Play is one of the most important needs children have. Thus, it is one way children can learn because it helps them to manage their feelings and to cope with upsetting things that happen in their lives. This is why Lev Vygotsky emphasizes that learning through play helps children to comprehend better in school. This paper will discuss the justification of this statement and explain how it can help enhance lower graders’ performance in school.
According to Oxford dictionary (2018), “play means to act in a manner such that one has fun; to engage in activities expressly for the purpose of recreation or entertainment.” Play provides opportunities for children to experience learning in a meaningful way. As Silva (1992) stated, “play strengthens instincts needed for the future….it is a child’s way of practicing and preparing for adulthood.” It is a means by which children can develop their skills and capabilities to be effective learners thereby developing the brain (Kail ; Robert, 2011). Thus, learning through play is a term used in education and psychology to describe how children can learn to make sense of the world around them (Learning Through Play, n.d). According to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (2016), they state that, “Young children’s affinity and intrinsic need to play is a clever and sophisticated resource that is not capitalized upon enough by teachers.” From the way children wonderfully play, the eclectic mix of skills and innate motivation they demonstrate at a very early age enables them to discover new things efficiently and access what they want (ATL, 2016). Moreover, children possess a natural curiosity to explore, and play acts as a medium to do so. Play to be considered an activity, measure of inner control, ability to bend reality and strong internally based motivation for playing must be experienced (Dietze ; Kashin, 2011). The foundation of intellect, social, physical, and emotional skills essential for success in education and life is nurtured in children by play (Canadian Council on Learning, 2006).
According to Bodrova and Leong in their research on Vygotskian perspectives stated that, “At its core, Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory considers the history of human development to be a complex interplay between the processes of natural, biologically determined development and the cultural development created by the interaction of a growing individual with other people” (2011;372). Moreover, these interactions prove more than the simple acquisition of the values, expectations, and competencies promoted by a specific culture (Bodrova ; Leong, 2011). Bodrova and Leong (2011) went on to say that rather the entire system of naturally determined “lower” mental functions, such as involuntary attention, rote memory, and sensory-motor thought, becomes restructured to produce what Vygotsky described as higher mental functions; “When the child enters into culture, he not only takes something from culture, assimilates something. Takes something from outside, but culture itself profoundly refines the natural state of behavior of the child and alters completely anew the whole course of his development” (Vygotsky, 1978). However, Vygotsky meant only one kind of play, namely, the sociodramatic or make-believe play typical for preschoolers and children of primary school age (Bodrova ; Leong, 2011). Thus, Vygotsky’s definition of play does not include many kinds of other activities, such as physical activities, games, object manipulation, and explorations that most people, educators included, still call ‘play’.
Furthermore, Bodrova and Leong (2011) cited an article from Vygotsky’s research paper that defined higher mental functions. They cited that higher mental functions are behaviors that are sign mediated, intentional, and internalized according to Vygotsky. In addition, Vygotsky described this development as a gradual process involving the transition from inter-individual (“intermental”) or shared to individual (“intramental”). As such, for young children, most of the higher mental functions still exist only in their inter-individual form as they share those functions with adults or with other children. “Sociodramatic or make believe play, according to Vygotsky, has three features: children create an imaginary situation, take on and act out roles, and follow a set of rules determined by these specific roles. Each of these features plays an important function in the development of higher mental functions; Vygotsky associated the creating of an imaginary situation and the acting out of roles with children’s emerging ability to carry on two types of actions, external and internal, internal actions being a defining characteristic of higher mental functions” (2011;374).
