Early Childhood Education
Play has been the cornerstone of high quality early childhood pedagogy in Western society since the early days of the field almost two hundred years ago (Klugman and Smilansky, 1990). All of the major theorists, from Friedrich Froebel to Jean Piaget, locate play as the primary developmental task of preschoolers. However, while almost everyone places play at the center of their curriculum, there has never been consensus about what play is or why it is a valuable activity for young children. Depending on what theory you subscribe to, play can be organized as a highly structured activity that is primarily designed to teach particular skills, or as a completely exploratory activity free from any adult interference. Current understandings of play are reflected in several examples of a play-based early childhood pedagogy that puts this theory into practice.
In the last several decades the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky has emerged as one of the most influential theories in the creation of educational programs for young children. Vygotsky’s work on culture, learning, and development has had a major impact on what is considered developmentally appropriate practice and has helped shape many of the more recent curriculum and programs for young children. However, while his name has become well known, there has been only limited attention paid to Vygotsky’s ideas about play and this limited focus has affected our ability to make full use of Vygotsky’s work to develop pedagogies that are creative, developmental and true to the improvisational nature of children’s play.
For Vygotsky (1978), play is not just an outward expression of a child’s developmental level; it is an activity that leads development. Play allows children to function on the outer edge of their zone of proximal development, to be ahead of where they are. Vygotsky believed that development does not happen inside the child, but that it comes into existence socially. He created the concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) to give expression to the relationship between what the child can do independently and what the child can do in collaboration with others (Newman and Holzman, 1993). Vygotsky argued that if we only focus on what the child can do independently then we only see what has already developed and we miss what is developing. He pointed out that children are able to do many more things within a supportive social context than they can do alone.
Over the years there have been many interpretations of the ZPD. Some psychologists and educators have focused on the instrumental value of the ZPD as a teaching technique for helping an individual child do what is a little beyond her or his independent skill level by being supported by an adult or a more skilled peer. However, another way to understand the ZPD is as a creative, improvisational activity. The ZPD is the activity of people creating environments where children (and adults) can take risks, make mistakes, and support each other to do what they do not yet know how to do. It is by participating in creating environments where learning can occur that children learn (Newman and Holzman, 1993; Wink, 2001).
Vygotsky talked about the creation of zones of proximal development in many different situations—babies learning to speak, the instructional environment of formal schooling, and, for the purposes of this article, in the play activities of preschool-age children. According to Vygotsky in the following excerpt, it is in play that children are able to do what they do not yet know how to do:
play creates a zone of proximal development for the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102)
What makes play a ZPD? Why are children able to perform “a head taller than” themselves when they play? Vygotsky took pains to point out that a distinguishing feature of all play is that it involves the creation of an imaginary situation. Whether it is a game of chess or baseball or an imaginary play scenario about being Princesses fighting a dragon, all play involves creating, and working within, an imaginary situation.
In addition, Vygotsky also pointed out that all play has rules. This may not be immediately apparent when we picture the seemingly chaotic play of preschool- age children, but Vygotsky was talking about a particular kind of rules—rules that are in the service of, and help to create, the imaginary situation. For Vygotsky, it is the relationship between the imaginary situation and the rules that are created that makes the play of young children a ZPD.
This is not an easy concept to grasp, so let’s take for example a group of four- year olds playing at being princesses. This is clearly an imaginary situation—no one is really a princess—but what kind of rules are there? They are not the same as the rules of chess or Monopoly where the rules have been established by other people long before the game starts. When playing at being princesses the children have to create the rules for the play as they go along. While they may be influenced by what they have seen of princesses on TV or in fairy tales, the children have to figure out how they are going to play at being princesses together at the same time that they are playing at being princesses. Among other things they have to decide who is going to be a Princess, what other characters there will be, how the characters will behave, what their relationships are going to be like, how long they are going to play, etc. But they don’t do this before they play at being princesses, they create these rules in the process of creating the princesses play. The rules are inseparable from the playing of the game—determining these things is what brings the play situation into existence. In this situation the rules are both the tool for creating the imaginary situation and they are the imaginary situation itself.
From this perspective, the play of young children is a zone of proximal development because it is in playing that children are most actively involved in creating the activity. In play children do not conform or adapt to a preexistent reality, they create an imaginary situation and the rules for performing in that imaginary situation at the same time (Newman and Holzman, 1993). The children, as both the creator and the follower of the rules, can perform in ways that are in advance of what they can do in other situations (Vygotsky, 1978). Many educators and psychologists have pointed out that it is this feature of play—the fact that the players themselves create it—that makes play such a great way for children to learn and develop.
