Monday, April 16, 2012

Let the children play...

I'm reading Berk and Winsler's (1995) Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and ECE, to gain a better understanding of the process of co-construction. However, before I delve back into that topic again, I want to briefly look at the play that is occurring on the other side of the fencethat is, the play we do not get involved with as teachers: free- play.

The importance given to play as the leading factor in learning and development owes much to developmental psychology: Vygotsky considers play to be the space where children operate at their highest level of functioning and where they apply all they have experiencedtheir working theories, their funds of knowledge. According to Tina Bruce (Time to play in ECE, 1991), what we broadly refer to as 'play' is actually an inter-connected process with foundational learning processes like struggle, manipulation, exploration, and discovery leading to competence and a sense of control. This control builds self-confidence, autonomy, intrinsic motivation, the desire to have a go, to takes risks and solve problems. Isenberg and Quisenberry (2002) describe play as a means for children to facilitate the understanding of skills and concepts, and to take ownership of new knowledge, that it is both a process and a product. Thus, rich and varied experience is a prerequisite to play where wallowing in ideas, experiences, feelings, and relationships, transforms the actual into the possible with new, meaningful knowledge the result (Bruce, 1991).

In revealing the inter-related processes occurring within the play 'framework, we are able to identify periods where more direct support is needed and where opportunities for co-construction present themselves. It also revels the space were our input is not requiredand can in fact be detrimental to children's learning: that is within free-play, (also known as socio-dramatic play, ludic, free-flow etc).

To help identify free-play, Bruce (1991) draws on theory developed by Piaget, Vygotsky, Brunner, Froebel, Isaacs, Dewey and many others to present 12 features:

  • it is an active process without a product
  • it is intrinsically motivated
  • it succumbs to no external pressure to conform to rules, pressures, goals, tasks or definite direction
  • it is about possible, alternative worlds, which involve 'supposing' and 'as if', which lifts the player to their highest levels of functioning. This involves being imaginative, creative, original and innovative
  • it is about wallowing in ideas, feelings and relationships. It involves reflection about what we know
  • it actively uses previous first hand experience
  • It is sustained, and when in full flow, helps us function in advance of what we can actually do in our real lives
  • during free-play we use technical prowess, mastery and competence we have previously developed and so can be in control
  • it can be solitary
  • it can be in partnerships, or groups of adults and/or children who will be sensitive to each other
  • it is an integrating mechanism, which brings together everything we learn, know, feel and understand.

In shorthand this translates as:

"Free-play = wallowing in ideas, feelings and relationships + application of developed competence, mastery and control." It is the place where children learn best.

Vygotsky notes that this type of play generally arrives when the child is beginning realise that instant gratification of impulses doesn't usually happen and that some desires will remain unsatisfied. So is imaginary play just about the satisfying of desires they cannot satisfy in real life?

The short answer is no. As children develop they learn to separate thinking, or the meaning of words, from the objects to which they refer – from about 2 years you can see how play becomes more detached from real-life situation with props no longer needing to be replica objects. Vygotsky argued that this type of socio-dramatic play serves as vital preparation for the much later development of abstract and imaginative thinking in which symbols are manipulated and propositions evaluated without referring to the real world.

Berk and Winsler (1995) stress the importance of free-play in learning where, as a result of rich social collaboration, free-play directly contributes to cognitive development, social skills, memory, language competence, the capacity to reason theoretically, creativity, the differentiation of appearance and reality, and the stream of verbal narrative that assists us to get through our daily lives. Additionally, free-play is not as 'free' as we like to think for it generally contains a plethora of social rules – an interesting paradox! These rules see children acting against their impulses – they are practising self-restraint as they willingly follow social rules. Over time we can see how rules begin to overshadow the imaginative side of play. No breaking the rules!

In his book In Defence of Childhood, Mercogliano talks about how children are increasingly denied the time, space and right to play. The wilderness is gone, child-killers roam the streets, the electrical outlets are inside anyway, and really, where is the time with ballet, voice, and swim lessons? Micro-managed play-dates?

And in our centres – is there time to play? There is pressure – schoolification, academically focused parents etc – on the position of play in the curriculum. We must fight for the right to play from a learning perspective, as well as cultural and rights perspectives. However, Berk & Winsler warn how adults walk a fine line in their involvement with play. We are often too intrusive and try to steer play into our idea of correct 'learning' that often draws the child back to reality with our out-of-context blah blah blah – “Oh shall we count the boxes then? ... Tahi, rua, toru...”

It's not a fucking box! Pop that bubble!

Wait until the child invites you in, or they return to reality to offer a representation of the play (a picture, or a cup of tea etc), or ask a question, request a resource etc. Accept that more often than not, you are just too real for this kind of play :)

There is research discussed by Berk & Winsler that shows the variances in imaginative play and the socio-economic status of a child with those in poverty engaging less in free-play. Should make-believe play be taught to children? Definitely. And get parents engaged in spending time playing with their children. One teacher I knew made a point of each week presenting a piece of process drama to the children. After dressing up, using props and acting out a story, she would leave all the props out to be used by the children. They loved seeing an adult doing 'make-believe' in a way that was purely fun with no hidden messages about been good friends or whatever. Mrs Wishy Washy anyone?

Process drama is a valuable tool for introducing the concept of imagination, but there is a lot of do's and don'ts with process drama so I might return to it in a future post.

Now go play – or rather, let the children play.

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