Play is an arena where children learn new skills and practice old ones, both physical and social. This was discussed in the last chapter on toddlers, but there’s always more to say about play—especially when the subject is preschool-age children. It’s espe- cially important to keep emphasizing play in light of the endangerment of play when children end up spending their days indoors in front of screens instead of playing indoors and outside. And it isn’t just quiet play that counts. Frances Carlson (2011) makes a case for the importance of what she calls ’big body play” and why children should have boisterous, vigorous, physical play. Through play children challenge themselves to new levels of mastery. They gain compe- tence in all areas of development—increasing language, social skills, and physical skills, for example. Briana not only practices such important skills as eye-hand coordination but also at times uses her whole body to improve balance and coordination.

David Elkind, long an advocate for play, says in his book, The Power of Play, “One legacy of our Puritan heritage is a lingering ambivalence toward child play” (2007). That ambivalence can show up in preschool and child care classrooms as an emphasis on structured lessons in the name of learning outcomes for “school readiness.” Outdoor time may be limited because it’s seen as a non-educational recess rather than a chance to learn through playing outside. The parent or program that buys “educational” toys can justify play as educational, but there is little research that shows toys marketed as educational re- ally are. Elkind makes the case that it’s of more benefit to chil- dren to use their imagination in an environment that lends itself to exploration, initiative, and active engagement with objects, materials, and other children. It’s important that teachers don’t buy the consumer- oriented mindset that marketers are trying so hard to sell. Teach- ers can give a different mes- sage to parents and counteract some of the hard sell coming from advertising.

Check Your Understanding 4.1

Click here to check your understanding of what initiative looks like in a four-year old.

Watch this video to hear more about how active play benefits children’s development.

Children’s initiative is supported in an environment that provides choices, opportunities for exploration, and active engagement with objects, materials, and other children


Play provides for cognitive development in ways that educational toys don’t necessarily address. Cognitive development is tied in with physical and social in- teractions in the preschool years as children are constructing a view of the world and discovering concepts. So when parents see their children running around, playing outdoors, seemingly doing nothing constructive, a teacher should be

there to help the parents look deeper at what’s really happening. Teachers can give parents the message that there is nothing passive about play— even if the body is passive for a time, the mind is busy working. Children at play are active explorers of the environment as they create their own experience and grow to understand it. In this way they participate in their own development.

Through play, children work at problem solving, which involves mental, physical, and social skills. While playing, they can try on pretend solutions and experience how those solutions work. If they make mistakes, those mistakes don’t hurt them as they would in real life. They can reverse power roles and

be the adult for a change, telling other children what to do. They can even tell adults what to do, if the adults are willing to play along.

Play enables children to sort through conflicts and deal with anxieties, fears, and disturbing feelings in an active, powerful way (Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2012). Play provides a safety valve for feelings. When they pretend, children can say or do

things that they can’t do in reality. Play makes children feel powerful and gives them a sense of control as

they create worlds and manipulate them. Watch children playing with blocks, or dolls and action figures, or even in the sandbox. Think about how they cre- ate the worlds they play in. What power!

Children also get a sense of power by facing something difficult and con- quering it—like finding a place for a puzzle piece that just won’t fit anywhere or climbing higher on the jungle gym than they’ve ever climbed before. Think back to your own childhood. Think of a time when you were challenged in

play. What was your feeling as you overcame obstacles (including perhaps your own fear) and met the challenge?

Helping families understand the value of play is a big challenge for preschool teachers and for kindergarten teachers who have a play-based curriculum as well as for other professionals who use play therapy. Play may look very unorganized and frivolous to families. It’s important to make a good case for play as learning and also for therapeutic goals. See Strategy Box 4.1 for ideas on working with families around issues of play. Figure 4.2 summarizes some benefits of play discussed in this chapter.

Helping Families Appreciate Play ◆◆ Observe with the family members when their children are playing so that

you can see the child through their eyes and give parents input on what you see.

◆◆ Help families appreciate the value of play as a way of learning and developing in all the domains of development: mind, body, and feelings.

◆◆ Don’t just teach families; also learn from them. For example, have families help you understand how to adapt the learning environment so that it is accessible to their culture or the special needs of their particular child.

Watch this video to see two children during big body outdoor play. What kind of initiative do you see? What challenges are they creating for themselves?

St ra

t e g y

Box 4.1

Teachers can give par- ents the message that there is nothing passive about play—even if the body is passive for a time, the mind is busy working.

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Sharing Views of Initiative with Families 81

Figure 4.2 Play is powerful! What are the benefits of play?

• Children learn new skills and practice old ones • Children challenge themselves to new levels of mastery • Children gain competence in all areas of development • Children construct a view of their world and discover concepts • Children are active explorers of the environment as they create their own

experiences and participate in their own development • Children work at problem solving • Children try new power roles, making sense of their world • Children develop social and emotional skills by sorting through conflict, playing

out fears and feelings • Children feel powerful as they create imaginary worlds and then manipulate them • Children feel competent by overcoming obstacles and challenges

How the Environment Contributes to a Sense of Initiative The environment reflects whether the adults in charge of it regard developing a sense of initiative to be of value. Individual initiative, like independence, is not a universal priority. In some cultures, individual initiative is less important than going along with the group spirit. Initiative may only count when it obviously serves the group rather than the individual alone. So as you read about how the environment setup relates to the value of initiative, realize that what you are reading reflects the value behind it. When families have a different set of priorities, instead of arguing your side, try creating a dialogue so you can understand more about where they are coming from. Everyone stands to gain when communication comes in the form of a dialogue.

