Occupational therapists need no convincing that play is an important part of child development. We also know that if we want to win a child’s cooperation, play is our best ally. However, we seem to be in a world where children are given less and less space and time to play. Recess time is often used for children to catch-up work they did not complete in class and time after school is spent either on homework or on organised sport, leaving little time for imaginative, unstructured play.
Two recent studies, one by the Lego Learning Institute 2002 and another by Fisher-Price Inc. both showed that parents are asking schools to spend more time directly on cognitive tasks, even though 94% of the parents agreed that “time spent playing is time spent learning” [i]. Thus we are seeing children being placed in formal lessons and beginning to formally learn to read and write, when they have not mastered the early foundations that play supports.
How many children are we now seeing who have developed an inefficient, rigid pencil grip because they were expected to do pencil tasks before they had played enough with clay and paper-tearing and the many other little games that develop dexterity and finger strength? In my own practice, I noticed that the children who had the most difficulty learning to read, were the same children who knew few, if any nursery rhymes. What I was seeing in my practice, had also been noted in England in a survey (“Young Children’s Skills on Entry to Education” – Smithers 2003)[ii]. The survey is reported by Golinkoff et al to have noted that four out of five children in their schools were beginning school unable to speak audibly, follow simple instructions, recognise their own names or count to five. Golinkoff et al agree with the assertion that “learning nursery rhymes on a parent or caregiver’s lap has traditionally been seen as an important first step towards literacy and numeracy”.[iii]
In my previous article[iv], I discussed how rhyme and rhythm play such an important role in learning to read. It should come as no surprise that it is also important to a child’s ability to develop the sequencing skills needed for number concept and mathematics.
When I was in primary school, many recess (break) times were spent with about twenty children jumping over a long rope across one corner of the playground. Rhymes were recited, children had to jump in unison, rules were followed (you had to come in at a set time and go out at a set time). Some adult observers might have felt that we were wasting precious learning time while our teachers were having their tea-break. In fact, we were developing our sequencing skills, improving our auditory processing and learning how to accept rules and to be both good winners and good losers (an important social skill). Last but far from least, we were doing physical exercise that not only helped us to keep fit but stimulated our blood supply in readiness for the next bout of cognitive learning after recess. Meaningful, fairly intense physical exercise has many direct physical benefits to prepare a child for cognitive learning. Strong and Flanagan (as described by R Cook) [v] describe how sport reduces stress through either relaxation or by getting rid of pent-up emotions; promotes the transfer of gasses in the lungs; improves immunity (so we can reduce the number of colds we see in our classrooms!) and that it is a “regulator”. A regulator helps the child to reach his (or her) optimal balance between alert and relaxed so that he is best able to learn. Instead of us sitting quietly, and practicing some cognitive task while our teachers had their well-earned tea breaks, we were out there preparing ourselves to be best ready to learn what they were about to teach us after break.
But is it ideal to separate cognitive learning from play? Is play just a way of preparing our minds and brains for the real learning? This has been a matter of much debate over the decades. Before we try to answer that question, we need to look at play and what some cornerstone theories say about it.
In 1932, Mildred B. Parten devised a classification for play[vi]. Parten described the stages through which play develops. She described how play develops from individual, solitary play through to social play. She also noted how children initially are spectators, rather than actively involved in playing. If you watch little babies, toddlers and young children, you will see that Parten’s classification is still applicable today.
Parten’s stages are:
- Unoccupied play – the child watches anything that happens or catches his interest.
- Onlooker Behaviour – at this stage the child is not really playing; but keenly watches others.
- Solitary, Independent Play – The children play apart, with toys. They may be within speaking distance of each other; but show little interest in making contact. When they do make contact, it is more to take a toy which the other child may have, rather than actual interaction.
- Parallel Play – the children play near each other but are not involved in each other’s games. Each child is essentially playing his own game; but in close proximity.
- Associate Play – This is still an egocentric realm of play. The children can share toys; and are beginning to engage with each other. They are not ready for group work but can begin to be encouraged to play in simple group games.
- Cooperative Play – this is the highest stage in Parten’s classification. The children can share, take turns, play games where one child plays one role while another plays another role in the same game (eg: playing teacher and child).
