While play naturally occurs during childhood, its presence in early childhood development research was relatively unheard of until the twentieth century (Farné 2005). Much of the research on play within developmental psychology has been inspired by the theoretical writings of Vygotsky (1978). During play, when it is spontaneous and child-initiated, he argued, children exercise control over their own activity, set themselves appropriate challenges, and create their own ‘zone of proximal development’ within which learning is most powerfully enhanced. Karpov (2005) supports this notion by stating that in play, children are required to regulate their own behavior, making it a significant factor in their development of self-regulation. For example, a number of studies reviewed have demonstrated children being able to perform tasks in play at significantly higher levels than in non-playful contexts. Researchers continue to look at the play and its effect on early childhood development, including the use of play as a pedagogical practice for academic learning (Roskos and Christie 2011).
While it is evident that the research supports the importance of play in kindergarten classrooms, differences in this perspective begin to emerge when we consider the role of play in children’s learning. For example, some advocate for the use of strictly child-directed free play, while others argue for the use of play as a tool in the overall development of kindergarten students (Bergen 2009; Ginsburg 2007). Some view play as beneficial in kindergarten as it pertains to the social and personal development of students (Eberle 2014), while others describe the role of play in the development of academic skills (Riley and Jones 2010).
While many researchers and policymakers alike agree that play is important to children’s development, these claims are not without controversy. For example, Lillard and colleagues challenge the role of pretend play in the development of both the social and emotional, and academic domains, stating: “that existing evidence does not support strong causal claims about the unique importance of pretend play for development” (2013, p. 1). Despite these challenges, research into the value of play has informed the development of curricular policies that mandate the use of play-based learning pedagogies while maintaining high academic standards.
Furthermore, Puteh and Ali (2013) reflect on how the lack of a common definition of play makes it challenging to provide specific recommendations for educators to advocate a play-based approach in kindergarten classrooms in the face of increasing demands on academic skills. In addition, different teachers perceive play differently in practice which further complicates the implementation of play-based learning in classrooms.
In the current educational climate, teachers are required to strike a balance between mandated academic learning and developmentally appropriate play-based pedagogical practices (Jenvey and Jenvey 2002; Martlew, Stephen, and Ellis 2011; Whitebread and O’Sullivan 2012). The benefits of play to children’s development and academic learning are often discussed in the research. However, inconsistencies in differing perspectives concerning the purpose of play in educational settings make it challenging for teachers to determine how to productively integrate play-based pedagogies into their classrooms. This then leads kindergarten teachers to face the challenge of balancing traditional developmental programming and contemporary academic standards.
At present, research and policy documents in Canada are lacking an explicit and consistent definition of play-based learning. Additionally, there is a lack of consistent research findings that describe how play can be used to develop academic skills (Lillard et al. 2013). Despite these inconsistencies in definitions and proposed enactments of play-based learning, in 2010 the Government in the province of British Columbia began the transition to full-day kindergarten, following the lead of other Canadian provinces. This current policy mandates this pedagogical approach, leaving teachers to determine how best to translate this mandate into practice.
Accompanying this shift into a full-day framework, the Ministry of Education in British Columbia released a new kindergarten curriculum document. This new document differs from the previous document in its emphasis on the use of play-based learning in the kindergarten classroom, while still maintaining the high academic expectations of its predecessors. The document identifies the use of play as a means for learning that taps into the “natural curiosity” and creative energy of the student and is accompanied by the belief that play and academic development are not mutually exclusive. The document goes on to explore the various forms play takes in the classroom (e.g. constructive play), the use of play through an inquiry lens, as well as the real-life contexts of play-based learning. However, a review of the document reveals that it does not provide teachers with an operationalized definition of play-based learning that explicitly describes how it can support both social and academic development through play.
This literature review will take a uniquely Canadian perspective that will address the lack of consensus in the definition of play-based learning, inconsistent teacher perspectives in play, and how these discrepancies in perspectives about play complicate the implementation of play-based learning in kindergarten classrooms in British Columbia, Canada.
Definition of Play
While most would agree that play is beneficial in early education, it is still difficult to conceptualize the concept of play. Many who attempt to define play suggest that it is not characterized by a single feature, but rather is multifaceted (Smith and Vollstedt 1985; Jenvey and Jenvey 2002).
From a psychological perspective, Eberle (2014) has identified six basic elements of play, defining play as a voluntary process prompted by emotional experiences and pleasure. This understanding of play as a function of the disposition of the individual is one that is widely agreed upon (Pui-Wah and Stimpson 2004; Jenvey and Jenvey 2002). Others have considered the benefits of play from the neurological perspective, noting play’s sensory and neurotransmitter stimulation advantages, its connection to brain size and activity, and general cognitive development (Rushton, Juola-Rushton, and Larkin 2010; Pellis, Pellis, and Himmler 2014).
The relationship between play and cognitive development is also described differently in the two theories of cognitive development which dominate early childhood education-Piagets and Vygotsky’s. Piaget (1962) defined play as assimilation, or the child’s efforts to make environmental stimuli match his or her own concepts. The Piagetian theory holds that play, in and of itself, does not necessarily result in the formation of new cognitive structures. Piaget claimed that play was just for pleasure, and while it allowed children to practice things they had previously learned, it did not necessarily result in the learning of new things. In other words, the play reflects what the child has already learned but does necessarily teach the child anything new. In this view, play is seen as a ‘process reflective of emerging symbolic development, but contributing little to it’ (Johnsen & Christie, 1986, p. 51).
