Currently the role of play in learning is being challenged by those who advocate the early mastery of reading and writing as a way of accelerating learning with very young children.  Given the introduction of testing in the early grades and even in Head Start programs, parents can become anxious about their children's capacity to compete academically if they waste time in what might be considered the frivolous activity of play.  This anxiety can be extreme among parents who have not had a positive learning experience in school. Those of us who reach out to these parents can nurture the parents' learning potential while demonstrating to them the importance of purposeful play as a valid mode of learning for their young children.

To do this is challenging in the present socio-political climate which is encouraging an early focus on reading and writing, minimizing the value of play in the learning process. In order to speak with confidence about the value of  play in learning it is wise to revisit the results of foundational research to inform decisions about how to engage young children in learning, and what advice to give to parents.

Play Nurtures Thinking Skills

For more than 70 years classical research has confirmed that play nurtures a young child's thinking skills.  Parten (1932), Vygotsky (1930-35/ 1978), Piaget (1967) and Smilansky (1968)  have described how in play a young child assimilates information and is guided in accommodating to the rules and patterns of society.  The child develops the following basic thought processing skills that move from thinking in the concrete to the ability to think in the abstract:
1. exploration
2. manipulation
3. mastery through practice and repetition
4. logical memory
5. problem solving
6. interpretation
7. imagination
8. creativity (divergent thinking)
9. expression of will

In addition to nurturing thinking skills in play, a child develops intelligences across multiple domains.  Each of these domains has its own "operating rules" and sequence of development (Gardner, 1999). This development is intrinsically dependent
upon interaction with adults and other children. Bornstein and Bruner (1989)
pointed out that play that enhances learning provides an abundance of first-hand experiences, the opportunity for interaction with a supportive caregiver and time for exploring multiple ways of combining objects and completing tasks.  Playful activity can also include fantasy play that constructs make-believe worlds. (Bettleheim, 1976; Bruner, 1974; Jenkinson,1988; Sutton-Smith,1974). This dimension of play enhances creativity by nurturing the imagination.  Play is an effective medium of learning because it requires involvement and intense focus.

The cognitive domain, which has to do with the intellect, includes for a young child the development of skills, understandings and awareness that lead to pre-writing, reading and math, as well as to fine motor and gross motor coordination.

Piaget (1968) was the first to describe development that is nurtured by play with objects in the cognitive domain.   He found that play with objects helps a child assimilate information and to develop the following abilities and understandings:

1. eye-hand coordination
2. object permanence
3. differentiation of patterns
4. sequencing
5. sorting
6. the recognition and use of language
7. the use of letters and numbers as symbols that
point to concretions
8. qualities and quantities

In describing how play nurtures thinking skills Piaget (1967) described two types of knowledge that children develop by playing with objects: Physical Knowledge and Logiomathematical Knowledge.  Physical Knowledge is acquired by acting on objects: touching, pushing, poking, squeezing, and dropping them. Logiomathematical Knowledge is more complicated. It is created by comparing, finding relationship between objects, discovering similarities and differences (Williams and Kamii, 1986).  Logicomathematical and Physical Knowledge depend on each other.  Logicomathematical interprets the information gained through touch and manipulation. This interpretation maximizes learning and is occasioned by asking questions as children handle objects (Williams and Kamii, 1986).

Play Nurtures Social Skills

Parten (1932), whose research preceded Piaget, described play through the lens of social skill development as she described associative and cooperative play.  She noted in her work that through interactive play the child learns to accommodate to the norms, rules and cultural patterns within society. Through social interaction he learns to take cues from others, to respond to their feelings and different perspectives, and to subordinate impulses.  Vygotsky (1930-1935/ 1978) noted that through play a child learns to exercise self control, while developing empathy for others.

In social play a child uses objects as props to help her re-enact the world around her. She uses dolls to create home life, blocks to build houses, and a scarf to dress up like the adults around her. Through this kind of play a child imitates the adult world, encounters problems, and discovers interests and concerns (Smilansky and Shefatya, 1990).

In social play with others a young child learns to voice his ideas and points of view. In house play with his mother, a child might state, "In the egg carton, some of the eggs are fried and some are scrambled."  As he states such an idea, he invites his caregiver to help him learn that an egg does not come cooked in the shell; but rather that a cook decides whether to prepare an egg to be fried or scrambled.  Social play provides the child the opportunity to ask questions and thereby nurtures his ability to become an active learner.

