I attended a course titled ‘Play – What is it? What use is it?’ in September 2013. The day was led by Professor Anita Bundy, an Occupational Therapist by training, who has produced many books and papers in the field of ‘Play’, ‘Sensory Integration’ and ‘Occupational Therapy’.
It was an interesting and inspiring day, consisting largely of group work, led by Anita. Her key messages were:
- How do we define play and what are its characteristics?
- How do we recognise when a child is playing as opposed to ‘following orders’ or ‘doing something for a reward’?
- The power of play in learning
- How can we make our activities playful and encourage the children to play?
Tatty Bumpkin on Play
Definitions of play
Nancy Stewart in her book ‘How Children Learn’ acknowledges that play is ‘an elusive concept, which has been defined on many different ways’ (N. Stewart 2012). Indeed play can be defined:
- By the type of activity done i.e. rough and tumble play, imaginative play
- As a particular behaviour
- As a ‘state of mind’ which could change at any time i.e. a child might be asked to build a sandcastle by an adult and hence start the activity in a non-playful way but quickly become immersed in running the sand through their fingers and building their own fantasy castle – turning the activity into ‘play’
- By its characteristics - ‘Play has been described as being voluntary or internally motivated, process orientated, fun, imaginative and creative’ (D. Parham 2008).
- 'Play is the result of an internal drive to connect with and engage with the surrounding world' (R. Cornelli Sanderson 2010).
- In their report on the Early Years Foundation Stage 2012 Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart define play as 'An open ended activity, freely chosen by and under the control of the player. Play is open to spontaneous ideas as they arise, so any initial plans about what to play, how to play and who to play with, can change from moment to moment. In play the player finds their own purpose - it might be enjoyment, challenge, social interaction, exploring things or ideas, practising and perfecting skills’. (Moylett and Stewart 2012).
Why is it Important for Children to Play
Current research is demonstrating that is play essential to a child's cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical development. When children are fully and freely engaged in play, their play is transformative - that is they will:
- Learn new things
- Develop emotional, physical and social competencies/abilities
- Experience empowerment and grow in confidence
- Learn to problem solve
- Enhance their creativity.
Play and Learning
‘Within the early childhood context, play has long been recognised as the most valuable vehicle for children’s learning and development’ (C. Stevens 2013). In 1949 Norma Alessandrini, an Occupational Therapist, suggested that: ‘Play is the child’s way of learning and an outlet for his innate need for activity. It is his business or his career. In it he engages himself with the same attitude and energy that we engage ourselves in regular work. For each child it is a serious undertaking not to be confused with diversion or idle use of time. Play is not folly. It is a purposeful activity’ (N. Alessandrini 1949).
Research is increasingly showing how play is essential for learning, particularly when the young child uses play to explore the surrounding world and how it works. Piaget separated play activities from learning activities, but current research is directly linking play with:
- Healthy brain development (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2000) and the building of new neural connections in the brain which allow flexible and intelligent ways of approaching the world (N. Stewart 2012)
- Development of cognitive skills. Diamond et al (2007) suggest that play and learning may not be so easily distinguished from each other.
Gross motor play –Physical PlayThis aspect of play is a major proportion of nursery or pre-school play and obviously is a major part of the Tatty Bumpkin class. As well as developing physical abilities, gross motor play is associated with the development of sensory-motor integration. Efficient integration of sensation with movement in the brain gives the child the ability to hold attention, plan and organise their movements. Interestingly, pretend play and physical play (specifically, rough and tumble play) have also been linked to emotional competence. In fact, in a study of physical activity in pre-schoolers, parents described the immediate benefits of gross motor play for their pre-schoolers as “improvements in their children’s mood and mental health” (Harvey-Berino, Geller, Dorwaldt, Flynn & Walfield, 2001).
Play and Academic SuccessPlay both with parents and with peers has been shown to lead to longer term academic success. Peer play interaction has been positively correlated with higher receptive vocabulary skills, early literacy and numeracy outcomes and greater engagement in learning activities (Fantuzzo, Sekino, & Cohen, 2004). The nurturing and responsive relationships that are strengthened through parent-child play foster optimal cognitive development, particularly in oral language and literacy. (Tamis-LeMonda, Shannon, Cabrera, & Lamb, 2004).
True Play vs Adult Guided Play
When adults lead activities, this is not really play, and the children probably do not consider it to be play. Adult led activities can however be fun and playful and provide good learning opportunities. Hence Tatty Bumpkin sessions would be regarded as a playful, adult led activity.
The Characteristics of Play
Anita Bundy (2008 and 2013) listed three characteristics of play, these act as a useful guide if we want an activity to be playful:
1. The children are largely intrinsically motivated.
When children are motivated to do an activity purely for its own sake rather than for a reward i.e. a sticker or a ‘well done!’ they are said to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation leads to active engagement, persistence and enjoyment.
|(Image courtesy of quietspacing.com)|
2. The children have a perception of being in control.
When children feel they are 'in charge of' their own actions or at least some aspect of the result of the activity - the activity is more playful. For a child to feel ‘in control’ they need to feel:
- Safe enough to play
- That they are making the decisions and have choices
- That they can modify the activity at any time
- That they are able to interact with the objects easily.
