What is play and why is it important?
England (2009) states that ‘play is the fundamental way that children enjoy their childhood. It is essential to their quality of life as children. Through play, children are creating their own culture, developing their abilities, exploring their creativity, and learning about themselves, other people and the world around them’. Play is an important tool for children’s work, learning and development, as they are using all their senses to accomplish their tasks. Additionally, they are involved in different kinds of play and this helps them to interact with other people, play different roles (ie. role-play), and show their preferences (Sussman, 2012).
The ages between three and six are the most significant period of a child’s play and imagination development (Montessori, 2012) as imagination has no limits and relates to a child’s intelligence. For example, children can imagine things and they can create things that are not present in reality. In the same view, Bruner believed that “imaginative play must be seen as a form of representation”. Thus, children need freedom during their playtime, and according to Bruner, “children can be guided without being over-directed”, allowing them independence and time to explore and discover. This will help them to discover new ideas and new ways of looking at materials and things around them. If they have the time to explore and discover, they will be able to control their own learning, to develop new skills, understanding, and attitudes. Furthermore, children need to have freedom during their playtime to explore their own ideas as they have their own alternative way of looking at the world.
It is important to understand that for children play is not only about the toys, it is their work, something that they want to explore, to discover and to investigate. For example, according to Montessori, ‘small children have a tendency to work in their play, imitating the actions of the adults’. They don’t consider what they do to be play-it is their work’. Furthermore, it is important for children to use both their hands and mind while playing, as this will help them to form and maintain their intelligence. Montessori states that ‘play with toys only provides movements for the hands. The child must have exercises for the construction of coordinated movements and he must have interesting work’. Thus, children need to play with activities, and to have active experiences that help them develop holistically and not just to entertain themselves.
Holistic development and play
As children want to discover and investigate the world around them through active experiences, they can develop holistically, such as physically, cognitively, linguistically, socially and emotionally.
Physical development: ‘Everyone must work his own instrument for a purpose: one cuts wood, another dances, another is an artist. In order that each individual may do what he wants to do, he must first construct his own body to be an instrument that will enable him to have his own special behaviour in the environment. Every man must work (Montessori, 2012)’. Thus, physical development can be developed through play as children will learn how to control their own body, to become familiar with their body, to balance, to have hand-eye coordination, and spatial awareness.
Intellectual/Cognitive development: Play helps children to develop their brain, to understand the world around them, and to solve real problems.
Language/Communication development: Play helps children to express personal thoughts, feelings and ideas, to develop listening skills, memory and to extend their vocabulary. Moreover, play helps them to communicate with other people and to share ideas. In the same view, according to Isaacs, ‘all humans are born with the unique gift to communicate and use language to share their ideas, thoughts and memories, as well as feelings and beliefs. Nature endows us with the potential, that Montessori described, as the human tendency for communication’.
Emotional development: play helps children to develop their self-control, learn more about their self, respect other people, take risks, and develop positive self-esteem.
Social development: play helps children to expand their social and cultural understanding, work or play with other people, and explore roles and personalities.
The Favourable Environment
The concept of the favourable environment is an important element for children’s holistic development and their playtime. The favourable environment relates with freedom and independence, in so much as it is giving the child an opportunity for unstructured play, which is more enjoyable and less challenging. Children need to have the opportunity to discover learning and through which they can develop their own creativity. Such as, allowing opportunities for exploring their environment and creating their own situations. According to Montessori “children have a need to develop independence; if they don’t become independent they can do nothing in the world”. For example, during their playtime, children have a need to develop their independence, self-worth, autonomy and confidence. Movement is another important element during playtime, as it gives children the opportunity to move freely through independent actions and freedom. According to Montessori “when we speak about freedom in education, we mean freedom for creative energy. Creative energy is the urge of life for the normal development of the individual”. However, it is important to have in mind that ‘freedom’ needs to be limited by ground rules. Children need to understand that during playtime even when they have the freedom to think, to express and to move, there are also rules that they need to follow. This will help children to learn to respect themselves, others and the environment.
While a favourable environment gives the opportunity for young children to play through independent actions and freedom, the role of adults is another important aspect of a child’s playtime. According to England ‘parents, carers and other adults can support children and young people's play by respecting the values and importance of all types of play, playing with their children and by creating opportunities and allowing time for children to play independently with their friends, inside and outside the home.’ Adults need to encourage and to support children during their playtime but never interrupt them if they are concentrating on their play, even if they are making mistakes. Children need time and space to explore and problem-solve during play, on their own. At the same time, by closely observing playtime, it will be easier for adults to offer young children support and provide them with hands on experience in extending their play based on their own level of knowledge.
Montessori states “we cannot teach children from three to six years of age. We can observe them with intelligence and follow their development. Growth comes from activity, not from intellectual understanding. What the child achieves between three and six does not depend on doctrine but on a divine directive which guides his spirit to construction. These are the germinal origins of human behaviour and they can only evolve in the right surroundings of freedom and order”. In the same view, it is vital to provide young children a prepared environment, to understand their needs, and to give them freedom of choice and freedom of movement during their playtime. Then, children will have the opportunity through play, to work, to imitate, to adapt their environment and to develop their power, mind and personality.
Anna is a Montessori Pedagogue and the Lead Teacher of our infant class at Little Gems Montessori Nursery in Nicosia. As well as this, she is a musician and instructed music teacher, and will often be found singing and moving with the children! If you'd like to know more about Anna and her approach to the 2 to 3 year olds, arrange to visit us email@example.com