Play Nurtures Personal Development

In addition to describing the social role of play in a young child's development, Parten (1932) described young children's solitary play.  Research done by Smilansky (1968) and Smilansky and Shfatya (1990) elaborated Parten's insights to describe constructive play in which a child is able to create and achieve and build a sense of confidence.  In activities that nurture confidence a child learns through repetition as well as risking new experiences. For example when a young child successfully stacks blocks as well as balances them on her head, she can gain a sense of confidence and positive self-esteem. This confidence and self-esteem contribute to a child's ability to initiate action, as well as to problem solve and make choices (Wortham and Reifel, 2000).

Play Expands Imagination

In addition to finding that through play young children develop cognitive, social, and personal competence, researchers have found that play develops a child's sense of fantasy and make believe as well.  Vygotsky (1930/1990), Smilansky (1968) and Bettleheim (1976) described fantasy, make-believe and symbolic play.

It is through fantasy play that a child nurtures intuition.  Bettleheim (1976) points out that in fantasy play a child develops an inner life that can help balance the demands of the rational world.  This balance can reduce fear and anxiety and provide a sense of social well-being and self control (Vygotsky, 1930/1990; Bettleheim,1976; Jenkinson, 1988).    Pearce (1997) stated that imagination is a critical element in the formation of intelligence. "Imagination  means creating images that are not present to the senses. The whole crux of human intelligence hinges on this ability of mind" (p. 120).  Imagination, spiritual connection with the Divine, a yearning for discovery and exploration and a love of experimentation and creativity come naturally for infants and toddlers. Supportive caregivers nurture these dimensions of intelligence and protect them from the functionalism of the practical world.

Without fantasy and imaginative play, a child estranges himself from his inner life and this depletes him. As a consequence, he may later, as an adolescent, come to hate
the rational world and escape entirely into a fantasy world, as if to make up for what
was lost in childhood (Bettleheim, 1976, p. 65).

Vygotsky noted (1930/1990) that a child's imagination begins to develop before her intellect. Because it is necessary for a child to draw from a wealth of experience in order to link abstract concepts to concretions intellectually, the development of the child's intellect follows the development of her imagination. When intellect and imagination are intertwined, a rich and original texture of thought results (Howes and Matheson, 1992).

"Imagination is the bridge to intuition and sometimes the direct route to inspiration" (Jenkinson, 1988, p. 75).  In symbolic and imaginative play a child creates fanciful worlds and explores new ways of combining things and ideas. Vygotsky (1930-1935/ 1978) states that in this form of play a child's imagination changes the function of objects to help create the imagined world.  For example, for the child, straws can become magic wands; a quilt can become a flying carpet.

Through the exploration and discovery involved in this style of play, a child develops a repertoire of novel ideas, which become a resource to problem solving in the immediate and later on in life.  The capacity to think creatively provides confidence in dealing with ambiguity (Jenkinson, 1988).

Play is Not Frivolous

In play infants and toddlers come to know the world and how to live in it;
they develop life skills, confidence and a sense of well being. They experiment with "free range thinking" (Jenkinson, 1988, p.51).

But in spite of its importance to the development of confident competent individuals, play has been marginalized in our contemporary U.S. society.  Play activity has been turned into competition on the one hand and entertainment on the other. Both competition and entertainment have become powerful vehicles for commercialization (Jenkinson, 1988, Postman, 1983, Elkind, 1989).

Knowing the vital role that purposeful play has in the development of a child's learning potential influences how a parent relates to their child as a learner (Fewell, Casal, Glick, Wheeden, and Spiker, 1996).  A young parent might not have experienced play as a medium for learning in her own life, and so might think that playing with young children is a frivolous waste of time.  Also parents might have experienced the dynamics of poverty, prejudice and racism, and look to education of their children as a critical means of escaping oppression.  In their urgency to have their children read and write, parents can marginalize or fail to appreciate the learning benefits of play (Garcia-Coll, 1995).

In reaching out to these parents we can rehearse the essential role of play
in learning.  A strong foundation of research that has spanned generations and cultures and which has withstood the test of time makes it possible to do this.


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Playing to Learn Is Deeply Rooted in Research

By K. Elise Packard, PhD