A visitor walks into a kindergarten classroom and observes the
children scattered about the room, playing in various areas. In one area
a child is playing with a magnetic toy. The toy consists of four magnets
embedded in a plastic base and hundreds of tiny metal parallelograms
that can be formed into larger forms above the magnets in the base. The
child has constructed an arch between two of the magnets. He then takes
one tiny parallelogram and tries to stick it onto another one that he
holds in his hand. When he tries to stick the combination onto the arch
with one hand, one parallelogram falls to the floor. He picks it up and
then presses the two objects together harder, as though trying to make
them stick together by the force of his hand pressure.
This child is displaying understanding. When we speak of
"understanding" we are referring to the active construction of
meaning. Children arrive at understanding by creating hypotheses about
items and events that they find interesting. They test hypotheses as
they actively interact with the materials and events in their
environment (Chaille & Britain, 1991). The child in the above
scenario was testing his hypothesis that each individual metal piece
would stick to any other one.
The idea that these understandings belong to each child,
individually, is important when discussing children's
understanding. While the actions described above are familiar to
teachers, not every child will act with the same understandings. As the
child acts, familiar tools are applied to unfamiliar ideas. In the above
example, when the two pieces did not stick together, the child attempted
to make them stick in the same way that he would try to make a piece of
paper stick with glue.
Sometimes these familiar tools do not work in the way that an adult
would consider to be correct. Once the two pieces did not stick
together, for example, an adult would not consider trying to use more
force to try and make them stick. Nevertheless, some tools may work for
the child. That is, although the hypothesis may not be totally correct,
it has enough correctness to be satisfying to the child. Therefore, the
child has an understanding; in this case, an understanding about things
sticking together. It is not completely correct, but it is correct
enough that the child is satisfied with the result. Only if the child
sees a discrepancy in his reasoning will he be motivated to modify his
reasoning, and ultimately his answer. Thus, when the piece fell a second
time, the child abandoned his strategy and placed the individual pieces
one at a time on the arch.
Piaget refers to the intentional social process of constructing
understanding (partially described above) as active education (DeVries
& Kohlberg, 1987). Active education involves four elements:
interest, play, genuine experimentation and cooperation. In this
article, the authors contend that interest, experimentation and
cooperation are joined within the context of play. They first examine
the kinds of play and the relation of these kinds of play to active
education. Then, they place these kinds of play into particular learning
contexts, intending to show that through play, children achieve all the
elements of active education through play.
It is important to remember, however, that play may take two
different forms, one of which is not active learning. When children are
interested and applying attention to their play, they are engaging in
active education. If, however, their play involves a simple manipulation
of materials, without applying mental activity, it is unlikely that
knowledge construction will take place. This is why constructivists
caution against simply giving children materials to manipulate. Little
understanding can occur without interest, experimentation and
Play and Active Education
Piaget (1962) identified four kinds of play: practice play, symbolic
play, games with rules and constructions. (Piaget, in fact, separates
constructions as a unique form of play that leads to adapted behaviors.)
Opportunities for active education exist within each of these kinds of
* Practice play. Practice play is the "... exercise [of]
structures for no other purpose than the pleasure of functioning"
(Piaget, 1962, p. 110). This definition stresses the importance of
pleasure over the learning of a new behavior. According to this
definition, learning does not necessarily take place in practice play.
We can imagine, however, many instances of adult play in which the same
ability is exercised and we do construct a "new" behavior.
While we ski to get pleasure from the activity, for example, each time
we do so we attempt to gain more control or, perhaps, more speed. So,
too, as we watch our children and their friends jump rope or use a pogo
stick, we can see them attempting to gain more control as they exercise
their ability. They seem to ask the implicit questions: Can I jump
longer? Can I jump farther? Can I jump two ropes going in different
directions? Some intent to learn appears present even in practice play.
Other elements of active education, certainly interest, are present
in practice play. Children will not continue to jump without an interest
evidenced either internally or through peer relations. Active
experimentation occurs as children attempt to go beyond what they can
already do, even if that is only an attempt to maintain "social
position" (by jumping longer, for example). Interestingly, children
often adapt rules during practice play. When jumping rope, for example,
they may decree that children cannot monopolize the jump rope longer
than the jump rope chant permits. The social negotiation that occurs
around the act of jumping then involves the cooperation necessary for
further understanding. In this case, it may not be further understanding
of jumping, but instead an understanding of interactions that allows
everyone to jump without becoming bored with turning the rope or waiting
* Symbolic play. As the children in one kindergarten class prepared
to act out "Little Red Riding Hood," Shuwan said,
"I'll be the chopper and this is my ax, OK? Pretend my hand is
the ax." This is an example of symbolic play. Such play "...
impl[ies] representation of an absent object ... [and] make-believe
representation ..." (Piaget, 1962, p. 111). It is impossible to
represent or make believe without applying active thought. Therefore,
symbolic play would seem to be the epitome of active interest. Children
cannot simply manipulate something that is not present, nor can an
object be substituted for another without some mental effort. Interest,
then, is implied when children engage in symbolic play.
