Play - Early Childhood Education - Pedagogy

Early Childhood Education



Play is both a noun and a verb. When describing the activity of children, it is more aptly defined as playing—a state of being that children experience and make happen. Even when children are playing, they often go in and out of the play scene, demonstrating the metacognitive activity associated with this complex behavior. In spite of a wealth of lay and professional literature on this topic, there remains a great deal of ambiguity about the nature and significance of play in children’s lives and as it might contribute to their learning and development.

One response to this ambiguity has been to develop criteria for determining what is and is not play. Some guidelines have proven difficult to interpret, such as the requirement that play be intrinsically motivated (Smith & Vollstedt, 1985). Others, such as the view that play produces positive affect or is flexible, voluntary, egalitarian, and (typically) nonliteral (i.e., based on pretense), distinguish play from other activities much of the time but not always (Sutton-Smith & Kelly- Byrne, 1984). These varying criteria reflect the challenge that this seemingly natural behavior presents to those who wish to better understand and support children’s play. They are also the results of diverse theoretical interpretations of this human activity.


Theories of Play in Early Childhood Practice

Contemporary interpretations of play within the context of early childhood education are drawn from diverse theoretical interpretations of play, including its course of development and its role in the child’s development. Evidence of the following theories of play can be found in many U.S. early childhood education settings.


Psychoanalytic theory and play. Those from within the psychoanalytic tradition established by Sigmund Freud have long been interested in helping children whose problems stem from difficulty in managing feelings. They have shown how helpful it is to focus on children’s abilities to express and cope with feelings, not just because feelings such as anger and love are powerful but also because feelings produce powerful intrapsychic conflicts. The analytically minded also focus on feelings of helplessness, believing that children can become overwhelmed by their smallness and their feelings of helplessness. They need help to gain a healthy sense of being in control.

This focus on problems associated with feelings has a great deal to do with children’s play. Theorists working out of the psychoanalytic tradition have shown how play can reveal children’s struggles with conflicting feelings. Play therapy has a well-respected tradition for helping children to use play to master their feelings and sense of helplessness—as when young children are helped to recover from a painful hospital experience by helping them, in play, to take on the role of doctor—giving needles, bad-tasting medicine, and so forth. The view is that through such play, children can regain a sense of being in control. Teachers such as Vivian Paley understand that play as storytelling, and especially superhero play, is one way in which children acknowledge fears, test imaginary strengths and capabilities, and cope with their feelings of helplessness.


Cognitive-developmental theory and play. Cognitive-developmental approaches focus on explaining development in terms of structural changes that define different stages. The great Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget identified three broad stages of play’s development: a stage dominated by nonsymbolic practice games (e.g., repeatedly jumping off a step), followed by a stage dominated by make- believe and symbolic games, followed by a stage dominated by games with rules (Piaget, 1962). These stages describe the form or structure of play, not its themes or content.

Piaget saw play as serving the important function of consolidating thinking skills as well as, knowledge and information that children have recently acquired. A simple example of teachers’ uses of this principle can be found in their responses to young children’s interest in construction machinery—diggers, bulldozers, steamrollers—and the process of repairing roads and putting up buildings. If given appropriate play materials (toy diggers, bulldozers, steamrollers) and opportunities to play, young children will build their own ditches and bridges, using play to consolidate what they have learned through observing outside the classroom. The presence of sand and water tables in the early childhood classroom and the postponement of games with rules until at least the primary grades give further evidence of the influence of Piaget’s stage-based interpretation of play on contemporary practice.

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and educator, is another well-known cognitive-developmental theorist whose work has served as the foundation of socio-cultural theory. As an educator as well as a psychologist, Vygotsky was interested in how children learn and how learning contributes to development. Vygotsky emphasized the way parents and teachers help children develop by working within their zone of proximal development, that psychological “space” just beyond children’s comfort zone where they are used to functioning but not so far beyond that they cannot stretch and grow with the support of more competent others.

In the case of play, Vygotsky saw young children using their play as a self-made zone of proximal development, a boot-strapping operation to help them free thought from perception (as when they imagine what is not immediately in front of them). Vygotsky regarded play as a leading source of children’s cognitive development (Vygotsky, 1976). Teachers who create time and space for children to engage in complex collaborative and constructive play are influenced by this view of play as it both challenges and supports children’s learning.

