Play: The Child’s Own Learning Strategy

From the Neohumanist Education Curriculum for Romanian Kindergartens for ages 2 – 6 years

By Didi Ananda Devapriya

Play is at the heart of childhood. Children develop through play. It is the first stage of learning and creativity. Through play, children gain new experiences and aptitudes; they cultivate observation skills, memory, attention, imagination, cognition, curiosity and exploratory spirit. In addition to helping children to learn and develop, play also provides children with much needed moments of relaxation, discovery, fun, and joy. Play is critical for children’s overall normal development on the social, emotional, psychological and cognitive levels. Play provides opportunities for children to explore their bodies and the world around them.

Play also provides another valuable opportunity for coaching and building up children’s abilities to self-regulate, which is the foundation for learning. Research shows that the development of early self-regulation skills has a stronger association with school readiness than IQ or entry-level reading or math (Blair, 2002. 2003; Normandeau & Guay, 1998). Through imaginative “pretend” play, children develop and rehearse new ways of interaction, based on their observation and interpretation of more mature behavior modeled by the adult world around them. Similar to the Vygotskian concept of the “Zone of Proximal Development”, in which interaction with peers or adults that have already mastered certain skills facilitates the emergence of such skills in the child, expanding learning into newer areas with assistance, Neohumanist Education also emphasizes consciously and observantly interacting with children’s play in order to encourage the acquisition of new skills, especially social skills and self regulation skills. Teachers support children to gradually shift from being dependent on others to regulate their emotions, towards eventually becoming able to master self-regulation, and play is the perfect medium for children to practice these skills.

However, there are different types of play and not all types of spontaneous play develop self-regulation skills. For example, some children prefer to play with things and not with each other. Many children need coaching and support to be able to play effectively, especially children who have spent a lot of time being entertained by computers or TV, without directly interacting with other children. The type of play that is the most productive in developing self-regulation skills, is play that involves children choosing and acting out roles with each other. This type of intentional play is characterized by complex story lines, use of objects and costumes in creative and symbolic ways and absorption in play themes for an extended period of time. Children need uninterrupted periods of at least 30 minutes in order to develop this level of play.

The role of the teacher is to block in sufficient unstructured time for creative play and to help stimulate children’s play by modeling different roles and helping children to think about what may come next. However the teacher does not continue directing play, but rather steps aside once children are successfully absorbed in the play theme, or lets the children direct her role in the play. The teacher is also aware of group dynamics and looking for ways to redirect children that start losing focus and wandering around or disrupting play back into constructive play. Another way the teacher facilitates play is to attentively arrange the environment with access to costumes and different types of objects related to themes that engage the child in interested, sustained play.

Another type of play that similarly develops self-regulation are educational games with rules, which also helps develop important social skills by listening, waiting turns and respecting rules.
To summarize, the characteristics of constructive, intentional play include:

  • Planning the play (the child says “You will be the baby and I will be the mother”
  • There are explicit rules, discussed by the children (the baby has to behave in a certain way, the mother in another way)
  • The children use objects in symbolic ways, or invent props by re-purposing other objects (the mother feeds the baby with a play baby bottle, or the mother uses a block to represent the bottle)
  • There is an imaginary storyline – it can be based on something realistic or on fantasy
  • It lasts for an extended time (it can last hours, even days)

The skills being developed by such play include:

  • Impulse control – children learn to plan ahead and act out different emotions and their consequences, developing flexibility in their responses and practicing mature behavior
  • Social regulation – children monitor each other’s behavior and correct children acting inappropriately for their role
  • Complex, creative thinking – children learn to come up with their own ideas and engage in problem solving
  • Cooperation – children have to plan how to include the ideas of different players in the role play so that everyone is satisfied
Developmentally appropriate facilitation of play

Ages 2-3:
At this age, children don’t know how to engage in play unless someone demonstrates it to them. Teachers model how to pretend – for example pretending to serve soup from a play pot, and developing very simple play routines based on everyday experiences that the child is familiar with already – such as cooking, talking on the phone, putting dolls to bed, etc. Also teachers can model playing a role such as “let’s pretend I am the shopkeeper and you are buying vegetables.” Toys should be selected that are easy for children to manipulate –neither too small, nor too large, and it is better to choose toys that are open ended and can be used in a variety of ways, rather than toys that have only one specific way to be played with.

Ages 3-5
By this age, children know how to pretend, but they need help coming up with good play themes. Stories and class discussions can provide a rich source for play themes. Teachers help children to plan their play, which is essential for starting to develop self-regulation skills, by talking about it with each other before they begin and thinking through what will happen next or even making a drawing about what they want to play. This encourages the planning skills that develop impulse control. For example, during circle time, after a story was told and discussed, the teacher can encourage the children to play out the story and invite them to come up with new variations on the story. By this age, when teachers play together with the children, they can take on a secondary role, letting the children organize and lead the play. For example, the teacher would be the patient and the children would be the doctors, nurses etc. When children are not clear about their role, then the teacher can offer suggestions but without taking over the play. The teacher can also model utilizing costumes and objects in more symbolic ways – for example a block can be used for a telephone, rather than finding a play telephone. As children’s play matures, they need less realistic props and are more able to depend on their own imaginations and creative thinking.

Ages 5-6
Usually children will no longer need modeling in order to enter into play by this age, if they have already developed through the other stages appropriately. However, some children that arrive at a later age in the kindergarten and had less socialization opportunities at home may need extra coaching to catch up to the level of the other children’s play. This usually manifests with disruptive behavior and disorganized or solitary play. In general, at this age, the teacher’s role is as a resource, providing access to materials that children can use to make their own props and costumes, as well as providing ideas, stories and stimulation to get the children’s involved in interesting ideas. Special attention needs to be given to re-direct play themes that are based on violent or adult themes the children are learning from TV shows and movies. Rather than forbidding or suppressing such play – it is more effective to find a way to transform it – for example children that are attracted to imagining that they are shooting each other, may have a need to express their power – so the teacher can suggest that the gun becomes a wand with magical powers and let them decide what it can do.

At this age, children can be encouraged to play with small dolls and objects like a film director, talking for the figures and acting for them rather than directly dress up and acting out roles.

In conclusion, free play time is not considered a “break time” for the teacher to catch up on paperwork, phone calls, etc, but rather a moment to observe children’s play in order to be able to facilitate the extension of themes spontaneously arising in the children’s play into curriculum content. It is also an opportunity for the teacher to enter into the child’s imaginary world as a participant in play – a playmate – which decreases the distance between the child and teacher and increases the warmth, empathy, and connection between the child and teacher so fundamental to a successful educational relationship. During playtime, the teacher facilitates the inclusion of children, keeps everyone safe, skillfully redirects or channelizes play based on superficial or violent pseudo-culture towards richer, more constructive themes, and most importantly, plays together with the children.

The manual, The Neohumanist Education Curriculum for Romanian Kindergartens for ages 2 – 6 years, is available in English for other NHE Early Childhood Schools to reference and will soon also be posted on NHE Resources for NHE Staff. For more information please contact: