Western early childhood education and the value of play

Play-based learning

Early childhood teachers in Western countries have been heavily influenced by ideas about the value of play as an activity, and by child development theories. Research studies of child development affirmed the value of child-centred, holistic approaches within play-based environments. The curriculum therefore offered a range of open-ended process-oriented integrated experiences in a stimulating play environment. Many centres  in Aotearoa/New Zealand still offer these kinds of experiences for at least part of a child’s day. Play is certainly the way that children most often voluntarily involve themselves in learning experiences. Further [-p.6] support for these approaches came from Piaget’s theories of cognitive development. Piaget’s theories largely viewed a child as constructing her/his own knowledge by acting on experience gained from interaction with the world. Therefore a stimulating learning environment for children encouraged exploration and play through children’s self-chosen activities.” (pp.5-6)

Developmental theories of learning

A developmental perspective within early childhood curriculum suggests that educational experiences provided be designed to move children on through ‘typical’ developmental stages. …Developmental theories may … actually limit teachers’ understanding of children’s achievements and potential, because of underlying assumptions about ‘stages’, ‘ages’ and ‘norms’. Recent research on children’s abilities and knowledge indicates children are more capable than developmental theorists previously thought.” (6)

“Additionally, seeing a child as an individual progressing through expected stages of learning and development ignores the influence of social, cultural, political and economic contexts and the complexities of development.  For example, would the collective values of Maori or Samoan cultures share the emphasis placed on valuing children’s individual independence and initiative, as proposed in Erikson’s theory of social and emotional development? Whether or not child development knowledge and programmes based on play and Piagetian views of cognition are a sufficient theoretical base for early childhood education programmes has been raised as an issue by Marilyn Fleer, among other writers.” (6)

“Child development alone no longer provides the most appropriate framework for early childhood teaching practice. However, it still has an important place in assisting teachers to understand children and make professional judgements about their development and learning.” (7)

Child-centred practice

‘Child-centred’ or ‘child-initiated’ is another key idea in western early childhood philosophy. This is commonly taken to mean that the individual child is the centre of curriculum and learning. The teacher’s role is to listen and observe and follow children’s leads.” (6)

“A socio-cultural approach: Teaching and learning as active processes

A sociocultural approach to early childhood education means that learning is embedded in social and cultural contexts. Anne Smith discusses a sociocultural curriculum as promoting the view that learning leads development, instead of the other way around in a developmental curriculum. …Sociocultural theories have developed from the ideas of Lev Vygotsky. …For Vygotsky, children’s language abilities were central to their ability to learn. Social interactions with others extend children’s knowledge and capabilities within their ‘zone of proximal development’. For learning to occur, the cognitive, social and emotional components of a close relationship between adults and children are necessary. This is known as ‘intersubjectivity’. Further development of Vygotsky’s views has led to discussion of the role of cultural ‘tools’ (e.g., play, books, television, and computers) in learning.Vygotsky used the Russian word ‘obuchenie’ to describe teaching and learning as an interactive process. This can be seen as similar to the Maori word ‘ako’. Sociocultural theories have also therefore introduced discussion of reciprocal and responsive teaching and learning relationships.” (7)

Acknowledging a sociocultural approach to curriculum has contributed to the recent prominence of ideas from Reggio Emilia. These approaches encourage teachers to develop curriculum that is relevant to the realities and contexts of children’s lives and responsive to their interests, rather than rely on children’s self-initiated play and a developmental focus to lead curriculum.” (8)

“A focus on community within sociocultural theory has led to terms such as ‘community of learners’ and ‘communities of inquiry’.” (9)

New Zealand curriculum

In New Zealand, as Hedges writes, our national early childhood curriculum, “Te Whaariki supports both a developmental and a sociocultural approach to curriculum.” (9) However, each centre is invited by this same document to apply the principles of Te Whariki in a manner suited to their own culture and learning hopes/ambitions.

Hedges explains: “The principles of Te Whaariki (relationships, empowerment, family and community, and holistic development); its emphasis on responsive and reciprocal relationships, and its focus on learning occurring through people, places and things (e.g., cultural tools such as play equipment) support a sociocultural emphasis on teaching.” (9)

The point Hedges makes about implementation of the national curriculum is still relevant, even as Te Whariki reaches the age of review: “Understanding of sociocultural theory is necessary to implement Te Whaariki.” (9)

The questions posed by Hedges at the end of this article remain useful questions to explore (though, for any real professional development to occur, they would require a mentor sufficiently versed in all the theory she refers to to lead such a discussion).

Ref: Helen Hedges (2003) ‘Teaching and learning: theories that underpin ‘wise’ practice in Aotearoa/New Zealand’ Early Education 31, pp.5-12

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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