Contemporary interpretations of children’s learning reflect two major shifts in how cognitive development is conceived, the first of which is a move away from a linear model of progress from cognition as fantasy-based to thinking that is entirely determined by logic (Harris, 2000). Piaget’s view was that children outgrow make-believe by becoming more logical, when, for example, they give up make-believe play for games with rules. Contemporary scholars argue that imagination continues to develop well into adulthood, as evidenced by imagination in older children’s and adolescents’ play (Singer & Singer, 1990).

The other shift has been toward appreciating the interface among culture, play, and cognitive development—a relationship Vygotsky identified that anthropologists and cultural psychologists have documented in communities around the world. Decades of studies in diverse cultures demonstrate a variety of ways in which the sociocultural context supports children’s development. In many cultures work, not play, is the principal domain where children are supported to think and develop, and these children acquire the skills, dispositions, and understandings that are associated with healthy development. In some settings those qualities typically assigned to play seem to characterize other forms of child activity. For example, observers of Reggio Emilia classrooms who see children deeply engaged in long-term progettazione are often challenged to distinguish between children hard at work and children absorbed in play. In the classroom and on the playground, children’s imagination, intelligence, friendships, and exuberance characterize their joint activities.


Socio-cultural and ecological theories and play. As indicated, children’s engagement with the material and social worlds occurs within multiple and nested contexts (home, neighborhood, etc.) that deeply affect whether and how children play. Theories that explain play in terms of contextual influences are often referred to collectively as cultural-ecological theories.

With respect to play, culture can be found in the smallest details—in an offhand reference to a television show during doll-play, in the particular materials chosen for building a play house, in the preference for one type of play over another, in whether or not parents encourage children to play, and in whether certain kinds of play are considered good or bad. Much can be learned about cultural influences on play from surface matters, details that can be observed and measured. There are now numerous studies on the interface between play and gender stereotypes.

Socio-cultural theory also points to other types of influences, including underlying assumptions, values, and worldviews as reflected in cultural routines and social relations. For example, some cultures value and support patterns of relationship that are interdependent. Within such a context, a child’s development will be measured in terms of the child’s capacity to successfully participate in collaborative activities that emphasize the family or the community rather than the individual. In these cultures, harmony among group members is prized and play in such a context is less likely to feature competition. In contrast, cultures that are categorized as individualistic will emphasize autonomous behavior and a capacity for individual achievement. Play in such a context is more likely to feature, for example, individual ownership of toys as well as competition. Early childhood educators are increasingly aware of the extent to which children bring cultural values, including those regarding gender and race, into their play spaces and activities.

Such cultural features are associated not only with how children play, but with how play is supported and encouraged. In the dominant North American culture, most assume that play is good, even essential, for children; and that adults should be actively involved in supporting and at times coaching children’s play. Another common assumption is that children’s age-mates are natural and appropriate play partners. These assumptions are also culturally embedded. That is, members of diverse cultures hold different beliefs about the nature and value of children’s play (New, 1994).


Evolutionary and comparative theories and play. Evolutionary theories have been particularly important in developing the rhetoric of progress. Jerome Bruner (1972) argued that play is a major precursor to the emergence of language and symbolic behavior in higher primates and humans, noting that old-world monkeys play less than later-evolving new-world monkeys, who seem to use play to imitate and practice important skills.

The study of play among nonhuman animals has also contributed enormously to the development of play theory. Comparative studies have dispelled a number of common misconceptions about play, including the belief that play is principally a form of practice for the future. For example, the “galumphing” movement characterizing play fighting among juvenile baboons exists side by side with remarkably agile movements carried out when fighting is for real; the one does not lead to the other though.

Perhaps what is most important about the research having to do with evolution and nonhuman animals is that it has bolstered the argument for studying children’s play. Play, it turns out, is ubiquitous. It connects not only different groups within the human species but different animal species as well. When we play with a family pet or observe a colt cavorting, we feel this connection. Paradoxically, then, by studying the diverse ways that different species play, evolutionary and comparative theorists have fostered a sense of unity among all animal species.


Play Rhetorics and Controversies

Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has proposed we focus on play rhetorics as a means of conceptualizing the nature and functions of play (Sutton-Smith, 1995). He suggests that there are several rhetorics of children’s play, each emphasizing some presumed general function. One in particular has been embraced by many in the field of early childhood education: the rhetoric of progress. Within this particular rhetoric, play is discussed as being good for children’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Educators talk about play preparing children for the future. In spite of continuing controversies regarding evidence (or the lack of it) that might support this interpretation, that play promotes progress has been the dominant rhetoric among scholars as well as among parents, educators, and ordinary people in industrialized cultures such as the United States.

