Understanding through play.
The four kinds of play according to Piaget are practice play, symbolic play, games with rules and constructions. Each of these kinds of plays presents opportunities for active education. Children's construction of understanding is often manifested during play. The different types of knowledge that are being constructed through play include physical knowledge, language and logico-mathematical knowledge.

Play (Analysis)
Comprehension (Analysis)
Education (Methods)
Teaching (Methods)
Constructivism (Education) (Analysis)
Chaille, Christine
Silvern, Steven B.
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1996 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Mid-Summer, 1996 Source Volume: v72 Source Issue: n5
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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 cooperation.

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 play.

* 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 one's turn.

* 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 problem.

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, 1980).

* 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.


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Christine Chaille is Professor, Curriculum and Instruction, Portland State University, Portland, Oregon. Steven B. Silvern is Professor, Early Childhood Education, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.