Examples of Playful Pedagogies
The remainder of this entry is devoted to two examples of early childhood pedagogy that I believe exemplify this Vygotskian understanding of play and the zone of proximal development.
Playworlds. The Playworlds project was first created in Finland by Gunilla Lundqvist (1995) and has been further developed by Penti Haikkarainin (2004). Playworlds has taken place in preschools and elementary schools in Japan, Finland, and the United States. In the Playworlds project (Baumer, Ferholt and Lecusay, 2005; Rainio, 2005), children and adults cocreate an imaginary world using children’s literature, fables and folk tales as the starting point. Each day for an extended period of time the classroom (or part of the classroom) is transformed into a fictional world where the adults take on the roles of the characters in the book and the children help shape the performances as both characters and commentators. Through this collaboration children are supported to continue being creative even as they make the transition from free play to organized school activities.
The idea is that in playworlds two seemingly different worlds, of play and school, of children and adults meet in an institutional context and develop a new form of improvised and dramatized learning activity. (Rainio, 2005)
Improvisations! Play Intervention
Barbara O’Neill (2004) is an early childhood special education teacher who works as a SEIT (Special Education Itinerant Teacher) in New York City. Her job is to work in general education preschools with children who have been diagnosed as having a learning or developmental disability. She has developed an approach to play intervention that is based on the similarities between the fantasy play of young children and the performance art of improv comedians. In both activities the participants create unscripted scenes or stories using their collective imaginations.
Most of the children that O’Neill works with have trouble participating in fantasy play with other children. Traditional play intervention programs address this “deficit” by teaching the children isolated play skills, coaching them through interactions with other children or teaching the typically developing children how play with special needs children. O’Neill has developed an approach where she teaches mixed groupings of children the games and activities that adult improv comedians play—she creates a preschool improv ensemble with both special needs and typically developing children.
In improv anything any performer says or does is considered an offer and the job of the improv troupe is to make use of all offers by using them to create the scene. As O’Neill (2004) says, “This includes the good, the bad, the weird and the interesting. (p. 5)” In the improv play groups O’Neill and the children make use of all the offers the children make—even something as simple as a head shake, a hand gesture, or a single inaudible word are usable in the improv games. While O’Neill may have to be the one to make use of these offers in the beginning, over time the ensemble develops in their ability to include everyone. As the ensemble develops, the children learn that they are players, and from a Vygotskian perspective, they are able to perform ahead of where they are.
I think the biggest thing that I want children to have is to start to see themselves as performers and creators. These are children who at the age of 4 already have lowered expectations for who they will become. So I really want to help the kids I work with to understand that they constantly have different choices they can make and don’t have to react the way they are supposed to react, the way they usually react. (O’Neill, 2005)
In both the Playworlds and the Improvisational Play Interventions children and adults create imaginary situations together and in doing so the children are able to stretch and do things they would not otherwise be able to do. They are just two examples of the infinite ways play can be a central part of developmentally appropriate and innovative pedagogy for young children.
Further Readings: Baumer, S., B. Ferholt, and R. Lecusay (2006). Promoting narrative competence through adult-child joint pretense: Lessons from the Scandinavian educational practice of playworld. Cognitive Development, 20(4) 576-590. Hakkarainen, P. (2004). Narrative learning in the fifth dimension. Critical Social Studies 2004(1), 1-20; Klugman, E., and S. Smilansky (1990). Children's play and learning: Perspectives and policy implications. New York: TC Press. Lundqvist, G. (1995). The aesthetics of play: A didactic study of play and culture in preschools. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala Studies in Education. O’Neill, B. (2004). Improvisationalplay interventions: A SEIT teacher chronicles the development of a play group. Unpublished manuscript. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University. Newman, F., and L. Holzman (1993). Lev Vygostsky: Revolutionary scientist. London: Routledge. Rainio, P. (2005). Emergence of a playworld. The formation of subjects of learning in interaction between children and adults. Working Papers 32. Helsinki, Finland: Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research. Sawyer, K. (1997). Pretend play as improvisation: Conversation in the preschool classroom. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Van Hoorn, J., P. Nourot, B. Scales, and K. Al- ward (2003). Play at the center of the curriculum. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wink, J. (2001). A vision of Vygotsky. New York: Putney.