Play in Early Education
Nikki A. Battenfield
A & M University-Central Texas

Theorists over the past several decades have established the importance of play in early childhood development. Play in general is an abstract, flexible concept, but can be best defined as an activity that gives a child or children the “freedom of choice, personal enjoyment, and focus on the activity instead of specific desired outcomes” (Aras 2015). Theorists have long maintained that play time is a critical component in early education, providing children with opportunities to develop their imaginations, build socialization skills, learn to share, and to work both dependently and independently. However, in recent years, government agencies and educators have focused on meeting academic standards, thus reducing or eliminating the opportunities for children to learn through play, an activity that is natural to them, and prepares the foundations for several skills and information retention, as illustrated in Figure One.
Literature Reviews
Vygotsky, while known for his sociocultural theories and the creation of the Zone of Proximal development, also produced a theory about play. Vygotsky defined play as having two major parts, an imaginary situation and the rules of the imaginary situation, which can be implicit or explicit (Nicolopoulou, Barbosa, Ilgaz, and Brockmeyer 2009). Vygotsky explained that play can have explicit imaginings with implicit rules, or implicit imaginings with explicit rules. In the earliest forms, children place rules on themselves, teaching themselves self-regulation, self-constraint, and self-determination. In pretend play, children form rules and a system, learning to elaborate on and master the creations or situations they have imagined; this occurs both individually and in group or partnered play. Vygotsky stressed that play fosters independent and creative thinking, empowerment, personal expression, it prepares children for abstract thinking, and creates the Zone of Proximal development (Nicolopoulou et al 2009). However, in terms of play, the Zone of Proximal development does not focus on information and lessons being handed from an adult to a child, but instead focuses on how children interact with each other and the rules they have developed for their imaginary world.

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Researchers have discovered that the concept of play goes back to ancient times, and philosophers dating back to Plato have stressed the importance of play, and the need for it to develop well-rounded individuals. Playgrounds and parks emerged in the United States in the mid-1800s, which led to the creation of the National Recreation Association, advocates for playgrounds, parks, and programs to promote play (Mainella, Agate, and Clark 2011). A decline in outdoor play has been linked to the rise of overscheduling, an increase in media use, and “stranger danger,” despite the fact that abductions and crimes have not increased and is instead a result of media and news saturation and sensationalism. The decline in play, especially outdoors, has led to detrimental effects on children. Health is suffering, children are less able to handle stressful or unpleasant situations, emotional and social disorders are on the rise, and stress levels are increasing (Mainella, Agate, and Clark 2011). Mainella, Agate, and Clark (2011) noted in their research that up to 40% of schools in the United States have eliminated or severely reduced recess; a Gallup poll conducted on 2,000 principals indicated that principals believe play time has many positive effects on children and their development, but 20% of those same principals have cut recess to allow for teaching high-stakes tests.

Play puts children in position to become emotionally competent. Play allows children to learn sharing, patience, tolerance, problem-solving, cooperation, self-regulation, and how to compromise. When children are emotionally competent, they are able to express themselves, have positive relationships, control impulses, and cope with stressful events (Emslie and Mesle 2009). Play develops and builds gross and fine motor skills, with movement creating new synapses in the brain, leading to brain development. Children learn coordination, body control, eye-hand/eye-foot coordination, spatial awareness, and mastery over their body. Exercise in play leads to more balanced moods, an increase in self-esteem, and better overall health. Due to the wide variety of applications found in play, many subjects can be incorporated into play. Nicolopoulou and colleagues (2009) provide an excellent example on combining literacy and play; providing maps, books, notepads, and flashcards can further push literacy and verbal development. As children sort, count, and measure they learn mathematics foundations. Different materials, cause and effect, doctor’s props, and sand/water tables introduce the sciences. Play money, familial and social roles, and roles within the community introduce social studies. Problem solving and symbolism can be found throughout all types of play.

One way early education teachers can incorporate play into their curriculum is to use Vivian Paley’s practice of combining storytelling with story acting. Nicolopoulou and colleagues (2009) spent two years in 14 preschool classrooms to test how well Paley’s story acting methods incorporated lessons and improved learning (seven classes were a control groups and seven were the experimental groups; all were middle- to low-income with diverse ethnic backgrounds). During “choice time” periods, students were allowed to dictate stories for their teachers to write; later in the day the teacher would read the story aloud to the group while the author (and sometimes others) would act out the story. Nicolopoulou and colleagues (2009) discovered that when story acting is a part of the routine, all the children were engaged, either in dictating, acting, and/or listening. The practice is largely autonomous, with teachers offering very little guidance, critiques, or direct input. Sharing the stories with the teacher and classmates helps create a sense of community, while encouraging collaboration and experimentation. Tests were given both at the beginning and end of the studies to “measure expressive vocabulary, narrative skills …, emergent literacy skills …, and various dimensions of social competence” (Nicolopoulou et al 2009 p. 49). Across the board, story acting improved all of the skills that were tested prior to and after completing the study. Nicolopoulou and colleagues (2009) noted that an unexpected discovery in this experiment was how well behavior problem students responded to the activity, becoming immersed in the classroom community and culture.