In contrast, Vygotskian theory states that play actually facilitates cognitive development. Children not only practice what they already know-they also learn new things. In discussing Vygotsky’s theory, Vandenberg (1986) remarks that ‘play not so much reflects thought (as Piaget suggests) as it creates thought’ (p. 21). However, when observing children playing in different scenarios, one can identify both theories of play in action. For example, a child could be re-enacting a situation in the dramatic center that is based upon prior knowledge and would thus support Piaget’s theory of play. Another child could construct new knowledge through her play by figuring out how two pieces of a puzzle fit together and thus supporting Vygotsky’s theory. Whether children are practicing what they have learned in other settings or are constructing new knowledge, it is clear that play has a valuable role in the kindergarten classroom. However, as researchers attempt to create concrete definitions of play through differing theoretical lenses, those in education are left with contradictory definitions that can result in challenges to their understanding of the role of play in students’ development, and therefore, the implementation of play-based programs.
The Teacher’s Role in Play
An often-disputed topic in the discussion of play-based learning is the role of the teacher during play, specifically within the context of classroom play-based learning. Many have found that the most effective play-based learning occurs when the teacher, or adult, is there to facilitate and scaffold learning (Martlew, Stephen, and Ellis 2011). Supporting this education-oriented perspective, Bennett, Wood, and Rogers (1997) found that students made greater academic progress when teachers were involved in the play. Bodrova (2008) also found that higher quality learning occurs as a result of teacher scaffolding during play. Conversely, some researchers argue against teacher involvement, asserting that the underlying beliefs and learning goals of teachers could unintentionally direct children’s play away from a context that is genuinely child-centered (Goouch 2008).
How and where play-based learning is implemented in classrooms is to some extent dependent upon how teachers identify their role within that play (Howard 2010). Understanding this, researchers have explored teachers’ uses of play, the role they assume within the play, and their understanding of how their involvement affects students’ learning (Sherwood, and Reifel 2013; Pyle, and Bigelow 2015). While many kindergarten teachers support the use of play-based learning, how this play is implemented lacks consistency and clarity. For example, Pui-Wah and Stimpson (2004), in their exploration of teachers’ knowledge of play-based learning, found that while teachers stated that they incorporated play in their classrooms, their practices did not match true play practices. Instead, play in their classrooms was fixed to specific circumstances and objects and was used separately from actual learning.
This disconnect between what teachers believe they are doing and what they are actually doing goes back in part to the problem described above, the disagreement concerning an appropriate definition of play. In their investigation of teachers’ understanding of play-based pedagogy, Martlew, Stephen, and Ellis (2011) arrived at the same conclusions, a lack of cohesion in teachers’ interpretations of play-based learning translated into teachers’ misunderstandings of their role during play. A theorized explanation for this lack of cohesion is that those who use play-based approaches, for both research and educational purposes, often approach the topic from differing investigative perspectives, such as cognitive, emotional, or pedagogic, that affects the importance that is placed on specific aspects of that play (Howard 2010).
Additionally, while research has demonstrated support for both the development of academic skills and social and emotional development through play, these bodies of literature describe differing roles for teachers. For instance, research demonstrating the connection between play and the acquisition of academic skills emphasizes the role of the teacher in this type of play. Researchers have demonstrated that play can contribute to the learning of academic skills when teacher support is provided either through the construction of the environment or through direct guidance during play (Skolnick Weisberg, Zosh, Hirsh-Pasek, and Michnick Golinkoff 2013). For example, when teachers actively participate in children’s play by assuming an important role (e.g., student as a doctor, teacher as the patient), the teacher can elaborate and extend shared activities by directing students’ attention to particular objects and contribute to the conversation leading to an improvement in vocabulary learning (Van Oers and Duijkers 2013). Further research demonstrates that when teachers play with students, guiding their attention to environmental print, student reading of this environmental print increases (Vukelich 1994). Contrary to the research describing the learning of academic skills in play-based contexts says about the role of teachers in supporting and guiding academic learning during play (e.g., Skolnick Weisburg et al. 2013), research concerning the development of social and emotional skills often emphasizes the importance of providing children with the opportunity to direct their own play, minimizing the role of the teacher (Elias and Berk 2002; Howard 2010; Stipek et al. 1995). The role of the teacher in this type of children’s play is often viewed as more of a facilitator. For example, Goouch (2008) emphasizes the importance of teachers allowing children to determine the objectives of play and resisting the urge to hijack children’s intentions by imposing mandated curricular standards during periods of play. Some researchers state that teachers should closely observe children during play periods not only for assessment purposes but also to facilitate appropriate social interactions and motor behaviors. It is important that children be the decision-makers during play, choosing what and where to play, choosing roles for each player, and choosing how the play will proceed. Occasionally, however, some children will need adult assistance in joining a playgroup, modifying behavior, or negotiating a disagreement. Careful observation will help the teacher to decide when to offer assistance and what form that assistance should take.
The differing teacher roles in play-based contexts compound the challenges teachers face as they integrate play into classroom environments. For teachers must not only determine the type of play to foster in the classroom and the environmental contexts that can support productive play, but they must also determine the extent to which they will involve themselves in these playful contexts.