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Childrens Play Theories and Contemporary Issues

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 2624 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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There are a number of theorists and and theories that influence early learning and childcare programs. Exploring theories helps you decide what you believe is best for children, how children learn, what an effective learning environment is, and what your role is in supporting children in their learning.

Think about the programming you are developing in your center/classroom and how it relates to these theories. Some program models draw upon a combination of theories.

Research and experience has shown us that play is the foundation for children’s healthy development. Development occurs in an orderly sequence. Children’s play shows us how well they are developing and is also the means for further development. It helps children develop knowledge, social skills and motor skills. It helps them express feelings appropriately. Play is the basis of developmentally appropriate programs for young children.

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As children play they learn to master new knowledge at their own rate and in their own way. This reduces the tension and anxiety that can inhibit learning. In play learning is fun and free from worry or stress. When children are playing they are learning and enjoying every minute of it. Parents or staff who worry about their children “just playing” all day are ignoring what many theorists have found out about how young children learn and develop. Play is an active form of learning that unites the mind, body and spirit. (Levy. 1978) Young children’s learning occurs best when the whole self is involved.

We are going to look at both classical and modern theories and how we see them everyday as we observe the children in our programs.

Classical Theories

These theories are concerned with the Causes (beginnings/origin/root) and Purposes (aim/idea/reason) of play.

1. The Surplus Energy Theory

Maintains that humans are naturally active. They store up energy and when they no longer need this energy for basic survival, they use it in pursuit of aimless pleasure. Spencer


This theory suggests that when children are not moving around (sitting) for long periods of time they build up surplus or extra energy. Fidgeting, restlessness, and off task behaviours (poking another child during a story) are warning signs that children need to move around or take a break. Active Play such as jumping, running, skipping help children to “let off steam”

How do you feel when you have to sit for a long period of time for example during a workshop…do you start to move around in your chair or tap your pen? Your body is telling you that you have too much energy and you need to move around to release it

2. The Pre-Exercise Theory (Instinct)

Suggests that children play in order to practice and perfect their instincts for survival. A child’s sensory organisms (smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing) are not perfected when they are born. Therefore they must proceed in playful experimentation to develop the fundamental senses necessary for later development of intellect and emotions. The practice and experimentation prepares and equips children with the skills they need to survive, as well as those required for maintaining life. Groos

3. The Recapitulation Theory

Children’s play is the re-enactment of the activities of one’s ancestors. Children progress through play activities in stages similiar to the cultural stages of human evolution. This theory suggests that through play the undesirable traits of humanity can be eliminated. Children’s play prepares them to move beyond primitive stages of play to more sophisticated activities necessary in the modern world. Hall

4. The Recreation Theory

This theory suggests people are depleted of energy and must find ways to restore their physical and psychological energy. Play is necessary to refresh and restore this energy. Lazarus

5. The Relaxation Theory

Maintains that in modern society, people have evolved to the point where excessive amounts of strain are put on the brain tracts and fine muscle coordination. Play is a way a person can release fatigue. Lazarus


Modern Theories

1. Psychoanalytical Theory

This theory is based on Freud’s work and is concerned with the consequences of play. Play behaviour is explained as a combination of the child’s biological need to grow and the desire to be grown up. Play is a relief for the child. It is a means by which the child can relieve his anxieties in a safe manner. Through play the child creates his world. Freud / Erikson


2. Cognitive Development Theory

This theory focuses in the content of play. It emphasizes the different aspects of play as the child grows and develops. He emphasized that children require environments that allow them to be able to create their knowledge rather than receive it from teachers. Children develop their intelligence by having interaction with their physical environment. Children build knowledge by having sequential experiences structured on previous experiences, and they need to repeat these experiences so that in-depth investigation and exploration leads to discovery. Stages and types of play are related to this theory. Piaget

Piaget advocated children require learning environments that provide “hands-on” experiences with a variety of materials and objects to manipulate or play with. For example, if children express an interest in the concepts of light and dark, the early childhood educator


3. Ecological Theory

This theory is concerned with the structure and conditions that differentiate children’s play. Researchers are interested in discovering how play settings and attributes affect the child’s behaviour. Some research indicated that the materials or activity would affect the child’s attention span, interactions, and the amount and type of conversation.

Factors that influence play are:

– Number of children present

– Objects available for play

– Gender of play partner

– Adult control of the activity

– The type of play setting (creative, traditional, etc.)

4. Socio-cultural Theory

This theory promotes flexibility and creative problem solving. Symbolic play is the leading factor in development. An imaginary situation is created that enables the child to grapple with unrealizable desires. Play is paradoxical (it seems self-contradictory but may be true) On one level, children are engrossed in pretending; on another level, they are aware of their true identities. Vygotsky / Bruner / Bateson

Vygotsky believes the child has the potential to attain levels of abilities but cannot achieve it without assistance. Therefore dramatic play areas provide children the environment for these new skills to be learned. For example, a child may be able to pour tea from a toy teacup and cut slices from an imaginary cake before he or she is able to perform these actions with real glass cups and cutlery. Through dramatic play, the child conveys his or her readiness to learn new skills with the assistance of adults. Vygotsky also suggested that learning should lead development rather than the other way around. Children require challenging activities that stretch their limits of experience, knowledge, use of resources, and level of problem-solving skills in order to expand the development of new knowledge and skills, which in turn lead to a new level of proficiency.

