Learning Through Play

Through my work and research in the university and on the SLOODLE project, I’ve encountered plenty of mention of constructivism in relation to education. However, considering my wonderful neice (who will be 2 in January), and my practically newborn nephew, I was quite interested by a recent Newswise article about constructivist play for young children.

The principle is that simpler toys encourage greater use of imagination and development of cognitive skills for very young children, but slightly older ones will benefit from more directly educational toys, such as board games and chemistry sets. The article quotes a great example from R. Keith Sawyer:

“For example, if you bought your child the toy cowboy from the movie “Toy Story,” the child will probably already be familiar with the movie, with the character and how the character talks and acts. That narrows the range of pretend play options or scenarios the child will engage in. However, if you get your child a generic cowboy toy, the child might act out scenes from “Toy Story,” but might also do something completely different.”

Watching my niece play with absolutely anything and everything she can get her hands on, from placemates to cuddly toys, certainly bears this out. I cannot suggest what she sees in the toys when she plays, as she’s too young to express much verbally (although for a not-yet 2 year old, she’s doing remarkably well with language… or maybe that’s just my proud uncle-ness talking!). At any rate, she manages to play equally well (if not better) with abstract objects as she does with realstic items.

I see very similar things with a couple of slightly older children at my church: one is about 2 and a half, and the other (who started school this year) is nearly 5. They certainly love acting out superhero scenes from series they watch on TV or DVD, but after church this past Sunday, they seemed to be having a lot more fun pretending an upturned toy table was a boat. It doesn’t look like a boat, nor is it in anyway seaworthy, and the carpet certainly doesn’t look (or feel) like the ocean, but those things didn’t matter to them… it was just a bit of fun. (Perhaps more significantly, they happily involved a bit of superhero stuff in the boat scene, but not the other way round.)

The slightly older kids (particularly the 4 year old) were capable of constructing more complex scenes than my little niece, but it all seems to be part of the same process. It leads me to wonder what learning is actually going on in these cases. Certainly getting the imagination active is great, and learning the difference between fantasy and reality is very important. Perhaps also through doing these things, they are experimenting with relationships, learning social skills. They are also using language to express themselves in their make-believe personae. Most importantly, I think, they are maybe learning to see things from another perspective — i.e. from the point-of-view of their character, rather than themselves.

I’m not a developmental psychologist though, so I’m probably just waffling. One wee thing I will mention though is that similar situations exist in video games for kids and adults of all ages — in bygone days, I remember having lots of fun racing a line around a bunch of dots on an old Spectrum. The hyper-realism of today’s games is great, but not necessary for fun, and can in many ways perhaps impede it.

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