Jean Piaget[vii] developed a theory of cognitive development which has implications for how we teach and the importance of play. He worked for the Binet Institute in the 1920’s to help develop a French version of the intelligence tests. He believed that the wrong answers children gave to questions which required logical thinking were not simply a result of children being less competent than adults in their cognition; but rather that children’s thought processes were different to adults. His research led to his theory of cognitive development, with its four distinct stages:[viii]
- Sensorimotor – the child learns to manipulate objects but does not understand their function
- Preoperational – the child learns to mentally represent people, objects and events that are not present. He also begins to learn language at this stage.
- Concrete-operational – the child can classify objects and events into categories and can manipulate the categories; but is still rooted in the concrete world. This stage appears around school-going age.
- Formal-operational – This is when hypothetical thinking and planning begin to appear. Reasoning of abstract concepts becomes possible. This stage appears from the beginning of adolescence and carries on through adulthood.
Piaget says that we should not try to rush a child from one stage to the next. He believed that each stage subsumes its predecessor and is also still available to us and that, in fact it could be detrimental to a person’s overall development to rush him through any stages.[ix] Thus, an adult who has developed formal-operational cognitive thinking (and therefore abstract and hypothetical thought) is still very much able to think concretely and deal with the simple demands of manipulating concrete objects.
Piaget’s theory of how children develop from one stage to the next should still be one of the torches that light our path as we educate our children. He theorised that we are born with basic schema (“basic building block of knowledge”)vii. Examples would be the grasp reflex, the sucking reflex, the way a baby follows movement, especially his mother. It is through interaction with different scenarios in his world that these schema come to be assimilated. When they no longer work well for a new situation, the scheme needs to be adapted or changed to suit the new demands. When we are in the comfortable state in which our schema (the original ones that we were born with plus the new ones that arose by our having to make adaptations) fit the environmental demands and situations, we are in a state of equilibrium. Piaget theorised that learning occurs when we are faced with the disequilibrium of our schema not fitting a new situation and we are motivated to try to restore our equilibrium.
Learning therefore happens best when there is interaction with the world; a child may take in information by watching or by listening to his teacher but he really learns when he, himself, manipulates and directly interacts with the subject matter because that is when he will experience the disequilibrium that motivates assimilation and adaptation.
Lev Vygotsky also tells us: “What passes unnoticed by the child in real life becomes a rule of behaviour in play.”[x] In his discussion of Sulley’s experiment, where two little sisters chose to play at being sisters, Vygotsky says Sulley points out that when a child is playing at a real life situation (in their example each girl is pretending to be her sister’s sister), she takes conscious notice of things that in real life will pass by without conscious notice. This is something I find very true in learning of early phonics. I have found that children can have reasonable vocabulary and speak with fair grammar, yet have a poor ability to separate out the sounds within words. Separating sounds in words and manipulating them is called elision. In my previous article, I discussed this and pointed out its importance in reading development iv. When the child plays at being an alien or a space-traveller who needs to teach me the way they speak on different planets, he becomes consciously aware of the different sounds. He even takes ownership of letters and their sounds and the rules of the game (how the aliens speak on their planet) can be more easily assimilated. In fact, Vygotsky ascertains that play is the natural space in which language develops because children playing are in constant dialogue, either with themselves or with others. Child Development Media Inc[xi] remind us that if we observe children we will notice that less verbal children often speak more in imaginative play than in other activities. This therefore provides a natural developmental space in which inner speech can be harnessed to support development of other concepts such as number concept and phonics awareness.
Vygotski takes tell us that when a child is at play, he is in his Zone of Proximal Development . This is the functional level very slightly above the level of development that he has already achieved and it is the level in which learning most readily occurs. He says: “ As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behaviour.”x Therefore, we as therapists and teachers can observe the level at which the child is best able to learn by watching him at play; then we can utilize that level of play to mediate his development into the next.
