Play is a universal phenomenon and serves both natural and biological functions. Through play, children learn about the ever-changing world (Elkind, 2003). Teachers and families often view the value of play in different ways. Early childhood teachers say that “play is a child’s work” while some parents ask, “Did my child just play all day?” Play is sometimes seen as the opposite of teacher-directed and organized activities. The different descriptions of the value and purposes of play add to the dilemma of what and how classroom teachers can support learning and development for young children by providing carefully planned and supervised experiences. This article will explain the importance of the teacher’s role in supporting play in the early childhood classroom.
Why does play belong in early childhood classrooms?
Play is critical for healthy development and learning.
Much has been written about the cognitive, social, emotional, and language benefits of play, as well as the types and stages of play that take place in early childhood classrooms. Both the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recognize and uphold the need for play as an essential part of early childhood education (Bredekamp & Copple, 2009). The theories of Piaget (cognitive and physical development) and Vygotsky (socio-cultural experiences) describe play for children as optimal learning times (Elkind, 2004). Brain research also supports the importance of play during the critical periods of brain growth during the preschool years (Healy, 2004). Language supports symbolic thought in the play setting and is seen as a vehicle for the development of self-regulation, cognition, and social competence (Bredecamp & Copple, 2009).
What are some of the defining characteristics of play?
When children play, they have active engagement with materials. They are intrinsically motivated and have freedom from external rules. Play allows children to be attentive to the process at hand, and children display a positive affect when playing (Nell & Drew, 2013). Children begin to think symbolically when they play. For example, using a block and pretending it is a telephone, or pretending a pegboard with pegs is a birthday cake.
What is important when designing environments that promote play?
Teachers should begin by providing opportunities for children to have spontaneous, unstructured child-initiated play experiences. With this in mind, the classroom design must also be conducive to play. Children need a large enough area for playing with two or more peers in an area where they will not be interrupted. When creating interest areas in the classroom, careful attention should be paid to the size of the space for both the dramatic play area and the block area, as these interest areas are frequented by children. The teacher must also provide stimulating materials to enhance and entice children into play. Materials should include loose parts that are open-ended and empower creativity by providing children opportunities to think, plan, and carry out their play. The consistent organization of materials in the space is important so children can be purposeful in selecting and placing materials back when they are finished. With organized materials on shelves and in bins, children can clearly see their choices for the day. Accessories (e.g., play people, animals, transportation vehicles, play food) are important in interest areas such as the dramatic play center and block center because they aid engagement and creativity (Bodrova & Leong, 2007). Children also need freedom to explore the play environment and the materials in a way that interests them, providing a sense of wonder and encouraging creativity.
Large blocks of time (45-60 minutes) in the daily schedule must also be allocated for play so children may develop play scenarios, get organized, and then execute their plan. The daily schedules in preschool classrooms that focus on academics and kindergarten readiness often do not provide an opportunity for exploring meaningful and relevant activities (Nell & Drew, 2013). When children are told frequently “to select another center” or “it is time to move on to something else,” they are not allowed to engage with the materials long enough to develop problem solving skills that require persistence and engagement. Providing diversity in the types of play materials and changing the props frequently to relate to children’s real life interests and experiences is a key task for teachers. Teachers must also realize that children will often find their own space for play. For example, children may place materials on top of a low shelf, turn a box over or use a chair – expanding their play space beyond the table and floor.
What is the role of the teacher in play?
The benefits of play are maximized when teachers facilitate play, as limited learning may take place otherwise. Teacher support is also seen as a necessary component of developmentally appropriate practice. Teacher interventions during play take on many possibilities from assisting with problem solving, questioning, redirecting undesired behaviors, and enticing children into play themes. Teachers must also teach play skills to children who have difficulty entering into a play scenario.
Curriculum content for young children is often presented and/or reinforced in the context of play as teachers introduce play themes, provide materials, and help children expand on their ideas. By helping children when planning roles, encouraging children to talk to peers, posing open ended questions, and becoming involved in play, the teacher extends and enhances learning. For example, one role of the teacher is developing an understanding of the specific skills and knowledge children need to develop. Once the children’s play begins, facilitating social interactions as well as assisting children in joining play is a role the teacher will fill. The teacher can also narrate children’s actions as the play scenario unfolds. By being present and on the child’s eye level during play, teacher interactions increase the frequency, duration, and complexity of children’s play, with increased levels of linguistic and cognitive competence (McAfee & Leong, 2010).
When planning for children’s play, teachers can determine specific goals and outcomes they want the child to achieve during play. Teachers should also individualize for children, keeping in mind their current level of cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and language development. For example, the teacher may have the goal of increasing the amount of expressive language a child uses throughout the day. The teacher might invite the child to the dramatic play area with another child who is very verbal and engages easy in play scenarios. The teacher also might provide scaffolding to support children’s learning and development by asking, “Why does the baby need to go to the doctor?” or “How do you think the doctor can help the baby?” This not only provides the child with an opportunity to use expressive language but also provides an opportunity for the child to think and formulate an answer.
Effective teachers build their curriculum upon what the children already know. They offer play experiences in areas where children are familiar with and have prior knowledge and experience. If a child has not had experience with a particular play scenario, he will not be able to expand on the role during fantasy play. Take for example an “Office Prop Box” placed in the dramatic play center one Monday morning. The prop box included many typical things that an office would contain – a keyboard, telephone, calculator, notepads, staple, tape dispenser, paper clips, etc. By Tuesday, the teacher noticed that no one was using the materials for more than a few minutes and the children’s involvement was fleeting. Soon the teacher came to the realization that they had no “real life” experiences to base their role play on as they had never been to an “office.” When the prop box was changed on Thursday to a “Pizza Palace,” children were quickly involved in assuming the roles of a waitress, cook, busboy, and customer. It was obvious this was a real life play scenario they had experienced. Children often will act out themes they are familiar with such as family roles, doctor, school, fast food restaurants, and shopping for food and clothes. When a child puts on a raincoat and a firefighter hat and rushes to rescue his teddy bear from the pretend flames in the playhouse, he is practicing what he already knows about firefighters.