Ample opportunity for genuine experimentation exists during symbolic
play, although it does not always occur. Experimentation is possible
whenever children construct props for their symbolic play. Granny's
house in "Little Red Riding Hood," for example, had to be
built tall enough for the wolf to hide behind, yet be stable enough that
it would not topple easily. Another kind of experimentation involves
modes of communication. Whenever children seek alternate means for
communicating their intent, as with Shuwan and his hand/ax, they are
experimenting to find out if their actions/representations communicate.
Cooperation among children lies at the core of the negotiations that
must occur whenever symbolic play occurs in groups of children. Rubin
(1980) and Williamson and Silvern (1992) identify the discussions that
occur within symbolic play as the impetus for thinking. During symbolic
play children disagree, discuss the problem and come to agreement so
that the play can continue. Children come to see other points of view
during this exchange and learn to understand the others' reasoning.
* Games with rules. Games with rules are defined as "...
prescribed acts, subject to rules, generally penalties for the
infringement of rules and the action proceeds in a formal evolution
until it culminates in a given climax ..." (Encyclopedia Americana,
1957, p. 266, cited in DeVries, 1980, p. 1). In games with rules,
children willingly submit themselves to the rules so that the game can
continue. Interest and cooperation are evident within this context for,
without either, the game cannot continue. The concept of genuine
experimentation is not as commonplace. Children do experiment in games
with rules when they try alternate means of achieving an end. In
marbles, for example, the child may ask himself, "Can I make my
marble skip over another? Can I hit one marble hard enough so that it
will hit into other marbles?"
* Constructions. While not identified by Piaget as a kind of play
itself, constructions are seen as a midway point between play and work.
Children might use materials to represent reality, for example, by
carving wood to represent a boat, instead of simply taking a block of
wood and pretending it is a boat (Piaget, 1962). It is perhaps easiest
for teachers to see active education in constructions. Clearly, when a
child is engaged in making something for the pleasure of making it, he
or she is active and engaged in genuine experimentation. When the
constructions take on a group form (e.g., block constructions),
cooperation is also present.
Play and Content
Although play is one of the richest contexts for observing
children's construction of understanding, it is important for
teachers to be able to recognize the different types of knowledge that
are being constructed through play. Teachers will then be able to
identify the "content" that children are understanding through
play, and relate it to the curricular goals of the classroom.
* Play and physical knowledge. Numerous interesting problems arise in
the context of play that lead to experimentation, creative problem
solving and cooperation; all these behaviors contribute to the
construction of understanding. When two preschool children are devising
a drawbridge at the entry to their pretend castle, for example, they
must figure out how to connect the drawbridge on each end, and be able
to move one end up and down over the "moat." They may draw on
a range of possible solutions, use a variety of materials and engage in
substantial trial-and-error as they seek a solution. Highly motivated
children will work on the problem for longer periods of time and with
less frustration than if the task were part of a decontextualized
Similarly, 2nd-graders constructing marble roll-ways using cardboard
tubes will encounter numerous situationally determined tasks, or
problem-solving situations, that will lead to active experimentation
and, ultimately, the construction of understanding. The idea that the
steeper the ramp, the faster the marble will roll, becomes concrete as
children try to get the marble to roll up a hill at the other end.
* Play and logico-mathematical knowledge. Play also helps children
construct understanding of relationships, which is the heart of
logico-mathematical knowledge. Think of children constructing a tower
from unit blocks. If they run out of big blocks, they must eventually
figure out that two of the smaller blocks together will match one of the
larger ones. Or think of older children trying to figure out how many
weights to put on top of a pendulum to make it swing far enough to knock
down a target. After each weight is placed on the pendulum bob, they
swing it to see how it moves. They then add one weight at a time until
the target is reached. Here, children are demonstrating their interest
and cooperation in play.
The motivated construction of relationships that occurs in the
context of play is also evident when children are sharing materials:
dividing up the play dough and comparing amounts, sorting through the
crayons or serving up the "dinner" at the pretend restaurant.
And it is in the context of games that children, particularly older
children, are challenged to incorporate scoring systems that provide a
meaningful context for the use of arithmetic (Kamii & DeVries,
* Play and language. Some of the most interesting developments in
relation to both oral and written language happen in the context of
play. In the arena of oral language, children have an opportunity to
explore language without the fear of correction or constraint. One of
the characteristics of play is the "suspension of belief"
(Garvey, 1977), which makes it possible for a 5-year-old girl to
"become" an old man in speech and mannerisms. We see much
experimentation with language patterns and sounds through dramatic play,
both in solitary and in social dramatic play.
It is in the context of social dramatic play, however, that we
observe the role of communicative competence and the instrumental use of
language to accomplish shared goals. Collaboration in an imaginary
context requires a good deal of language use to establish the scene,
verify the pretend context and guide each other's actions.
"You be the doctor, okay? And this is the blood pressure thing,
right?" Language takes on the important role of marking pretense,
as well as labeling objects and actions.