Insufficient evidence for making claims about play’s positive functions isn’t the only shortcoming of the rhetoric of progress. Critics suggest that the rhetoric of progress can lead to the idealization of play and to overlooking its darker, harmful side. A view of play as “‘good for children’” can also mean that adults are unprepared for times when they need to stop or prevent some forms of play— such as when some children find it “‘fun’” to bully. This idealization of play may also be used to justify taking control of children’s play to enhance its beneficial properties, based on the belief that, if play is essential for children’s future, it shouldn’t be left to children to choose how to play.

While researchers debate the merits and meanings of their studies on children’s play, many believe that play need not be justified on the grounds that it prepares children for the future. Rather, it is a vital and challenging activity that helps children thrive in the present. But even this last statement is itself based upon a rhetoric.


Development of Play

A developmental perspective on play provides a way of evaluating children’s play and whether and how it is maturing over time. In particular, a developmental perspective focuses on the degree to which play becomes more complex and organized, more sophisticated and subtle, and more flexible and self-aware. For example, a parent may notice a child shifting from “feeding” her doll to having her doll “feed” another doll. This change from using a doll figure as a passive agent only to using a doll figure as an active agent demonstrates the child’s developing capacity to decenter and coordinate perspectives and roles. In this example, development is defined by changes in the play’s structure, not by changes in its content. The content is the same, feeding a baby. This distinction between structure and content is crucial to understanding how play develops and how children develop as well.

Understanding how play develops also requires understanding development within differing play media. For example, play with dolls has a different developmental trajectory than does play with wooden blocks. Doll play develops to the extent that children come to use dolls to enact narratives and create story worlds. Block play develops to the extent that children come to use blocks to build three-dimensional constructions with specific contours and specific spaces. In doll play, then, children demonstrate and elaborate upon their understandings of the social and relational world. In block play, children extend their capacities to plan, design, and create, to think about objects and space. In developing their play within any given medium, children usually begin by first exploring the properties and potentials of the medium itself. Only after spending time exploring do children normally use a play medium for symbolic or representational purposes (Scarlett et al., 2004).


Play within the Early Childhood Classroom

In most U.S. early childhood classrooms, a variety of play forms and materials are typically present: small manipulative toys and games in the form of puzzles, connecting blocks, and pattern-making materials; an area designated as “‘housekeeping,’” where children’s make-believe or pretend play is expected to take place; and an area set aside for constructive play—space that may take up as much as one-fourth of the room, or may be limited to a small corner. In addition to classroom areas dedicated to play, some early childhood programs have outdoor areas adjacent to the classroom, while others have access to larger playgrounds shared with other groups of children. These spaces and materials reflect financial resources, time allocation, and pedagogical perspectives on what and how children should learn—including understandings and views of the role of play in early childhood education.

Two forms of play have received particular attention by early childhood educators: socio-dramatic play and constructive play—though often the two occur together. Both socio-dramatic and constructive play appear to make particular contributions to children’s early development.


Make-believe play. Early childhood has often been described as the golden age of make-believe. Vygotsky suggests that the capacity and motivation for rich and imaginative make-believe play comes, in part, from the young child’s basic predicament. On the one hand, the young child can symbolize not only what is directly in front of her but also wishes and fantasies. On the other hand, she has so many wishes that cannot be satisfied—to drive a car, to control her parents—that play serves as a valuable means of acting upon these wishes. Furthermore, make- believe play also allows children to explore topics they find fascinating—whether it’s dinosaurs, space travel, or music videos. Psycho-analytic theories suggest that children also use make-believe play to manage their anxieties. Capturing the monster, rocking the baby, and escaping the enemy are examples of play responses to real and imagined fears.

Make-believe play has long been recognized as a supportive context for language, social, and cognitive development. Recent observations stress the contributions of make-believe play for developing narrative as a framework for thinking (Singer & Singer, 1990). The distinction here is between paradigmatic and narrative frameworks for thinking. Paradigmatic frameworks organize thinking around propositions, distinctions, and logic. They are used in conversations where explanation and argument are what matter most. Narrative frameworks organize thinking around events and characters. They are used in conversations where describing real and imagined dramas is what matters most. Each framework has its place in the ongoing need to understand and know reality.

Make-believe play also supports children’s emotional development and capacity for self-regulation. Not only do children learn to moderate their behaviors to stay within the play-script; make-believe play supports emotional development by helping children express emotions and impulses symbolically. When young children engage in joint pretend play, they learn to coordinate their own perspectives with those of others. The challenge of “‘staying with the story’” serves as a powerful incentive for children to integrate and coordinate their own interests and desires with those of others; and to learn how to negotiate multiple points of view.


