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News from Head of Early Years Centre, Michelle Stevens

21 November 2014

As a parent who has a child in Nursery or Reception you may possibly get frustrated when you ask your child what they have learnt at school and their response is, ‘nothing’. The reason for this is because in the early years children learn through playing. I read an article on Reuters Health stating that, “Training teachers to promote structured play among kindergarteners yields improved reading, vocabulary and math scores that persist into first grade”

A play based curriculum allows for children to effectively take responsibility for their own learning. This is successfully implemented when opportunities are provided for them make their own choices to explore and then make sense of that learning. The key aspect is children planning what they are going to do and making a plan for it and executing that plan. By following this way of learning, they are practicing all the cognitive skills that are important for learning. As teachers we organise shared cooperative activities designed to promote social-emotional development and improve thinking skills. They cover the seven areas of learning as set out in the early years foundation stage framework with child-directed activities and structured play. Many studies show connections between play and both intellectual and social skills, such as memory, verbal abilities, school adjustment, and getting along with others. Studies also show that play is where children first show their ability to delay gratification, to take another person's point of view, to think abstractly, and to voluntarily follow rules. One constant that we can always count on, regardless of cultural or social situations, is that young children will play. If you ask a young child why he plays, they will probably say "because it is fun!" Of course, being adults, we have to define play in terms we are comfortable with.

 As part of Nord Anglia Education’s commitment to develop the staff, we have access to the Nord Anglia University website. We therefore have access to a vast collection of journals and subjects on education. Below is an overview of play theory and theorists from the past 100 years that I sourced from our this website.

Herbert Spencer, psychologist and philosopher, born in 1820. He stated that humans have a constant amount of energy that must be expended. Early in our existence, most, if not all, of that energy was used just meeting basic needs. As our civilization advanced, and less energy was used meeting these needs, we have had to compensate by expending our excess energy in some other manner, namely, play.

Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyst, born in 1856. He suggested that play was a way of expressing socially unacceptable behaviors. Play was therapeutic, allowing one to vent undesirable feelings and actions in a more acceptable manner.

Karl Groos, zoologist, born in 1861. He studied play first in animals, then in humans. He explained that play was a way of preparing for survival in the adult world. Maria Montessori, born in 1870, elaborated on this theory. She proposed that children would be better off if they spent their play learning, or imagining, useful things. These two theorists feel that "play is the child's work."

Jean Piaget, psychologist, born in 1896. His work focused on intellectual development in children, and his play theory reflects that. He suggested that human intellect develops in stages through assimilation (transforming the environment to meet the requirements of self), or play, and accommodation (transforming self to meet the requirements of the environment), or work.

Lev Vygotsky, psychologist, also born in 1896. His play theory emphasizes social development. He suggests that there is an ability level that children can reach but not without help from adults, which he refers to as a zone of proximal development, or ZPD. When children play, they give cues to adults about their readiness to learn new skills with assistance.

David Elkind, chair of the Department of Child Development at Tufts University, suggests that children play for personal, experiential reasons, and any developmental value is beside the point. In other words, they just want to have fun!


Michelle Stevens

head of Early Years Centre