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Classical And Contemporary Theories Of Play In Early Childhood Education

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In early childhood education, play has been seen as a central concept that underpins the areas of teaching and learning (Fleer, 2013). Play also provides a supportive environment which offers children rich learning experiences that allows them to make sense of their world, to express their thoughts and feeling, as well as extend all levels of development (Crowther & Welhousen, 2003, P. 12). However, the concept of play is changing over time. Firstly, this essay will compare the classical theories of practice and relaxation and recreation play with contemporary theories of emotional and cognitive development in play. Secondly, it specifically analyses how cultural, social and spatial environment factors impact on children’s play. Meanwhile, in order to understand the importance of children’s play, relevant theoretical perspectives and philosophies can provide guidelines for early year professionals to support children’s growth and learning through play, as well as evaluate the roles of teachers (Ebbeck & Waniganayake, 2017).

Fleer (2013) proposes that classical theories of play explain the reason why children play and the meaning of play in nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and physical aspects involved in play. Two types of classical theories of play will be outlined. First, the practice theory of play (Groos1898, 1901), which emphasizes that play has an adaptive purpose. For instance, children will imitate the behaviours of adults in play, in order to prepare themselves for adult life (as cited in Fleer, 2013). Children role-play as parents during pretend play, such as they pretend to cook food in the kitchen or drive a car to go to work. Groos advocates that children are more likely to be interested in mimicking the behaviours of adults who are important in their lives (Mellou, 1994). Meanwhile, this pretend play supports interpersonal development because it allows children to learn about the different roles people play in society (Fleer, 2013). Additionally, through role play, children enhance their imagination. The second classical theory of play is the relaxation theory of play. Lazarus (1883) proposes that the purpose of play is to restore energy expended in work which is evident when children enjoy a relaxing activity without any learning purposes (Fleer, 2013). However, this theory of play seems that there is a debate about whether play store energy or consume energy. Mellou (1994) argues that play might lack of a cognitive function. These classical theories are believed to be inadequate today because they did not focus on the variation of children’s play activities (Biddle et al., 2013). Nevertheless, the importance of children’s play was acknowledged in these theories and they served as foundations for the development of contemporary theories of play (Biddle et al., 2013).

Ebbeck, & Waniganayake, (2017) argue that the contemporary theories of play are more about understanding children’s physical growth and abilities, social skills about knowledge of self and relationships with others, emotional competence about self-esteem and self-regulation, and cognitive skills of learning and problem-solving in play (p.205). Unlike the classical theories of play, contemporary theories increase our understanding of play phenomenon through the explanatory power of the theoretic perspectives, and also provide emphasis on the psychological value of play (Mellou, 1994, p. 93). There are two main theorists who clearly outlined a complex picture of play and its benefits. The first theorist is Erikson’s psychosocial theory (1950), which focuses on how children can use play experiences to foster social and emotional competence at different stages (as cited in Heidemann & Hewitt, 2010). For instance, in the infant stage, babies, although helpless, begin to interact and engage more in a wide range of social play with others when they establish a trustworthy relationship with their educators (Ebbeck & Waniganayake, 2017). Consequently, Erikson advocates the importance of responsive care and support at this stage of life. This theory explains how children’s social and emotional development occurs through play. Young children experience a range of emotions, that can influence their interactions with others, as well as their general wellbeing (Arthur et al., 2012). The second theorist is Piaget. In the cognitive theory (1978), play contributes to children’s development, and it is a method of consolidating concepts and skills, as well as combing thinking and actions. In Piaget’s theory, children do not retain their level of understanding in play but often engage with new knowledge that supports their development of a higher level of cognitive understanding, which is also known as the assimilation process (Heidemann & Hewitt, 2010, p.5). For instance, when a two-year-old plays with a car, her/his understanding of a car might be that it can be driven on a road, however, as the child grows, she/he develops new understanding where she/he learns that car needs petrol to move, showing her/his assimilation of knowledge where she/he built new understanding based on her/his prior knowledge of cars.

Contemporary theories of play provide more insight into play, supported by empirical research, such that it is more persuasive. These theories see play as a medium for nurturing children’s development across various domains and explain why play benefits children’s development (Mellou, 1994). In contrast, none of the classical theories of play provides an in-depth and clear identification of the existence of different contents and variations in children’s play (Bergen, 1998). Despite that, Verenikina et al. (2003) maintain that both classical and contemporary theories of play have the potential to affect children’s physical wellbeing, as well as enhance their cognitive, social and emotional development in many ways.

With the growing diversity of cultures and language in early childhood settings, Corason (2015) finds out that children’s choice of play and interactions might be influenced by their cultural background. Heidemann & Hewitt (2010) maintain that a child’s linguistic background can also affect children’s play. For instance, a non-English speaking child might find it hard to communicate with English-speaking children. In lights of these situations, play also can be used as a medium to overcome such cultural and language barriers. It is a motivating activity that can assist children to learn English or physically interact with others. Through play children are encouraged to communicate with their peers, allowing them to develop new language skills in a non-threatening play environment. By using play as a context for learning, children can also become effective communicators as they engage in interactions using verbal and non-verbal language in play, and attend cultural cues that they are listening to and understanding what is said to them (DWWER, 2009, P. 40). Therefore, educators play an important role in acknowledging and understanding the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the children in their room, so that they can plan play experiences which accommodates their cultural needs and promote inclusion of all children.

