Whether it is in a classroom full of two-year-old toddlers or on a playground overrun with preschoolers, play is extremely important in furthering the development and early childhood education of young children. Moreover, analyzing play through a socio-cultural lens can allow us to “better understand the individuals” and the role of play, as Samuelson and Fleer explain in their book, Play and Learning in Early Childhood Settings (2009, p.13). To further explore this principle, I conducted one observation of play in a toddler classroom and one at a preschool playground.
Following the thought of Samuelson and Fleer, I will analyze my observations with a synthesis of personal, interpersonal, and cultural-institutional perspectives (p.v). After describing my observations, I will propose an interpretation of the nature and purpose of play in early childhood, the function of play in the classroom, and the role of the teacher, with focus on cross-cultural research.
My first classroom observation took place at The Rita Gold Center, which is a play-based emergent child center.
The center places emphasis on children’s learning through play and through engaging with materials placed in the classroom, which they believe allows for self-discovery through each child’s engagement with classroom materials. At the Rita Gold Center, I spent most of my time following Grace, a 32-month-old. Looking around the rooms, I noted that the classrooms there are set up in a way that allows for flexibility. The room and the materials placed inside the room undergo change on a constant basis; consequently, children can be introduced to new senses, sounds, and ideas, allowing for stimulation in the hope that it will boost play.
At the beginning of my observation, Grace came into the classroom and saw her fellow toddler classmates. Approaching them, she immediately said, “Hey guys, play?” As Grace continued to walk to the back corner of the room, her eyes locked onto a new classroom item: a set of wooden trucks. At first, Grace inspected these neutral-colored trucks. She picked one up and flipped it over, asking: “Where [is the] red truck?” One of the head teachers explained to Grace that this was the color selection of trucks for the day. Grace dropped the toy and walked to the painting easel, where other toddlers were finger painting. After ten minutes had transpired, Grace slowly inched her way back towards the trucks. She picked one out and said to me, “I firetruck!” I asked her, “Where is the fire?” Grace pushed her wooden “fire truck” to the costume box and put on a construction hat. She pushed her truck with all her might, running across the room and then into the back “cozy” corner. She went inside a large wooden box that had a cover over it and yelled to me, ‘Shell here!” Grace proceeded to make whooshing noises until her fire was out.
The second observation took place on Blank Park playground, where I observed preschool children at play. This observation was different in part due to the age of the children because I followed a preschool class, and also because of the outdoor nature of a playground. I observed two girls and three boys who were playing at Blank Park. The playground included a swing set, slides, and a sandbox with toys, but the main play structure at this playground is a multi-leveled structure with multiple ways to reach the top of the platform. I observed the children engaging in social pretend play. One girl, Sloane, who was on top of the structure, began the play by yelling to everyone, “Hot lava below!” Maddy, who was standing on a different structure on the other side of the playground, yelled: “Liam is monster, and no one touch the ground!” The five kids began to laugh and run from structure to structure while Liam tried to tag them. Another boy shouted “STOP! I want to be monster.” The group gathered together on one side and told him no.
These examples of play inside and outside of the classroom may seem chaotic and inconsequential, especially in an age of SAT prep and standardized test scores, but they help to demonstrate the function of play and the role of the adult in early childhood development. I believe that play is vital to a child’s development of his or her sense of self as well as his sense of place within a culture or society. Different kinds of play, projected pretend play and pretend play with personification, emerge in the examples and underline this position. In both, the children engage in pretend play, according to a theory that Ricardo Japiassu lays out in “Pretend Play and Preschoolers.” He divides play into different categories, including projected pretend play and pretend play with personification, among others (2008, p. 387). Both of these types of play allow children to exercise their understanding of social situations and practice cultural roles (p. 382). In the classroom, Grace engages in projected pretend play when she plays the role of a movie director in imagining the plain car as a fire truck and then uses it in a culturally appropriate way by putting a fire out. Grace’s use of the car is an engagement with cultural themes and roles. Projected pretend play here allows her to reimagine culturally relevant situations and to represent values and social roles. Similarly, on the playground, the children participate in pretend play with personification when they pretend to be a monster and his victims. This type of play, pretend play with personification, allows the children to assume culturally specific roles and experiment with their functions. According to Japiassu’s analysis of cultural-historical research, play developed alongside the establishment of material production to enable children to recreate social spheres (p. 381). This means that, in both examples, the children’s engagement with play allowed them to explore and insert themselves into the social and cultural underpinnings of their worlds. Grace acted as a movie director to recreate a fire truck and the function that it serves, while the children actually inserted themselves into roles of monster or victim, developing their naissance understanding of social relations.