|(image courtesy of dailytelegraph.co.uk)|
If children are able to free themselves from the constraints of reality this is a great sign that they are playing. For children to suspend reality they need to feel they can:
- 'Break the rules' a little
- Playfully tease
- Pretend to be something or someone else
- Be the clown a little - tell a joke or do a silly gesture use objects in an unconventional way i.e. a pebble can be a spider!
|(Images courtesy of theimaginationtree.com & letchildrenplay.net) |
Anita Bundy’s ‘Test of playfulness’ shows how an activity might move either towards play or non-play, depending on the nature of these three characteristics. Fig 1 shows the three characteristics of play and how they can ‘tip the balance’ between play and non-play. Fig 2 represents a playful activity where the child: is intrinsically motivated, feels in control and has been able to ‘suspend reality’.
|Figure 1 Test for Playfulness (G. Skard & A. Bundy 2008)|
|Figure 2 A Playful Activity in the Test for Playfulness (G. Skard & A. Bundy 2008)|
A Characteristic of Play - The Source of Motivation - Intrinsic vs Extrinsic
If a child does an activity for ‘its own sake’ they are said to be intrinsically motivated, as opposed to if they do the activity for a ‘reward’ in which case they are extrinsically motivated. The more intrinsically motivated a child is whilst doing an activity the more likely the activity is to be playful.
How do you recognise whether your child is intrinsically motivated i.e. Are they are doing the activity for its own sake?1. Look your child’s engagement in the activity - are they fully immersed?
If your child is actively engaged in play - seeming to be ‘in the moment’ they are likely to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation and engagement are related to a concept called 'flow'. The 'flow' concept was put forward by Csikczentmihalyi in the nineties. He defined ‘flow’ as 'a deep, effortless involvement in an activity in which the person loses sense of self and time' and suggested that the best 'flow' experiences occur when the child (or adult) engages in an activity which provides 'a level of challenge that matches their ability' (Csikczentmihalyi 1990). I.e. In a playful activity, your child does not feel overwhelmed by the activity but, on the other hand, the activity presents enough of a challenge to their skills, so they are not bored by it.
|(Image courtesy of motherswhowork.co.uk)|
If your child is intrinsically motivated they will be enjoying and focusing on the actual doing of the activity rather than the result. For example they might be interested in the shapes they can make in the sand or with streamers in the air rather than the actual building of a sand castle or the learning of a formal dance using streamers. When children play under a sprinkler they are focused less on making sure to get wet and more on the various fun and creative ways they can interact with the water.
|(Image courtesy ofletchildrenplay.net)|
A good indicator that your child is intrinsically motivated is whether they persist despite coming up against obstacles.
4. Look at the effect of the activity on your child.
Basically is your child enjoying themselves? They might not be smiling – instead your child’s joyfulness may be expressed by their uninhibited abandon in the play activity. Often joyfulness is observed through the energetic synchronisation of body, face, and voice.
|(Image courtesy of colurbox.com)|
Alessandrini, N.(1949). Play - A child’s world. Am. J of Occupational Therapy, 4, 53-55.Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2000). Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Development, 71, 1687-170 in Cornelli Sanderson, R. (2010). "Towards a New Measure of Playfulness: The Capacity to Fully and Freely Engage in Play" Dissertations. Paper 232. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/232
Bundy, A. (2013). Play in Occupational Therapy: What is it? What use is it? Lecture to Sensory Integration Network
Cornelli Sanderson, R. (2010). Towards a New Measure of Playfulness: The Capacity to Fully and Freely Engage in Play . Dissertations. Paper 232. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/232
Csikczentmihalyi, M (1990). Flow – the psychology of optimal experience. New York. Harper Perennial.
Diamond, A., Barnett, S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Executive function can be improved in preschoolers by regular classroom teachers. Science, 318, 1387–1388.
Fantuzzo, J., Sekino, Y., & Cohen, H. L. (2004). An examination of the contributions of
interactive peer play to salient classroom competencies for urban Head Start children. Psychology in the Schools, 41, 323-336 in Cornelli Sanderson, R. (2010). Towards a New Measure of Playfulness: The Capacity to Fully and Freely Engage in Play . Dissertations. Paper 232
Harvey-Berino, J., Geller, B., Dorwaldt, A., Flynn, K., & Walfield, L. (2001). A qualitative data analysis of parental attitudes towards preschool physical activity. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 24S.
Hirsh-Pasek, K. Golinkoff R, M. (2008) Why play=learning. In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, Boivin M, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development Available at: http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/documents/Hirsh-Pasek-GolinkoffANGxp.pdf.
Parham, D. (2008). Play and Occupational Therapy in L.D. Parham & L.S.Fazio (eds) Play in occupational therapy for children (2nd edition).St Louis: Mosby pp 3- 39
Skard, G., Bundy, A.C. (2008). Test for playfulness in L.D. Parham & L.S.Fazio (eds) Play in occupational therapy for children (2nd edition).St Louis: Mosby, pp. 71 – 94
Stevens, C. (2013). The Growing Child: Routledge, pp9
Stewart, N. Moylett, H. (2012. Understanding the Revised Early Years Foundation Stage. Early Education.
Tamis-LeMonda,C. S., Shannon, J. D., Cabrera, N J., & Lamb, M. E. (2004). Fathers and
mothers at play with their 2- and 3-year-olds: Contributions to language and
cognitive development. Child Development, 75, 1806-1820