Comments by Stuart Lockton, PGCE Science student:
Vygotsky on Play – Relevance to Natural Play in Educational Settings
Vygotsky makes many pertinent and surprisingly up-to-date-sounding observations on how play contributes to child development in young children up to early school age. What relevance do his findings have to the inclusion of play – particularly natural play – in nursery and school settings today?
I find the observations that Vygotsky makes in his paper very interesting and relevant. At the moment the UK government through its agencies is encouraging a greater emphasis on play provision for all children aged 0-19. Included in this strategy is play provision in educational settings (see The Play Strategy, DCSF 2008). While recognising the importance of Vygotsky’s thinking, it is not immediately clear how relevant this is to older children and some aspects of “Natural Play” (see Children’s Play in Natural Environments, factsheet Children’s Play Information Service).
Vygotsky’s main points seem to me to be:
1) Children’s play always involves rules and imagination
2) Children’s play can be represented in a word formula relating object and meaning
3) Creative play situations offer the possibility for the development of abstract thought.
Through my own recent professional experience of designing play spaces in educational settings, the discussion of how play undergirds and supports child development is extremely important. Yet Vygotsky’s conclusions do not seem to apply in all cases.
Let me take the sandpit as an example – one I have had much to do with in recent years.
The sandpit acts as a major draw for all children from very young crawlers and toddlers through to teenagers. While much play involving rules and imagination can be observed when children play in sand, there seems to be much play which doesn’t obviously fit this model.
Pre-schoolers and primary school children will play many construction (building sandcastles moats etc) and simulation games (loading sand into lorries, road tracks, sand play houses etc) in sand, which do involve rules and imagination. Even what may initially look like straightforward construction may involve imagination and rules (“I’m going to build a tower bigger than Blackpool Tower”). Nevertheless straightforward experimentation with construction materials need not involve imagination or rules at all. Equally children of this age may engage in other experimental play, such as finding a worm or a beetle and burying it in sand, or putting it in a sand hollow, and simply observing what happens. This situation seems to me to clearly be play, but not to involve imagination or rules – the key motivator here is experimentation.
Equally, small children (under 18 months) will sit in sand and play with the grains, observing how it moves inbetween fingers and toes, or how it varies in consistency when wet or dry. Clearly children of this age will play, and indeed be deeply involved in play, in this situation, yet no rules or imagination are required.
At the other end of the age spectrum, teenagers will happily sit on the edge of a sandpit, take their shoes and socks off and play with the sand with their toes. They may do this as an activity in itself, or as a parallel activity while chatting with friends. Again there seems little doubt that this activity is play, yet no obvious imagination or rules are required.
In each of the examples I have cited above, experimentation is the key experience which seems to be going on for the children. In each case that experimentation could represent a significant developmental opportunity. It seems to me, that while Vygotsky’s conclusions on child development through play are a significant and relevant contribution to the debate, his conclusions do not explain all types of play or deal with all of the possibilities that play offers for child development.
Recent papers have been published offering a taxonomy of play (A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types, Hughes B, 1996), this paper offers a range of play types. My own thinking on this taxonomy has led me to think that experimentation and exploration are very important aspects of play. In particular, when one thinks about the design of natural play space, these elements of play are very important, and while a great deal of imagination may be employed through exploration and experimentation, the examples above show that this need not necessarily be the case.
From the perspective of a play designer working with educational settings I would like to know more about how exploratory and experimental play can support child development. (in terms of Hughes’ Taxonomy these would fit into Creative, Exploratory and Mastery play. I have devised my own Taxonomy which works more as a play designer’s taxonomy of play, in which I prefer the terms exploratory, experimental and construction play.)
I am also particularly interested in how play supports the development of teenage children. While again imagination is very important in much teenage play (the football player, for example, imagines himself to be Steven Gerrard in front of the Kop), the opportunity for teenagers to engage in exploratory, experimental and construction play, particularly in a natural play space, would seem to afford many opportunities for development.
What thinking has been done along these lines? I would be keen to engage in a debate on what I have written above and to explore more about these topics.