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Fleer (2013) argues that play is first learnt in families and it has an economic value. Children do not only need time and space to play and practice skills but also need parents who are willing to put aside time and resources to assist their children in developing skills (Moyles, 1994). Carlsson-Paige (2008) raises concerns that ‘entertainment media are often replacing activities, child-centered play and social time with peers and families’ (as cited in Ebbeck & Waniganayake, 2017, P.18). For example, if parents are exhausted when they return home from work, they might allow the television, phone or ipad to occupy their children. This can pose a negative effect on the relationship and interactions between children and parents. Additionally, that might even give rise to other unavoidable issues such as emotional problems occurring in which children might access to the violent events through the internet. Evidence shows that parental involvement in children’s play is strongly associated with children’s intellectual and emotional development (Moyles, 1994). Briggs & Hansen (2012) suggest that parents are a significant group of people who should be involved in children’s development and learning. When playing and interacting with their children more often, they will able to inform the teachers what their children’s interests, needs and strengths are. This is further supported by Bronfenbrenner in his bio-ecological system theory (1986) which outlines the significant relationship between parents and children’s development. The significance of this relationship is highlighted in his bio-ecological model where parents or families are located in the microsystem, which is the most immediate surrounding for a child (as cited in Ryan, 2001). If parents provide opportunities and experiences that can shape children’s sense of being and becoming (VEYDL, 2016).

Play and learning have been discussed extensively from a range of theoretical perspectives (Fleer, 2103). Contemporary theories of play emphasize that play can meaningfully support children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. In the twenty-first century, play-based pedagogy is underpinned in early childhood education (Arthur, 2012). The EYLF places a specific emphasis on play-based learning approaches, and highlights the benefits of play for children’s learning across different areas of development such as communication, physical, and social and emotional skills (Kennedy & Barblett, 2010). Through physical play, children develop muscle control and eye-hand and foot coordination skills when they jump a distance or catch a ball between extended arms. Also, when children play with others they learn to use language to express their feelings, to communicate with peers, as well as begin thinking critically and judge fair and unfair behaviour (DEEWR, 2009).

Play also helps early year professionals recognize the complexity, features, and potential of play to foster children’s holistic development (Arthur, 2012). This allows teachers to be aware of the multiple forms and types of play which can support children’s development. Early year professionals play an important role as effective managers, co-learners as well as players. According to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development [ZPD] theory (1978) and Bruner’s scaffolding theory (1978), intervention of knowledgeable adults in student play is crucial for the success of play-based learning approach (Briggs & Hansen, 2012, p.73). However, before intervening in children’s play, it is necessary for teachers to consider the intentions behind their intervention. There are many reasons for intervening. For instance, to manage dangerous situation, accept challenging activities, extend children’s future play, or as a mediator in play.

As an important resource in early childhood education, the environment plays an influential role in children’s play. Some contemporary theories and research are informed by the Reggio Emilia approach which value the environment as the third teacher, supporting children’s learning and play in general (Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority, 2016). This is further supported by Kam and Ebbeck (2010) who argued that 'Children need an environment in which to express, explore their ideas in a playful’. They believe that the environment which provides stimulating materials can further motivate children to explore the world, particularly the natural environment, where children are able to be in contact with various natural resources such as leaves, stones, sand, mud and water. These open-ended resources are often inspirational and their value as play resources form the fact that no one can determine what their outcome should be (Fisher, 2013, p.47). This gives children the opportunity to connect with nature and develop respect to the environment (DEEWR, 2009, p. 16). Playing in the natural environment also offer opportunities for children to explore the Aboriginal cultures which shows great respect and connection to nature, such as how they lived in the natural environment, or how they control the use of natural resources to promote sustainability (Kingsley, Townsend & Henderson-Wilson 2013, p. 3). The potential for natural resources can facilitate children’s imagination and enrich creative play (Fleer, 2013). During outside play, when children engage in the natural environment, a variety of sensory elements can easily be introduced, such as the smell of flowers. Children also showed interested in mixing sand and water to make a birthday cake and put some sticks on the top as candles. Utilizing the Reggio Emilia approach, teachers can bring natural materials to the activities in the room, to support children in developing a sense of value and respect for their community (Fraser, 2006)


In conclusion, by comparing classical and contemporary theories of play in the field of early childhood education, it is evident that there might be a lack of understanding about the relationship between learning and play in classical theory. The contemporary theories of play seem more suitable for today’s educational concepts. There is no doubt that diverse cultural and complex ecological factors can influence children’s play. The environment also plays supportive role for children’s learning and development. As early year professionals, knowing the intentions for intervention in play and having the capacity to changing roles is equally significant. However, it is undeniable that our views of play might change and new theories and beliefs of play may arise from current theories of play as when we progress into the near future.

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