Theories About Play in Early Childhood Education

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” While this ancient proverb may seem trite or cliche to modern scholars, it still holds true when discussing children and play.

Greek Philosophers Plato and Aristotle discussed the role of play in education, but specific play theories were not developed until centuries later.

The following discussion of a few modern psychological theories and theorists describes the current trends put into “play” in today’s educational settings.

Play as Therapy

In 1920, Sigmund Freud posed a psychoanalytic play theory that was defined in his book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.”

In this work, Freud described play as a child’s mechanism for repeatedly working out a previously experienced traumatic event in an effort to correct or master the event to his satisfaction.

Play as Rehearsal

In 1972, Bruner stated that one of the main functions of child’s play was to rehearse actions to various real-life scenarios in a safe, risk-free environment so that when confronted with a difficult situation, it would not be so stressful.

Play as Preparation

John Dewey was a prominent theorist in the early 1900s. According to Dewey, play is a subconscious activity that helps an individual develop both mentally and socially. It should be separate from work as play helps a child to grow into a working world.

As children become adults, they no longer “play” but seek amusement from their occupation. This childhood activity of play prepares them to become healthy working adults.

Play as Sensory Learning

Maria Montessori, an Italian educationist during the early 1900s, postulated that “play is the child’s work.” According to the Montessori method, which is still employed today in private schools, children would be best served spending their play time learning or imagining.

Montessori play is sensory, using a hands-on approach to everyday tools like sand tables. The child sets her own pace, and the teacher is collaborative in helping the child play to learn.Play as Intellectual Development

Jean Piaget is most noted for introducing the stages of child development. These stages directly relate to play, as he stated that intellectual growth occurs as children go through the stages of assimilation, or manipulating the outside world to meet one’s own needs–playacting–and accommodation, or readjusting one’s own views to meet the needs of the outside environment, or work.

Play as Social Development

Lev Vygotsky suggested that children will use play as a means to grow socially. In play, they encounter others and learn to interact using language and role-play. Vygotsy is most noted for introducing the ZPD, or zone of proximal development.

This suggests that while children need their peers or playmates to grow, they need adult interaction as they master each social skill and are ready to be introduced to new learning for growth.

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