Play is special. Not only is it fun, but it is very important to children’s development. Play is one of the most important means by which children learn. Through natural activity they create roles that imitate adult behavior. Children think, create, imagine, communicate, make choices, solve problems, take risks, build physical skills and take on a variety of roles as they interact socially. Play is essentially motivating and offers children the freedom to explore an activity tolerant by adult parameters of measured outcomes, testing and accountability. Play supports learning, promotes language and social development and enhances creativity in children and adults. Children who learn healthy play skills feel capable, have successes, make friends and learn non-violent ways to interact with others. Children learn more efficiently and effectively through play than one can imagine. The beauty of this learning and growing time is that the motivation for a young child to do it is already there-it’s enjoyable.
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The Development of Play
The surreptitious method to helping young children succeed, is to keep the spirit of creativity and of playful learning alive and active. Children’s learning is a mixture of their own deep inner force to grow and learn attached with their imitation of the adults in their environment. An important milestone in play, the capacity for make-believe play – also known as fantasy play – occurs at around two and a half or three years of age. Before that, children are more oriented to the real world: their own bodies, simple household objects like pots, pans, and wooden spoons, and simple toys like dolls, trucks, and balls. Toddlers imitate what they see around them; common play themes include cooking, caring for baby, driving cars or trucks, and other everyday events.
These themes continue and develop after age three, but now children are less dependent on real objects and create what they need from anything that is at hand. Their ability to enter into make-believe allows them to transform a simple object into a play prop.
The three-year-old becomes so engaged in make-believe play that objects seem to be in a regular state of transformation. No play episode is ever finished; it is always in the process of becoming something else. The playful three-year-old often leaves a trail of objects as her play evolves from one theme to the next.
In contrast, four-year-olds are generally more stationary and thematic in their play. They like to have a “house” to play in, which might also be a ship or a shop, and many enter the “pack-rat” stage where they fill their houses with objects so that it seems they cannot freely move around. This does not bother them at all, however. Like three-year olds, they are inspired in the moment by the objects before them. They are quite spontaneous in their ideas for play.
The fantasy play of the five-year old is characterized by the ability to have an idea and then play it out rather than being encouraged in the moment by the object at hand as is the case with three and four year olds. Often, five-year olds will say what they want to play as they enter the kindergarten.
There is one more important aspect to the development of make-believe plays that usually does not occur until children are six years old. At this age they will often play out a situation without the use of props. They may build a house but leave it unfurnished, then sit inside it and talk through their play, for now they are able to see the images clearly in their minds’ eyes. This stage can be described as imaginative play, for the children now have the capacity to form a well expressed inner image. In all of these stages of dramatic play children may play alone or with others.
However, the way children engage in social play with others changes over the years. The one year old tends to play alone, while social play of two year-olds is generally called parallel play for young children play side by side without fully interacting with each other. The children enjoy playing with each other, but generally they are not deeply invested in each other. They enjoy playing together when they are in nursery school, but tend to forget about each other when they are apart.
The social play of five and six year olds is different. The doors to deeper social relationships are opening for them. They form friendships and talk about their friends at home. They think about their friends when they are apart. They may want to call them on the phone or visit in their homes.
Rationale for Play
Informal play settings allow children to practice language skills involving vocabulary, syntax and grammar. English language learners particularly benefit from language interactions during play. These language skills later assist with reading, writing and math development.
All the processes involved in plays such as repeating actions, making connections, extending skills, combining materials and taking risks provide the essential electrical impulses to help make connections and interconnections between neural networks, thus extending children’s capabilities as learners, thinkers and communicators.
Physical: Play is an integral part of the growth of a healthy child. lt fosters opportunities to develop large and small motor skills as well as coordination, balance and muscle tone. Active Movement provides an outlet for children to release energy and challenges their developing physical bodies. The ancient Greeks recognised the value of play in the developmental and growth period of childhood. Experts in today’s world of education also believe that play is essential.
Social: Educators know children learn best in situations that are non-threatening, flexible and fun. Self-selected play joins children of like interests in situations where they can engage in self-directed conversations.
Creating opportunities for play can lower stress and help prevent violence by offering safe and acceptable situations for interaction. In the early childhood classroom most students engage in age-appropriate conversation with their peers. Shared interests encourage them to pay attention to others, ask questions, offer help, make suggestions and provide feedback.
Intellectual: Children benefit greatly when they are occupied in interactive play and are free to share their k knowledge with other children. Curriculum is more effective when presented with materials that are open-ended can be easily manipulated. Through spontaneous and creative play with a minimum of teacher intervention children are free to grow and manifest their understanding of concepts.
Emotional: During play children are able to control situations that are not theirs in the real world. By exploring possibilities in play situations, children display confidence and competence as they plan and make decisions. Play provides a place where children can act out feelings about difficult emotional events they may face.
Vygotsky believed that children involved in imaginative play will renounce what they want, and willingly subordinate themselves to rules in order to gain the pleasure of the play. He argues that in play they exercise their greatest self-control. ln a Vygotskian model, if we accept the distinction between ‘play as such’ and ‘play in schools’ we can see that in order for play to be valued it needs to be located securely within the curriculum structure and organizational framework. Clarifying the role of adults in this process is, therefore, essential.
Stages of Play
Play is spontaneous, observables, solitary or parallel, associative, symbolic and cooperative.
Positive unrestricted play can be a joyous activity that reaps many rewards. Children generally play by building on their previous experiences. They may engage in any of the different types of play at any time.
When children are in a healthy environment, they progress through each stage at their own level of development.
- Unoccupied Play. Children learn by observing others without interaction.
- Onlookers. Children focus intently on watching others play. They may engage in conversation but do not otherwise participate.
- Solitary or independent play. Children play by themselves with no interest in what others are doing even if they are physically close.
- Parallel play. Children play alongside others with similar objects such as blocks; however, they do not play with each other but side by side separately.
- Associative play. Children engage in the same play activity without an organised goal. They may share blocks or tools but do not build the same structure.
- Cooperative Play. Children are organised, have a specific goal and have a sense of belonging to a group. It is the beginning of teamwork and doing projects where they work or play together
As play disappears from the background of childhood, we need to recognise that its downfall will have a lasting impact. Decades of persuasive research have shown that without play, children’s physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development is compromised. They will develop without much imagination and creativity. Their capacity for communication will be reduced and their affinity towards aggressiveness and violence will increase. In short, human nature as we have known it will be deeply changed, increasing many of the problems that are already afflicting children and society. If we do not invest in play, we will find ourselves investing much more in prisons and hospitals, as the incidence of physical, and mental illness, as well as aggressive and violent behavior increases.
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