Rogers and Sawyer (1988)[xii] tell us: "until at least the age of nine, children's cognitive structures function best in this unified mode". The unified mode they refer to is play: the unification of gross and fine motor skills, social interaction, language and emotions. In fact, Fromberg (1990) believes that play is the "ultimate integrator of human experience".[xiii]
A clever observation and excellent article by Judy Diamond [xiv] explains how children who are allowed to run and play in museums learn more from their museum experience than those who observe, listen or read the information in the museum. She tells us: “Research on play, however, suggests that the very act of running and jumping through a museum might help make serious learning possible. This can occur by relaxing the learners, by familiarizing them with a variety of stimuli, and sometimes by acquainting them with components that later will be relevant for a task.” She says further: “The construction of personal meaning and the ability to invent new solutions may, in fact, be more important for later learning than the communication of the exhibit’s original message.”
So to the question: “is play separate from learning and just a way of expending energy or preparing a child for the real job of learning?” it would seem that research and highly esteemed theorists have continued to give us the answer: “No. Play is integral to learning”. Methods of teaching which utilise play will have the best efficacy. When I work with children who have reading difficulties and we play at being spacemen, or shooting out of a cannon at the circus, they are able to draw on their imaginations, reduce the stress they have come to associate with learning to read and begin to see words and letters as something that they can manipulate and play with. One little girl taught her peers at school to play the “Alien” game and had them all practicing their phonics at recess time.
Let’s encourage children to play, to use their imaginations, run and skip and recite silly rhymes. When we teach new concepts and skills, let’s try to find ways to incorporate them into the types of games and play that fit the children’s developmental level. That way they will not only take on board what we teach them, they will have their imaginations primed to be able to take the ideas into the future.
SHARON STANSFIELD BSc(OT)
(Author of: “Teach Your Child to Read with Movement, Fun & Games”)
Click HERE to find out more about this unique, effective, easy to use reading program. Therapists, teachers and parents are having great success using it!
[i] As discussed by: Michnick Golinkoff, R; Hirsh-Pasek, K A; Singer, D G in: Executive Summary of: Play = Learning: A Challenge for Parents and Educators
[ii] Smithers 2003. As discussed by: Michnick Golinkoff, R; Hirsh-Pasek, K A; Singer, D G in: Executive Summary of: Play = Learning: A Challenge for Parents and Educators
[iii] Michnick Golinkoff, R; Hirsh-Pasek, K A; Singer, D G
Executive Summary of: Play = Learning: A Challenge for Parents and Educators
[iv] Stansfield, S. Occupational Therapy and Dyslexia Focus Vol3. 2013
[v] Strong, J. & Flanagan,M., 2005. AD/HD for Dummies. New Jersey: Wiley. As Discussed In: Cook, RA, 2013. Occupational Therapist Handbook for ADHD-Attention Difficulties firstname.lastname@example.org
[vi] Parten, M.B. (1932). Social participation among pre-school children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. As Discussed in: Play: A Historical Review By: Tomlin,C.R. http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=618
[vii] McLeod, S., 2009 (updated 2012). Jean Piaget. On Website: Simple Psychology. http://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html
[viii] Psychology Today, 2nd Edition 1972. Pages: 81-111 . CRM Books
[ix] Psychology Today. 2nd Ed. 1972 . Pg 87 CRM Books
[x] Vygotsky, L.S. Play and its role in the mental development of the child From a stenographic record of a lecture given in 1933 at the Hertzen Pedagogical Institute, Leningrad. Transcribed in: Voprosy psikhologii. 1966
[xi] Child Development Media Inc. The Work of Lev http://www.childdevelopmentmedia.com/play-the-work-of-lev-vygotsky/
[xii] Rogers, C. & Sawyers, J. (1988). Play in the lives of children. Washington, DC: NAEYC. As discussed by: Engelbright Fox, J. in Back-to-Basics: Play in Early Childhood on the website for Early Childhood News, The Professional Resource for Teachers and Parents. http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=240
[xiii] Fromberg, D.P. (1990). Play issues in early childhood education. In Seedfeldt, C. (Ed.), Continuing issues in early childhood education, (pp. 223-243). Columbus, OH: Merrill.
As discussed by: Engelbright Fox, J. in Back-to-Basics: Play in Early Childhood on the website for Early Childhood News, The Professional Resource for Teachers and Parents. http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=240
[xiv] Diamond, J. Play and Learning
On Website: ASTC: Association of Science-Technology Centers. http://www.astc.org/resource/education/learning_diamond.htm