Constructive play. Among U.S. educators and parents, there is a selective bias toward supporting the sort of play in which a child is trying to construct something, such as a fort made with blocks (Forman, 1998). Certainly, educators understand that make-believe play is not the only sort of play that supports children’s development and their relationships with one another. When young children play alongside each other, whether while feeding dolls or building block towers, they pay attention to and imitate each other and, as observed decades ago by Mildred Parten (1932), soon enough join together in more complex and collaborative play activity. Play thus supports not only developmental, but social aims. Children learn to share materials and space with peers, and to make and keep friends. Constructive play often creates such a context for children’s social and emotional development. Even make-believe or dramatic play becomes constructive play when children construct the setting and props to support their full-blown story.

Much of the research on constructive play has focused on its contributions to children’s cognitive development. As children consider how best to construct a drawbridge or a roof that will be stable, they engage in hypothesis generating and problem solving that provides insights into their cognitive processes. As children’s constructions become more structurally complex with age, they increasingly utilize symbols to represent components that might have previously been left to chance. Thus the object and its referent serve as windows into children’s thinking about the world. As children observe and compare their efforts, they seek ways to describe their structures, benefiting linguistically as well as intellectually by reflecting on and analyzing their efforts.

In settings where children’s play is valued, there are a variety of forms of support that make a difference in what and how children play. Adults support play’s development, not just in broad ways such as by helping children feel secure and confident, but also in more focused ways such as by suggesting extensions of play—“Is the baby hungry?”—and by helping children fit Lego bricks together. Physical settings support play’s development by offering conditions and materials to play with, whether it’s a lake and beach to play at skipping rocks, a jungle gym to play at climbing and swinging, or a shelf of blocks to play at building a fort. Children support each other’s play and development, especially by extending or suggesting new lines of play. Children support their own development through their active engagement and problem solving. The teachers’ role in supporting play is now receiving particular attention among early childhood educators.



In spite of the fact that a bulk of the early childhood professional literature extols the virtues of play in the classroom, recent policy initiatives, including No Child Left Behind, have left teachers faced with the challenge of trying to incorporate play into a classroom that is now subject to heightened academic expectations. As some scholars attempt to reconceptualize play as an ethical and moral dimension of childhood, others are giving increased attention to the many ways in which play can be used to support children’s early preacademic skills and understandings. Recent play scholarship highlights its improvisational nature and suggests that the capacity to engage in sustained pretend play is foundational to the development of creativity, conversational competence, and literacy (Sawyer, 1997). As the controversy continues about the nature and role of play in the early childhood classroom, there is consensus about play’s central importance to children themselves. Play’s fascination—to children and to the adults who observe them-ensures that it will continue to be a topic of study in our efforts to better understand and utilize play as it enhances children’s lives, their learning and development.

Further Readings: Bruner, J. (1972). The nature and uses of immaturity. American Psychologist 27, 687-708; Fromberg, Doris (1999). A review of research on play. In C. Seefeldt (Ed.), The early childhood curriculum: Current findings in theory and practice, pp. 2753. New York: Teachers College Press; Harris, P. (2000). The work of the imagination. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers; New, R. (1994). Child’s play—una cosa naturale: An Italian perspective. In J. Ropnarine, E. Johnson, and F. Hooper (Eds.), Children’s play in diverse cultures. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, pp. 123-145; Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 27, 243-369. Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation. New York: Wiley. Sawyer, K. (1997); Pretend play as improvisation: Conversation in the preschool classroom. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum; Scarlett, W. G., Naudeau, S., Salonius-Pasternak, D., and Ponte, I. (2004). Children’s play. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Singer, D., and Singer, J. (1990). The house of make-believe: Children’s play and the developing imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Smith, P., and Vollstedt, R. (1985). On defining play: An empirical study of the relationship between play and various play criteria. Child Development 56, 1042-1050; Sutton-Smith, B. (1995). Does play prepare the future? In J. Goldstein (Ed.), Toys, play, and child development. New York: Cambridge University Press; Sutton-Smith, B., and Kelly-Byrne, D. (1984). The idealization of play. In P. Smith (Ed.), Play in animals and humans. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell. Vygotsky, L. (1976). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In J. Bruner, A. Jolly and K. Sylva (Eds.), Play—its role in development and evolution. New York: Basic Books, Inc; Fromberg, D. (1999). A review of research on play. In C. Seefeldt (Ed.), The early childhood curriculum: Current findings in theory and practice. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 27-53.

W. George Scarlett and Rebecca S. New