Initially believing that teachers should have a role in children’s play primarily through observation, Vygotsky redacted that belief in the 1970s, instead suggesting that teachers should facilitate opportunities for play and become more involved. The Ministry of National Education in Turkey has rewritten their curriculum so that play has become integrated in the lessons and the teachers both observe and interact with the students (Aras 2015). Aras (2015) studied four early education teachers, selected based on the variety of racial and cultural diversity within their classrooms. Interviews and observations were used to determine the teachers’ personal opinions on play, as well as how the teachers utilized their time while the students were engaged in play. The teachers interviewed explained that their students began the day with free play in order to unwind and prepare for the upcoming lessons, believing learning to be more effective when free play was provided beforehand. They all agreed that the free play period gave them the chance to learn what was going on with their students (problems at home, a lack of sleep), and providing a space for play afforded students access to the multitude of developmental benefits that play provides for children. Observations of the teachers indicated that they used the free play time for lesson planning, official business, or conducted individual student observations. Teacher involvement ranged from ensuring the environment and children were safe, to offering non-specific feedback or reinforcement, or actively engaging the children to think differently, providing guidance; most took the role of “onlooker.”
Leggett and Newman (2017) conducted a qualitative study in Australia, observing six early education teachers and 59 students, to identify how educators interacted with students during both indoor and outdoor play time. When outdoors, teachers interacted about 50% less than they did during indoor play time; reasons cited ranged from ensuring the environment and students remained safe, to allowing the children freedom in their choices. Like the participants in the Turkey study, the teachers in the Australian study agreed that outdoor play was a way for students to burn off energy so they are better able to focus when indoors to receive lessons. Leggett and Newman (2017) found that most of the teachers interviewed found some children to engage in “aimless” play (wandering, observing, or running) even though the students were engaged in a particular interest or train of thought. However, two teachers in Australia used outdoor play as a way for students to push their boundaries and explore parts of the natural world-the teachers allowed students, supervised and one at a time, to climb trees that are in the outdoor play space (Leggett and Newman 2017). Leggett and Newman (2017) reported that this behavior was “frowned upon” by the schools, but the students’ families responded positively to the activity. Leggett and Newman (2017) reached the conclusion that while play is vital, citing Vygotsky’s social and cultural theories, educators need a more vital role during outdoor play time.

Classrooms (and by a lesser extent, playgrounds) can be arranged and designed in a manner to encourage play and provide a safe space for play to occur. Teachers can offer a wide variety of materials, props, and books to encourage imagination and critical thinking (example: a student wants a car, what items in the classroom can be used to meet that desire). When classrooms are designed to promote play, teachers can assign students to a specific play center/area to help build weaker skills, as noticed through the daily lessons and observations. Piaget’s theories on cognitive development have shown educators and psychologists that children learn at different stages in relation to their ages, and in this, they learn in different ways. Young children primarily learn through play, exploring their world and using their imaginations to build cognitive, emotional, and social skills. Nicolopoulou (2010), who has studied the benefits of play in early education, has seen firsthand that it is possible to integrate meaningful, directed play into classrooms and daily curriculum (such as Paley’s story acting, or a program called ‘Tools of the Mind’ that is based on Vygotsky’s theories), but mandates that further research, especially long-term studies, need to be conducted. Nicolopoulou (2010) believes that once the long-term studies can be successfully conducted, they will show the effects, outcomes, and benefits of play, both free-time and structured, in all aspects of children’s development.

Figure One
Aras, S. (2015). Free Play in Early Childhood Education: A Phenomenological Study. Early Child Development and Care, 186 (7), 1173-1184. doi:10.1080/03004430.2015.1083558 Retrieved November 28, 2018.

Emslie, A., ; Mesle, R. C. (2009). Play: The Use of Play in Early Childhood Education. GYANODAYA: The Journal of Progressive Education, 2 (2), 1-26. Retrieved November 28, 2018.

Leggett, N., ; Newman, L. (2017). Play: Challenging Educators’ Beliefs about Play in the Indoor and Outdoor Environment. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 42 (1), 24-32. doi:10.23965/ajec.42.1.03
Mainella, F. P., Agate, J. R., & Clark, B. S. (2011). Outdoor-based Play and Reconnection to Nature: A Neglected Pathway to Positive Youth Development. New Directions for Youth Development, 2011(130), 89-104. doi:10.1002/yd.399
Nicolopoulou, A., Barbosa De Sá, A., Ilgaz, H., & Brockmeyer, C. (2009). Using the Transformative Power of Play to Educate Hearts and Minds: From Vygotsky to Vivian Paley and Beyond. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 17 (1), 42-58. doi:10.1080/10749030903312512
Nicolopoulou, A. (2010). The Alarming Disappearance of Play from Early Childhood Education. Human Development, 53 (1), 1-4. doi:10.1159/000268135