The role of the teachers, then, within the context of play, is fundamental in guiding and enhancing play in order to help a child develop cognitively and culturally. I found that the materials that teachers choose to place inside the class at the Rita Gold Center dictated how play develops and how well it develops. By incorporating different materials into the classroom, teachers create opportunities for children to interact in new ways with these materials, and to use them in play. Items or toys that the children have never seen before represent the possibility explore and engage with new concepts. In our classroom, the new wooden trucks represent the importance of teachers in children’s play; the teachers introduced something new into the environment of the classroom, and in doing so they helped the the children grow. The toddlers are used to the colored trucks, and have set ways of interacting with them, but new colors provide new opportunities for potential interactions. The “known” trucks are four different colors, which often causes conflict amongst the toddlers because each child desires the same truck at the same time. The red truck, for example, was generally a cause of strife; however, the teachers had taken notice and brought in neutral-colored trucks. This small change allowed the children to project their imagination onto the object, so that it could serve many roles; play whatever role the child wanted it to play. The absence of color meant that the wooden truck could represent any colored vehicle in the world, not only the vehicle that corresponds to a specific color. I was able to watch how Grace interacted with this change in setting. At first Grace, who normally loves toy trucks, rejected it. However, she was able to incorporate the new item into her play repertoire. In this case, the wooden, colorless truck was a blank canvas, an item that allows the child the explorative room for creativity and imagination. Danann, another child in the center, had a different chosen classroom item: a tractor. The teacher allowed for the toddlers to expand themselves through play and to “gain confidence in a variety of these play pretense forms,” allowing them to develop “an inner, subjective life, a life that becomes the child’s own relatively private possession” (Sutton-Smith, p.118). Consequently, play allows children to develop a sense of self within the school classroom context. The teachers’ guidance of play by changing play materials encourages children to develop their cognitive abilities to interact with their surroundings and enables them to learn about their particular cultural setting and to situate themselves within it.
Furthermore, I found that teachers critically use language to guide and encourage play. While observing the toddlers during play, I observed that verbal interaction between teachers and toddlers is critical to the outcome of the child’s play. At Rita Gold, the intentional choice of language fosters children’s play. The way in which teachers respond to children during play is never an assumption, rather the teachers focus on integrating advancement into questions. Rather than assuming something in a verbal exchange, they will try to interject only to find moments to advance thinking or introduce materials. For example, if a student is pretending to make soup, a teacher may ask, “What kind of soup? And why did you make it?” This style of teaching, one that encouraging play by guiding language, stimulates contemplation and thought in the child, rather than allowing for a nonchalant “yes” or “no” response. Samuelson and Fleer emphasize the role of adults in children’s play and how they can lead and interact “to maximize direct teaching” (p.177). They believe that teachers have the means of successfully scaffolding the children’s learning as well as helping them to make meaning of their experiences (p. 111). Leu, Templeton, and Yoon also argue for the importance of teachers in early childhood education. They hold that teachers have the perfect position because they understand how to set up curricular experiences while also being attuned to the subtle complexities of children’s inquiries (p.54). With something as simple as changing the materials in the room, teachers have the ability to prompt children to engage in more imaginative play and to explore their representations of cultural roles. Through posing questions that allow the children to reflect on the implications of their actions, the teachers can guide them along as they learn and grow.
There was a great difference in the two observations, especially as a result of the age difference of the toddlers and preschoolers, but also as a result of the differences in outdoor vs. indoor setting. An outdoor setting enables children to use physical play in a way that is separate from the more structured indoor play. Lazarus, in his theory of recreation of play, argues that through play, children restore their energy levels (Lazarus, 1883, p.14). After observing children’s play in an outdoor setting, I have seen that it is vastly different from play within confined walls of a classroom. The children were much more active, and they had the space to play different kinds of games. The monster and lava game can also be seen as an example of a “socio-dramatic” game, one in which a child pretends to be someone or something else that might not exist (Samuelson & Fleer, p.83). This is the most common type of play with children between the ages of zero and two (Samuelson & Fleer, p. 86). The imaginary lava prompted an imagined set of rules to govern the game. Vygotsky (1966) argued that “whenever there is an imaginary situation in play there are rules, not rules which are formulated in advance and which change during the course of the game, but rules stemming from the imaginary situation” (p.17). For example, the imaginary situation on the playground involved lava and monsters, and the preschoolers formed the situation into a game with rules. Once the floor was understood to be lava, a rule was created that you can’t touch the ground. The children “act out the behaviors that are associated with those rules” (Samuelson & Fleer, p.5). Often the first instances of rules that children engage with, it is important to note that children would can easily make unconscious connections about real life based on the rules of these children’s games.
As Sutton-Smith says, “play is not just fun, not just pleasurable for its own sake. Play’s positive pleasure typically transfers to our feelings about the rest of our everyday existence and makes it possible to live more fully in the world, no matter how boring or painful or even dangerous ordinary reality might seem (p.95).” The way that children engage with play can shape more than just their childhood recess periods. In her article, “Game Playing: Negotiating Rules and Identities,” Winther-Lindqvist argues that the rules children construct refer to and reflect their social lives and identities (p.60). The rules that are made and the ways in which the children interact come from their individual background and simultaneously are working to shape their identity.
My observations at the Rita Gold Center and Blank Park playground described children inside and outside of the classroom doing what children do: playing. These observations, in conjunction with many other sources, show the way in which play reflects a society at large, and occurs in the interplay between the child and the larger world. They demonstrate that play allows children to develop a sense of self, culture, and situation within that culture. They also help elucidate the fundamental role of the adult in guiding play by adjusting the environment and using language to prompt reflection. Play is a fundamental part of human behavior, and occurs anywhere and everywhere. Its most vital role, however, is found in the ways in which it allows for children to develop a sense of self, and to explore and become a part of their surrounding world.