake while in the sand box). In contrast with practice play, where actions were exercised and elaborated for their functional value, symbolic play allowed the exercise of actions for their representational value. Games-with-rules was the last structural category to develop; this type of play activity necessarily incorporated social coordination and a basic understanding of social relationships.

2.3 Vygotsky

Like Piaget, Vygotsky (1967) framed play within a larger psychological theory of children’s cognition. Vygotsky argued that children used symbolic play as an essential link in the association of abstract meanings and their associated concrete objects. Symbolic play was useful in allowing children to conceive of meanings independently of the objects that they may represent. Thus, unlike Piaget, Vygotsky argued that play was not a reflection of egocentrism, but rather a symbolic process that brings into being the mediating role of signs. For example, when children first begin to use words, the word is perceived as a property of the object rather than as a sign denoting the object. The child grasps the external structure of the word–object relation earlier than the internal structure of the signreferent relationship. The fusion of word with object follows the more general fusion of action and object. In infancy, the child relates to things as ‘objects of action.’ For higher mental processes to develop, things must become ‘objects of thought’ and practical actions must become mental representations (e.g., volitional choice). Play precipitates this emancipation of meaning from object to action. The central event responsible for the emancipation is the use of one object (e.g., a stick) to substitute for another (a real space ship), or the use of one action (a jump) to denote another (a space launch). To Vygotsky, movement in the field of meaning is the predominant feature of play.

2.4 Other Modern Theories

Drive modulation theorists proposed that excessively high and excessively low levels of stimulation are aversive; play is used as a means of modulating the arousal associated with this aversion. For example, when confronted with a novel object, specific exploration allowed the child to explore its features and relieve arousal through increasing familiarity with the object. Following specific exploration, an optimal level of arousal is sought through diverse exploration, or stimulus-seeking activity. This latter form of exploration, or play, increases stimulation when we are ‘bored’ and continues until arousal reaches an optimal level. Thus, play is viewed as a stimulus-producing activity that is generated by low levels of arousal.

Recent theoretical accounts have emphasized the role of play, particularly pretense, in the development of children’s theory of mind (e.g., Lillard 1998), including the provision of opportunities to build and expand mental representations. Further, educational thinkers have posited that creativity and flexibility is promoted by children’s play (e.g., Bruner 1972). Accordingly, play allows the exploration of new combinations of behaviors and ideas within a psychologically safe milieu. Through play, children develop behavioral ‘prototypes’ that may be used subsequently in more ‘serious’ contexts. For example, a young child may button and unbutton her doll’s dress many times, and thereafter incorporate her accomplishments from this play session when dressing herself. As such, the means become more important than the ends, and since accomplishing goals is not important in play, children are free to experiment with new and unusual combinations of behavior.

Finally, linguists have proposed ways in which play may help children perfect newly acquired language skills and increase conscious awareness of linguistic rules. Play provides a superior context within which children may gain valuable language practice as they experiment with the meaning, the structure, and the function of language (Davidson 1996). Play conversations also work to improve communication skills. These skills, in turn, are important components of many developmental acquisitions attained during childhood, particularly narrative representation, social cognition, intersubjectivity, and fantasy play. Goncu (1993), for example, has suggested that the improvisational processes typical of social pretend play are critical to the development of intersubjectivity (i.e., the development of a mutual understanding between play participants). These processes prepare children for an ever increasingly complex social life within which a variety of interactional contexts exist that range from the more ritualized and structured to the more improvisational. Within each of these interactional contexts, however, are elements of both improvisation and social structure (Sawyer 1997). Thus, among the unique properties of children’s peer play are its framed and improvisational nature, each which the child must master.

3. Issues In Defining Play

It is one thing to think about why play exists in the human repertoire; it is something else altogether to define it. Following from Rubin et al. (1983), the following characteristics, when taken together, define play.

(a) Play is not governed by appetitive drives, compliance with social demands, or by inducements external to the behavior itself; instead play is intrinsically motivated.

(b) Play is spontaneous, free from external sanctions, and its goals are self-imposed.

(c) Play asks ‘What can I do with this object or person?’ This question differentiates play from exploration, which asks ‘What is this object (or person) and what I do with it (him or her)?’

(d ) Play is not a serious rendition of an activity or a behavior it resembles; instead it consists of activities that can be labeled as pretense

(e) Play is free from externally imposed rules—this characteristic distinguishes play from games-withrules.

( f ) Play involves active engagement—this distinguishes play from daydreaming, lounging, and aimless loafing.

4. Developmental Progressions In Children’s Play

Between the periods of infancy and middle childhood, children’s play undergoes an evolution in both form and content. These progressions are reviewed briefly below.

4.1 Infant And Toddler Play

By the end of the first year, infants begin to demonstrate rapid growth in representational thinking. Decontextualized behavior, which is first demonstrated in the first year, involves the ‘out of context’ production of familiar behavior. For example, the infant may close her eyes, put her head on a pillow, and lie in a curled position at a time of day (e.g., midmorning), and in a context (e.g., playground) that is detached from the situational context when and where sleeping or napping occurs. By the middle of the second year, the toddler coordinates the use of several objects in his or her demonstrations of decontextualized behavior (e.g., a ‘Teddy Bear’ is fed from an empty cup).

