Early childhood classrooms are a place for young children to learn, grow, build friendships and have fun. One way that children can do all of these things at once is through play. It is through play that children can learn about themselves, and their environment, as well as academic skills, such as math, science, reading, writing, and social studies. It is up to the teachers and other educators to set up the learning environment so that it is welcoming for the children to interact with one another while inquiring about the materials they are given. Through this process of hands-on play based learning, children can develop the skills necessary to succeed in school and their everyday lives if given the opportunities to explore.
Definition of Play
In terms of the early developmental aspects of children’s play, their social, emotional, cognitive, physical, language, and creative skills are all being developed through their play and exploration (Stegelin, 2005).Social interaction between children increases during constructive play. This type of play has several benefits for the children including; problem solving, using their imagination and creativity to learn, as well as cooperate with others (Stegelin, 2005).
The idea of children’s social play is an important aspect of learning in early childhood education. Through both solitary play and social play children develop self-control, problem solving strategies, language fluency in communication and cooperation, as well as an understanding of symbolic representation and social behavior (Stegelin, 2005). It is through play that children learn about their environment and themselves. They enhance their creativity and imagination and can even take on leadership roles. As children play, they learn how to get along with others, communicate with peers and how to solve problems. As a child interacts with other children their language skills develop and become stronger. Together they learn to explore, cooperate, take turns and share through play (Stegelin, 2005).
Ways Children Learn Through Play
When children play they are learning, imagining, and creating either on their own or with other children. The Social Play Continuum is put in place to support an assessment based on the observation and interaction among children (Broadhead, 2006). It also encourages educators to assess the child’s learning progression from social interaction to cooperation and at the same time linking developmental skills and cooperation.
Broadhead (2006) advocates educators to use observation, reflection and interaction among children to promote developmentally appropriate practice. The Social Play Continuum has four domains that show development from Associative Play meaning children playing by themselves but alongside other children, to Cooperative Play meaning children interacting and playing together (Broadhead, 2006). As these types of play amongst children increases, their language and actions become more complex as a result.
Sociodramatic play, also known as dramatic play, is a type of play that has been shown to develop necessary school readiness skills (Bredekamp, 2005). Some aspects of sociodramatic play include using creativity and imagination to invent games and involves using language and social interaction between children.
Benefits of Play for Young Children
Through the process of using “real” life experiences in their play, the children are coming to terms with their reality and making sense of life as they know it (Bhroin, 2007). Expressing this through art or play is important for the child’s emotional, cognitive and social development (Bhroin, 2007). This type of play also creates meaningful connections to the child’s life and gives them a way to express it. On an educational level the children are able to express experiences, thoughts, fears, dreams and ideas in a safe and fulfilling way, which in turn develops skills of self-expression and communication that will benefit them throughout their entire lives.
Most preschool curriculums include: letter, shape and sound recognition, forming patterns, and understanding how to put letters together to form words (Bredekamp, 2005). Studies have shown that dramatic play during the early years develops school readiness skills such as language and communication, cooperation, and literacy skills (Bredekamp, 2005).
Bredekamp (2005) discusses research that shows when children enter kindergarten with some prior knowledge about early literacy skills, like letter and sound recognition, they have an advantage over the other children who have not had any prior experiences learning literacy skills at learning to read. One way to include early literacy in play would be to turn a dramatic play center into a restaurant and include; menus, food signs, pads of paper and pencils so they children can “write” down the orders just like they see in real restaurants.
How to Incorporate Play in the Classroom
Warner (2008) said “Play changed from being activity-based to being more object-based.” Now instead of playing with toys that have multiple uses, such as building blocks, children now have computers, video games, and other toys that just make noise. Those types of toys are intended for a single purpose that includes no imagination or creativity for the child (Warner, 2008).
The educational toys or manipulatives that children play with should be chosen carefully depending on the age group. The toys should be able to challenge the children’s interests and abilities and should match the skill and ability level of the child without making them feel frustrated (Stegelin, 2005). Since both solitary and social play is important and necessary in a child’s development, toys should be able to foster both aspects of play. For example; a child can play alone with building blocks and in the process develop self-sufficiency and independence. At the same time, playing with the same building blocks with a group of children build social skills such as cooperation, sharing, and empathy for others (Stegelin, 2005).
By identifying how young children view play as a whole, it is important for us as educators to set up learning environments that encourage more meaningful play (Howard, Jenvey & Hill, 2006). Constructive play is a type of play that involves children using hands-on inquiry based learning, and exploring materials to invent and discover new ways of learning (Drew et al. 2008). Young children need a developmentally appropriate amount of time, and open-ended materials available to them to make this type of learning valuable to them (Drew et al. 2008). Constructive play should also be linked with other types of play in the classroom, such as dramatic play, and it should be connected to activities in the school’s curriculum for it to be more educational (Drew et al. 2008).
As educators, it is our job to provide children with opportunities to play with toys where they need to use their imaginations. That type of play is more beneficial than if children were to play with something that has only one purpose or meaning. A child learns best through their own interests and exploration of those interests. Educators need to find out the interests of their students and build a developmentally appropriate curriculum for that year around what the children are interested in.
Children need physical images of objects for them to be completely tuned into the activity. In order for children to be entirely engaged in learning they need some kinesthetic movement as well. From birth, children can benefit in many ways from movement. Along with movement, children need to have many opportunities with hands on learning through exploration and discovery. Young children also need to build communication skills and what better way to build these skills then to talk with other children in a dramatic play area. By doing this children learn one-to-one correspondence with objects and other children, and by communicating through play children gain social-emotional concepts that will follow them throughout their lives.
Bhroin, M. (2007). “A Slice of Life”: The Interrelationships among Art, Play and the “Real” Life of the Young Child. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 8(16), 1-25.
Bredekamp, S. (2005). Play and School Readiness. Educational Perspectives, 38(1), 18-26.
Broadhead, P. (2006). Developing an Understanding of Young Children’s Learning through Play: The Place of Observation, Interaction and Reflection. British Educational Research Journal, 32(2), 191-207.
Drew, W. F., Christie, J., Johnson, J. E., Meckley, A. M., & Nell, M. L. (2008). Constructive Play: A Value-Added Strategy for Meeting Early Learning Standards. Young Children, 63(4), 38-44.
Howard, J., Jenvey, V., & Hill, C. (2006). Children’s Categorisation of Play and Learning Based on Social Context. Early Child Development And Care, 176(3-4), 379-393.
Stegelin, D. A. (2005). Making the Case for Play Policy: Research-Based Reasons to Support Play-Based Environments. Young Children, 60(2), 76-85.
Warner, L. (2008). “You’re It!”: Thoughts on Play and Learning in Schools. Horace, 24(2),