Play and learning should be integrated throughout the day. The facilitation will be the most effective if complemented by a carefully planned classroom environment. The teacher works to minimize conflict and confusion so that children have consistent time and space for play. Children need to be seen as competent individuals who, when given teacher support and interactions with other children, are able to construct knowledge in play settings. Play becomes a springboard for investigating play materials, art materials, the ideas of peers, and the world beyond the classroom. This approach to curriculum focuses on the development of the whole child, with content presented in meaningful contexts. For example, your classroom might visit a train museum and instead of focusing on all of the parts of the train (which leads to rote memorization), the teacher might facilitate the focus on the roles of the people who would work on and ride the train: the conductor, engineer, stoker, café attendant, and the passengers. In this way, children’s play becomes a catalyst for optimal growth and development and more complex play than just focusing on props (Elkind, 2004).
Teachers must be intentional in their planning for play. This includes using their knowledge of growth and development to determine what is age and stage appropriate, individually appropriate, and culturally appropriate for each child in the classroom. Play serves several functions in contributing to children’s social and emotional development when they assume new roles that require new social skills and take the perspectives of their peers. They negotiate roles, share space and materials, express different points of view, resolve disputes, and persuade their peers to assume certain roles (Kostelnik, Whiren, Soderman, & Gregory, 2007). Children are also given the opportunity to work out feelings, emotions, and fears they are unable to address or acknowledge overtly.
What is competing with play?
Technology is a main competitor of play in children’s lives today (Carlsson-Paige, 2008). Children spend an average of 2 hours per day using computers, iPads, and iPhones, and watching television. One of the problems with “screen time” is that it is a symbolic representation of the real world and not direct experience with people and materials. The more time children are watching screens, the less opportunities they have for play and interaction with nurturing adults – both of which are critical to healthy development and learning. Research also indicates this screen time has a negative impact on attention and self regulation for young children (TRUCE, 2012). Academic expectations have been pushed down and early acquisition of skills and content knowledge have left little room for play in the early childhood classroom. Many classrooms have replaced play with structured, teacher-directed activities leaving little time to nurture children’s exploration and creativity. Structured and competitive group sports have taken the place of playing with neighborhood peers, and children are joining teams as early as age three. Realistic toys and props that do not allow children to use their imagination and be creative have lined the shelves of stores leaving little room for open ended and creative materials.
What are the implications for the early childhood classroom?
There has been a decline in children’s creativity since 1990, especially in younger children (Carlsson-Paige, 2008). We also know that other research indicates teachers believe play is an important part of their curriculum, yet they often fail to plan for play experiences and rely on their instincts in lieu of specific goals and objectives for play (Bodrova & Leong, 2004).
We know that play is a dominant activity from birth through adolescence and that it is a child’s way of understanding their world. Play allows children to make important discoveries, including what they like and what they do not like. Play is deeply satisfying to young children. We also know that children do not separate play and learning. Although research supports the value of play in the classroom, the jump has yet to be made from theory to practice. Rote and drill activities have replaced providing time for children to construct knowledge and understanding in order for children to arrive at the correct answer. Many opportunities are lost in early childhood classrooms every day because the contributions of play to children’s learning and development are ignored or underestimated. By depriving children of play opportunities, we are also depriving the opportunity to learn critical social skills and develop flexibility and strength to cope with difficult situations.
What needs to be changed?
Teachers must embrace and learn to use play as a valuable tool for children’s learning. The critical role of the teacher during play must include facilitation, engagement, and appropriate individualization for each child’s developmental level.Planning for play must be intentional. Teachers must focus on creating opportunities for higher level thinking by incorporating time, space and materials for play.
Teachers, administrators, and families need to appreciate the essential function of play in every child’s development. By securing a prominent place in their curriculum planning for play, teachers will encourage fellow colleagues and administrators to support their efforts. Lastly, they must work to educate parents on the value of play, building parent understanding and support for play in the curriculum.
Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. (2004). Chopsticks and counting chips: Do play and foundational skills need to compete for the teacher’s attention in an early childhood classroom? Spotlight on young children and play, 4-11. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Bodrova E., & Leong, D. (2007). Tools of the mind: The vygotskian approach to early childhood education (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/ Prentice Hall.
BredeKamp, S. & Copple, C. (Eds.) (2009). Developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood education programs. Washington, DC: NAEYC
Carlsson-Paige, N. (2008). Taking back childhood; Helping your kids thrive in a fast-paced, media-saturated, violence-filled world. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
Elkind, D. (2004). Thanks for the memory: The lasting value of true play. Spotlight on young children and play. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
Healy, J. (2004). Your child’s growing mind: Brain development and learning from birth to adolescence. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Kostelnik, M., Whiren, A., Soderman, A., & Gregory, K. (2009). Guiding children’s social development and learning (6th ed.). Clifton Park, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning.
McAfee & Leong, D. (2010). Assessing and guiding young children’s development and learning (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Nell, M., & Drew, W. (2013). From play to practice: Connecting teachers play to children’s learning. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
TRUCE – Teachers resisting unhealthy children’s entertainment. www.truceteachers.org (2012)