“If the focus is on winning, and if the rules are rigid and external, the players are not players, but workers”. These are the wise words of Drs. Cosby Rogers and Janet Sawyers, professors emeriti from Virginia Tech, in their classic book, Play in the Lives of Children, first published in 1988 by NAEYC. How many times in your life have you seen young children emotionally crushed because they played on the team that lost? In such circumstances, were they really playing? Were they experiencing the joy that comes with authentic play?
Many sport programs for pre-adolescent youth have been designed on the misguided notion that children are miniature adults. These programs have ignored the rich research base on child development, learning, and play. Many youth sport programs have just watered down the adult game a little, hoping to maintain the “integrity” of the professional game. A growing number of pediatric sport scientists are questioning this approach as they believe this is a major contributor to the high dropout rate from sport by our youth. They advocate designing programs from the bottom up based upon the developmental needs, interests and abilities of children. This creates a very different play experience than just watering down the adult game.
Play Is the Way Children Learn
Play is the way young children learn. They learn with their minds, spirits and their bodies. Through play children strive to make sense of the world. They set their own level of difficulty and increase the difficulty of their play as their skills increase. Play is self-motivated, and self-directed. Children's need to play is as strong as their need to eat and sleep. In children's play there is no risk of failure since the child regulates the difficulty of his/her play.
The first type of play to develop is practice play. This play is most prevalent during the first 24 months of a child's life, although it is present in different degrees at various ages throughout life. Early practice play is characterized by picking up and dropping things, crawling, standing, and walking. Older children and adults also engage in this type of play, i.e. learning to ride a bike, skipping rocks, etc. Practice play must be internally motivated, be free of outside rules and not be concerned with outcome as much as with process, which is the definition of play.
Symbolic play begins to develop around 12 months when children begin to pretend play. They use a block as a comb, they pretend to feed a stuffed animal. This play is symbolic use of objects to portray different activities. As children become 3 and 4 this play becomes make-believe (dramatic play). In order to be able to take part in dramatic play, children need to have a knowledge of the social world - how people carry out roles and relationships between people. They also must know how to communicate with other children, setting roles, negotiating settings and action sequences. Around 18 months children begin to include others in their play. Between 20 and 26 months children become less dependent on realistic props. Children's beginning symbolic play revolves around everyday behavior such as bed time or eating. This type of behavior moves on to involving objects such as dolls, then to their mothers, and then with other children.
The third type of play is games with rules. However, to go along with the definition of play one criterion must be that it is free of externally imposed rules. This type of play has rules that change with the children's development. The rules are mutually agreed upon. From 2 through 7, children are involved with games that involve cooperation and rules for action but no competition.
Through play children are driven to make sense of the world. Given ample opportunities to manipulate materials in the environment, children build mental maps through which concepts are developed. When new information does not fit into the existing “map,” the structure needs to be adjusted. This lack of fit promotes learning because the child experiences disequilibrium, a clashing of beliefs. With sufficient time for exploration and play, children come to experience disequilibrium, experiment, and come up with new maps that work.
For example, a child playing at the water table might come to the mistaken belief that heavy objects sink and light ones float. If that child comes across a heavy object such as a log that floats, the child will experience cognitive dissonance, a clashing of beliefs because a heavy object that floats won't fit in her thinking framework. Through experimentation, the child will come up with a “map” that accepts the heavy log that floats. Without time and opportunity for lots of play, a child does not formulate many meaningful concepts.
From observing how young children play, we can be inspired to be more “playful” ourselves. Adults can learn more easily if they cultivate a playful attitude towards learning and an openness to new possibilities.