This latter use of objects in pretense captures the essence of the second developmental component of play, self-other relationships. When pretense appears at about 12 months, it is centered around the child’s own body (e.g., the child feeds herself). Roughly between 15 and 21 months, play becomes other referenced; however, the ‘other’ is typically an inanimate object, as in the ‘Teddy Bear’ example noted above. Moreover, during this period, when others are involved in pretense activities, they are passive recipients of the child’s behavior. Beyond 20 months, and increasingly so up to about 30 months, the child gains the ability to ‘step out’ of the play situation and to manipulate the ‘other’ as if it were an active agent (e.g., the Teddy Bear ‘feeds’ a doll with a plastic spoon). The developmental significance of these accomplishments should not be easily underestimated. Advances in maturity of play reflect the young child’s increasing ability to symbolically represent things, actions, roles, and relationships.

A third component of play is the use of substitute objects. The ability to identify one object with another (e.g., a stick is used as a laser gun) is paradigmatic of symbolic representation. The fourth component of play is the coordination and sequencing of pretense. Between the ages of 12 and 20 months, toddlers’ pretend acts become increasingly coordinated into meaningful sequences. At first, the child produces a single pretend gesture (drinking from a plastic cup); later, the child relates, in succession, the same act to the self and then to others (drinks from the cup, feeds the Teddy Bear from the cup). Subsequently, in a multi-scheme combination, the young child is able to coordinate different sequential acts (pours tea, feeds the Teddy Bear, puts bear to sleep). By the end of the second year, children indicate verbally that these coordinated sequences are planned prior to execution (child self-verbalizes sequence of pretense behavior prior to acting).

4.2 The Play Of Preschoolers And Elementary School-Age Children

The above noted constituents of play are mastered prior to or near the child’s second birthday. These elements of play become increasingly shared with others as children mature. But why is shared or social pretense important? As noted above, there are several functions of sociodramatic play. Such play creates a context for mastering the communication of meaning. It provides opportunities for children to learn to control and compromise; these opportunities arise during discussions and negotiations concerning pretend roles and scripts and the rules guiding the pretend episodes. Also, social pretense allows for a ‘safe’ context within which children can explore and discuss issues of intimacy and trust.

By 36 months, children are generally able to communicate pretend scripts to adults and peers; by five years, they can discuss, assign, and enact play themes while continuing to add novel components. By the middle years of childhood, social pretend becomes a venue for self-disclosure and the sharing of confidences especially among close friends.

5. Correlates And Outcomes Of Play

5.1 Play And Cognitive Development

Children (three-to five-year-olds) who engage frequently in sociodramatic and constructive play tend to perform better on tests of intelligence than their agemates who are more inclined to play in a sensorimotor fashion. Interestingly, children who frequently play in a constructive fashion (e.g., building things; constructing puzzles) are likely to be proficient at solving convergent problems (problems with a single solution). Those who frequently play in a dramatic fashion are likely to be proficient at solving divergent problems (problems with multiple solutions).

5.2 Play And Social Development

Because successful participation in social pretense requires many of the skills theorized to be associated with the achievement of competent peer relationships, this type of play is viewed as a marker of social competence from toddlerhood to the middle and late childhood years. Preschoolers who frequently engage in sociodramatic play are more socially skilled than their age-mates who infrequently engage in such activity. Moreover, results from various training studies indicate that instruction in sociodramatic play is associated with increases in cooperation, social participation, and role-taking skills (see Rubin et al. 1983 for a review).

5.3 Play And Language Development

The mechanisms by which play may aid in the development of linguistic competencies are straightforward. Children frequently play with the different forms and rules of language. This play may take the form of repeating strings of nonsense syllables (phonology), substituting words of the same grammatical category (syntax), or intentionally distorting meaning through nonsense and jokes (semantics). As a result, language play may help children perfect newly acquired language skills and increase conscious awareness of linguistic rules, as well as provide a superior context in which the child may gain valuable language practice.

Generally speaking, particular phases in the development of symbolic play and language tend to cooccur. For example, sociodramatic play appears to be an important factor in the development of oral language development and vocabulary, story production, story comprehension, communication of meaning, and the early development of literacy (Davidson 1996, Shore 1995). Indeed, it has been reported that training children to engage in pretense with others improves their language skills, literacy development, and mathematical thinking (see Fromberg and Bergen 1998 for relevant reviews).

6. Summary And Conclusions

It is clear that play is a developmental phenomenon of significant proportion. Not only does it seem to provide a window into the child’s cognitive and socioemotional being, but it also appears to be a propelling force for the development of cognitive, language, and socio–emotional skills. Thus, play should be considered an informal, enjoyable, and relatively stress-free means of providing children with intellectual and social stimulation.


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