Academic journal article Childhood Education

Understanding through Play

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Understanding through Play

Article excerpt

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. …

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