If a child is able to balance himself on one foot for 10 seconds, and then begins practicing balancing for longer and longer periods, he will soon be able to expand the time that he is able to stand on one foot. However, if the child is not provided with this opportunity to expand his motor skills, his ability in this area will be stifled. Thus, children must have a continuous supply of new challenges that are developmentally appropriate and that build on their interests.


Theorists and Program Model Influences

Theorist and Perspective

Program Model

Key influences

John Dewey (Progressive Education)


Children learn by doing

Activities planned according to children’s needs, interests, and abilities; supports the development of the whole child.

Jean Piaget (Cognitive)

Creative Play or High/Scope

Children require hands-on experiences.

Environment set up with interest centers.

Emphasis on cognitive development.

Arnold Gesell (Maturational)


Experiences based on child’s growth patterns and skills

Continuous assessment

Carefully prepared environment

Howard Gardner (Multiple Intelligences)

Reggio or Emilia

Each person has nine different intelligence’s

Emphasis on in-depth exploration of topics while collaborating with learning-community members.

Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson (Psychoanalytical and Psychodynamics)

Bank Street

All aspects of child development evident across the curriculum.

Curriculum evolves from the child.

Early life experiences positively or negatively affect future development.



Piaget (1962) and Vygotsky (1978) insist that children’s play experiences provide them with the foundation to actively construct knowledge (learn) and also provide them with a way to stretch their usual levels of abilities. A number of theorists and program models influence how play experiences are designed and implemented with children. Whichever model you follow, it is essential that it be based on child development and developmentally appropriate practice, and that it display an appreciation of diversity and high quality.

Some of these theories have been implemented along time ago and it is important for you to know how to appreciate the way you can see them as you observe children at play. Early Childhood Programs continue to base their programming on these theories as they see the children learn according to these patterns.


Effects of TV, Movies and Video Games on Children’s Play 

Research shows a relationship between viewing violent media (TV, movies, cartoons and video games) and violent behaviour in children. The findings suggest viewing violence

– increases aggressions in children

– increases verbal hostility

– reduces sharing

– produces a false understanding of what is real life and pretend

– increases negative play interactions and reduces imaginative play

What is Super Hero Play and War Play?

Super Hero Play

Superhero play refers to when children pretend to be or take on the role of movie characters or cartoons characters like Superman or Spiderman who have extraordinary abilities, including superhuman strength and special powers.


War Play

War play refers to children acting out or pretending to be at war. In this type of play there is usually a good guy vs. bad guy theme.


Why are children fascinated with war play and superhero play?

Children are exposed to violence:

When children see a lot of violence-be it entertainment or real-it is natural for them to bring it into their play to try to make meaning of it.

Children need to feel powerful:

Most young children look for ways to feel powerful and strong and pretending to have superhero powers and “kill” the bad guy may accomplish this need.

Children are influenced by the toys they play with:

Certain toys can give powerful messages to children about what and how to play. Highly structured toys such as action figures that talk tend to have built in features that show or prompt children on how and what to play. Many of today’s best selling toys are highly structured variety and are linked to violent media. Structured toys can lead children into acting out or replicating the violent stories they see on TV, movies and video games. Some children can get “stuck” imitating what they see on T. V instead of developing creative, imaginative, and beneficial play.


Concerns about War Play and Superhero Play

Lack of safety in the classroom:

When play becomes violent and aggressive children end up scared and hurt.

Concern with the limited nature of the play:

Some children will play or act out the same violent scenario they saw on a cartoon day after day instead of using their own imagination.

Concerned about lessons learned from superhero and ware play:

When children pretend to hurt others, it is the opposite of what we hope they will learn about how to treat each other and how to solve problems. Children learn as they play-and what they play affects what they learn. Children often do not think about the violence they bring into their play in the same way adults do. A child will see the bad guy as a bad guy…and does not think of what makes him bad. A child may believe that super heroes can do whatever hurtful violent things they wand because they are the “good guys”


What can Early Childhood Educators do?

There is no perfect approach for dealing with children’s violent play but keeping the play space safe is your highest priority. Remember that children need to trust that you can protect them and keep them safe at all times.

Approaches to Working with Children’s Violent Play

Reduce the amount of violence children see:

Always review the material you are providing for the children to view. What is the purpose of watching the particular program? What message is it sending to children? What types of toys and play materials are offered in the center for children to play with?

Limit the amount of toys in Early Childhood programs that are marketed with media violence:

Take inventory what is available in the center. Limit the amount of toys and materials that are marketed with media violence. Review all the videos, books, toys and posters that you have in your program. What message is it sending to the children?

Limit the use of highly structured violent toys and encourage the use of open-ended toys and play materials:

The types of toys and materials that are offered in an early childhood program will have an impact on children’s play experiences. Some toys are likely to promote higher quality of play than others. Toys that are open-ended and unstructured such as play-doh, blocks, stuffed animals, tend to encourage children use their imagination to create ways to play with them. Highly structured or realistic toys, like Batman or Star Wars action figures based on TV programs and/or movies, can have an opposite effect. They channel children into playing particular themes in particular ways that could include violence. Plan toy purchases carefully and involve children in the process

Provide children opportunities to work out an understanding of the violence they see and hear:

Discuss each other’s reactions (both positive and negative) to what you saw: What did you think about the cartoon you watched last night?





Engagement | Exploration | Application | Connection | Top

created 12-Oct-2009

modified 12-Oct-2010




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