Attention should be given to environments for children in the stage of initiative so that they have choices about what to do. We saw such an indoor environment in the Briana scene. You can imagine that the outdoor environment was also well planned so that children had a variety of choices about what to do in it. Both the indoor and outdoor environment should be set up for active as well as quiet play. Not only should there be choices of developmentally appropriate activities, toys, and materials, but these items will be enticingly arranged to attract attention and draw children to them.

Not all adults see giving children choices as valuable. Some people expect chil- dren to adapt to what is and to entertain themselves in the environment of adults, rather than selecting from a number of options that have been provided for them. They disagree with the notion of a child-oriented environment isolated from the real world of adults (Mistry, 1995; Rogoff, 2003). Some adults do not believe in creating learning situations to teach their children; they put their children in adult-oriented environments and expect them to learn by observation, not from playing in an en- vironment specially set up for them. For an example of this different view of what children need and are capable of, see the following “Perspectives on Child Rearing.”

Perspectives on Child Rearing A preschool teacher enjoying a sunny afternoon in San Francisco sat on a bench watch- ing two street musicians playing music from the Andes for a crowd in Ghirardelli Square. She noticed their daughter, who appeared to be about four years old, sitting on a bench

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next to where the parents were playing. The child sat quietly on the bench until her par- ents took a break. She had no toys and nothing to do. She seemed to be able to content herself with people-watching and listening to the music. When her parents took a break, she moved over to be with them. She hung around listening to what they were saying and periodically taking short excursions to look in shop windows around the perimeters of the plaza. She was never gone too long but kept coming back to where her parents were. She never demanded their attention while they were talking. When they went back to playing music, she went back to sitting. She never left or distracted them in any way while they were working. She was obviously well trained.

The little girl was a contrast to two little boys, about two and four years old, who were also entertaining themselves as their parents stood watching the performance. They had toys with them that they played with. When they got tired of the toys, they started running around the plaza, with one parent trailing after them. To the preschool teacher the boys’ behavior was more to be expected than the girl’s behavior, not because of gen- der but because of age. The teacher marveled at the ability of the girl to sit on the bench. She wondered what would happen if this child went off to child care or to a preschool where active play was considered vital to development. Would the philosophy of the pre- school upset the situation the parents had created so they could earn their living? Would the girl get bored with sitting (she never looked bored that afternoon)?

Dimensions of Play Environments Elizabeth Jones and Elizabeth Prescott (1978) at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California looked at children’s play environments in terms of what they call dimensions. Their research is as relevant today as it was when they did it. To create an optimum environment for the kind of play that enhances initiative, Jones and Prescott advo- cate a balance of these dimensions: soft/hard, open/closed, intrusion/exclusion, high mobility/low mobility, and simple/complex.

Balancing the soft/hard dimension means that the environment is both respon- sive and resistant. Softness in play environments comes from things like rugs, stuffed animals, cozy furniture, grass, sand, play dough, water, soft balls, pads, and laps, to name a few. Hardness comes in the form of vinyl floors, plastic and wooden toys and furniture, and concrete.

The open/closed dimension has to do with choices. Low, open shelves displaying toys to choose from are an example of openness. Some closed storage is also ap- propriate, so that the number of choices is manageable. Closed storage also gives a sense of order and avoids a cluttered feeling. Maintaining a balance between open and closed is important.

The open/closed dimension also has to do with whether there is one right way to use a toy or material (e.g., a puzzle, a form board, graduated stacking rings) or whether the toy or material encourages all kinds of exploration. A doll, finger paint, and play dough are open; so is water play. Children need both open and closed toys, materials, and equipment.

The environment should provide for both optimum intrusion and optimum exclusion, or seclusion. Desirable intrusion comes as the children have access to the greater world beyond their play space—for example, through windows that allow them to see what is happening outside but protect them from dan- gers and noise. Desirable intrusion also occurs as visitors come into the play environment.

The outdoor space is also important to consider when setting up environments to support initiative. Watch this video to see adults create an obstacle course for young children.

Seclusion should be provided so children can get away by themselves. Think of the hideaways you had as a young child. Given a little freedom, children will find these kinds of places for themselves; however, in a child care center or home, they sometimes need to be provided. Lofts, large cardboard boxes, and tables covered with sheets provide semi-enclosed private spaces in which children can make “nests” to hide from the world.

A balanced play environment provides for both high- and low-mobility activities. Children need quiet and still activities as well as opportunities to move around freely and engage in vigorous movement.

Although parents don’t necessarily need to be given all of this information about the design of the environment, it is helpful for you to have it in case they have questions. The information in the next paragraph, however, is very relevant to parents and should be communicated.

We all know that young children can be satisfied with the simplest things. A baby can be fascinated with something that an adult wouldn’t give more than a glance. This fact relates to the simple/complex dimen- sion of the child care environment. As children grow older, they need complexity, which they often provide for themselves by combining simple toys with other materials. Watch a child who finds sand, water, and utensils conveniently close to each other. The park designers may never have thought of how that drinking fountain close to the sandbox would be used, but the four-year-old who finds an empty soda can is almost certain to think of using it to carry water to the sand. Complexity presents increased possibilities for action. Preschool and child care teachers know this, so they put a dripping hose in the sandbox on warm days and give the children scoops, buck- ets, cups, spoons, and a variety of other implements to use. They know that attention span lengthens when children find or create complexity in the environment. The more complex a material or toy (or combination of materials and toys), the more interesting it is. Blocks are fun. Blocks with small figures and wheel toys are even more fun! Some parents may resist the idea of messy play. You can explain the importance of sensory experiences, but also listen to their ideas about what children do and don’t need. And always respect their perspective.

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