Similarly, in other types of play oral language use, though not as
necessary as in the pretend mode, becomes important as children function
together (e.g., in the building of a model). Older children in
particular use language for planning play actions. The 2nd-graders
working on the marble roll-way may "talk out" their
predictions about whether and how a particular structure will work;
preschoolers might talk less and do more.
Construction of understanding through written language also occurs in
the play context. Print can be incorporated into younger children's
play in many ways. "Stop" and "Go" signs used with
toy cars, for example, can signify for young children the basic idea
that print has meaning. Older children may use written language to
codify the rules of a game and introduce modifications. In addition,
many games themselves directly involve language, including numerous
board games such as Scrabble[TM]. Many in the field of language arts
(Wilde, 1991) view invented spelling as the best way of learning to
become a good speller. This practice can be viewed as a playful approach
to the act of writing itself.
* Play and curricular integration. Segmenting the curriculum
according to what children are learning, and monitoring that learning in
the classroom, leads us to analyze play and understanding in terms of
separable content areas: language, mathematics and science. One of the
most salient characteristics of the play environment, however, is that
it facilitates the cross-fertilization of ideas and connections across
content areas. Literacy and spatial relations come together in play when
a child builds a set of gears and labels each part to keep track of
where they belong. Mathematics and oral communication occur
simultaneously as children play an exciting card game and debate the
ways to keep score.
The separations of curricular domains fade when children are actively
engaged, self-directed and highly motivated - as they are when they
play. As we move toward projects and integrated themes in preschool and
elementary curriculum development, we need to keep in mind that in play,
projects and curriculum integration happen as a matter of course. We can
facilitate the construction of understanding by encouraging children to
engage in all forms of play.
* Play and the sociomoral environment. The elements of interest,
experimentation and cooperation must be present in order for active
learning, or understanding, to occur through play. An appropriate
sociomoral environment is essential if these elements are to come
together. The classroom's culture needs to be one in which children
feel ownership and responsibility for their own actions. They must feel
a sense of community and safety in having their own ideas and trying
them out, and they must feel good and caring about each other and share
ideas in collaborative activity. Without such a classroom culture, the
children will not manifest experimentation, engagement and interest.
Why is the classroom climate or the sociomoral environment so
necessary for these elements to come together in constructing
understanding? Children need to feel the safety and confidence that
permits them to take risks, as they do in their play. Children's
understandings (everyone's new understandings, for that matter) are
tentative and fragile. Conflict must be experienced in order for
learning and growth to take place. Children need to feel safe enough to
go out on a limb and confident that falling will not matter. The role of
sociocognitive conflict, so necessary for cognitive growth and learning,
can seamlessly occur without affective disturbance, in large part
because of the framework of play.
Think of the child rolling play dough out with a roller, making a
smooth flat surface. He announces that he wants to make a line across
it, "to make a road." A girl offers him a roller with spokes
in it that, if rolled across a surface, would leave dots and
indentations, not a line. He rolls it across, and the two children
declare that they have made a "bumpy road." They have changed
their "task" based on the outcome of their incorrect
prediction. The play context allows the conflict between the prediction,
the spoke will make a road when you roll it across the play dough, and
the reality, the spoke makes bumps across the play dough, to be
assimilated into a new goal. Because the goal is of their choosing to
begin with, and because the play context allows for self-directed
flexibility, it truly does not matter. Nonetheless, the children have
acquired a deeper understanding of the relationship between the marks on
the roller and the action of rolling it on play dough - a relationship
they can build on in their future hypotheses.
Play, then, offers the child the opportunity to make sense out of the
world by using available tools. Understanding is created by doing, by
doing with others and by being completely involved in that doing.
Through play, the child comes to understand the world and the adult
comes to understand the child.
Chaille, C., & Britain, L. (1991). The young child as scientist.
New York: HarperCollins.
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& R. DeVries (Eds.), Group games in early education: Implications of
Piaget's theory (pp. 1-9). Washington, DC: National Association for
the Education of Young Children.
DeVries, R., & Kohlberg L. (1987). Programs of early education:
The constructivist view. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Garvey, C. (1977). Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kamii, C. K. (1985). Young children reinvent arithmetic: Implications
of Piaget's theory. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kamii, C., & DeVries, R. (Eds.). (1980). Group games in early
education: Implications of Piaget's theory. Washington, DC:
National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York:
Rubin, K. H. (1980). Fantasy play: Its role in the development of
social skills and social cognition. In K. H. Rubin (Ed.),
Children's play (pp. 69-84). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wilde, S. (1991). You kan red this! Spelling and punctuation for
whole language classrooms K-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Williamson, P. A., & Silvern, S. B. (1992). "You can't
be grandma; you're a boy": Events within the thematic fantasy
play context that contribute to story comprehension. Early Childhood
Research Quarterly, 7, 75-93.
Christine Chaille is Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, Portland
State University, Portland, Oregon. Steven B. Silvern is Professor,
Early Childhood Education, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.