In play, these internal actions “operations on the meanings” in Vygotsky’s words remain dependent on the external operations on the objects (Bodrova & Leong, 2011). However, the very emergence of the internal actions signals the beginning of a child’s transition from earlier forms of thought processes – sensory motor and visual representational to a more advanced symbolic thought. At first more stimulus bound, preschoolers gradually learn to transcend ostensive reality. The key to understanding this lies with the knowledge of play, how children learn and develop, and how they are supported and extend their understanding. As natural players, children start from a point of intrinsic desire to be involved and motivated in their play. The Zone of Proximal Development concept developed by Lev Vygotsky, suggests that children require activities that support past learning and encourage new learning at a slightly more difficult level (Bodrova ; Leong, 2011). Vygotsky believed that social engagement and collaboration with others are powerful forces that transform children’s thinking. Beginning from the time they are toddlers and start to play near others, they are learning about relationships thereby developing socially and emotionally. By working with others, children learn to be collaborative, sensitive to feelings of others, fair and responsible. Moreover, by being social, children learn to listen actively, develop routines of turn- taking, co-operating and sharing opinions. Play teaches about relationships and is one important way children develop good language skills, other than that they also learn to express and work through their feelings (Dr. Whitebread, 2012). As they get older, play teaches about getting turns and sharing. Through play, children learn to negotiate, for example, when two children want the same toy or want to make rules for games. Children learn about being either a leader or follower. They also learn how to ask to join a game. Children develop language through stories and books, songs, nursery rhymes, games with friends and adults talking and listening.
In the early stage of childhood (1-3 years), the child’s problem solving skills are influenced by suggestions from others, conveyed in gesture and speech. Children develop intellectually through play, for example, when doing activities such as hitting a mobile and making it move, this cause them to learn about cause and effect. Posting a box, this teaches them about space and size. Even so, playing games such as those of sorting puzzles helps them learn about shapes, numbers, and size. Arranging toys in order as well helps them acquire about grouping and numbers, and making their own games, in which they learn creativity. In addition, children develop physical skills by doing activities such as picking up small things, pushing and pulling toys, riding on toys, using crayons or paint, throwing and catching, climbing toys and hitting balls.
The Northern Ireland Curriculum (1996) strongly agrees that play helps children develop the fundamental skills of literacy, numeracy, and communication. Counting to establish what number of objects is in a collection enables the child to know things they could not possibly know without counting, in particular how many objects are in any collection containing more than about seven objects. NIC (1996) agree that play also provides rich and varied contexts for developing skills such as observing, organizing, recording, interpreting, and predicting. Moreover, play promotes positive attitudes to school and to learning. It provides opportunities to learn in a practical way, develop movement and manipulative skills, develop natural curiosity and stimulates imagination in children. From playing, children attain opportunities to explore, investigate, solve problems, and make decisions.
Furthermore, play is important according to The Children’s Play Council (1998) because it promotes children’s development, learning, creativity, and independence. CPC (1998) continue to say that it keeps children healthy and fosters social inclusion, as children understand the people and places in their lives. Through play, children find out about themselves, their abilities, and interests. Moreover, play is therapeutic and helps children to deal with difficulty or painful circumstances such as emotional stress.
“Dewey and Vygotsky, assert that education should be based on the principles that the child is part of society and that its learning is social. The school should encourage what is social within the child to blossom on an individual basis. What is relevant to social needs and issues determines the curriculum, preferably in such a way that the child sees social needs as its needs. The teacher should often turn to the child’s interests for information about what the child needs to know, because the child is a social animal and exists as part of the society” (Glassman, 2001). The child’s needs are imbued with the social needs of the society around it and in turning to them; we find the best way to make the child’s education relevant to the society around it, as well as to the child (Langford, 2005). The start of preschool stage (3-7 years) is marked by beginnings of an analytic approach to objects. This is reasonable as children at this stage are beginning to play with such things as construction toys and dress up dolls and to engage in construction and building with materials found to hand (Langford, 2005).
Play is instrumental in achieving mastery of the object and furthering symbolic ability. Vygotsky notes, “Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick in particular an object becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of a horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered” (1967, 12). Another way make believe play contributes to the development of higher mental functions is by promoting intentional behavior. It becomes possible because of the inherent relationship that exists between the roles children play and the roles they need to follow when playing these roles.
In conclusion, play is the leading source of development in preschool years. Play development can be compared to the instruction development relationship, but play provides a background for changes in needs and in consciousness of a much wider nature. Moreover, play is the source of development and creates the zone of proximal development.