Play is an important developmental tool, rather than just an informal aspect of childhood. While children's actions are purposeful activities that help them make sense of their world (Ebbeck & Waniganayake, 2010), they are often misconstrued as messing about without purpose. This chapter addresses the theoretical aspects of play and describes how play supports child development. It discusses play in both the pre-school and school setting and play pedagogies to support science education.
At the end of this chapter you will be able to:■ describe the importance of play in young children's understanding of science concepts■ describe different play pedagogies that support the development of scientific understanding in young children■ outline the role of the teacher in supporting play pedagogies in science education.
The importance of play
The importance of play is assured through the work of many theorists. Froebel (1826) felt that ‘play is the purest, most spiritual activity of man’ (p. 3). He put his ideas about play into practice by creating the first schools for pre-school children, which he called ‘kindergarten’ (children's garden). These kindergartens stressed the natural growth of children through action or play, with the emphasis on pedagogies that encouraged and guided. Froebel also developed a range of practical resources to support children's play, which he called ‘gifts’, and educational activities, which he called ‘occupations’. Many of the practical educational resources used today originated or were developed from Froebel's ideas.
Rousseau (1911), in his work Emile, believed that children should be allowed to develop through play free from the restrictions imposed by society, and that early pedagogies should provide a balance between individual freedom and happiness and control from society. Most importantly, Rousseau stressed the importance of personalised learning, emphasising that adults and the context should accommodate the individual child rather than the child be expected to change to suit the adult or context. Child-centred learning and experiential learning, central to both play and scientific development, are legacies of Rousseau's theories.
Piaget looked at the development of play in children and identified four different types (Dockett & Fleer, 2002; Piaget, 1976): functional play involving the repeated use of objects or actions, constructive play involving the manipulation of objects to build or construct something, pretend or symbolic play where imaginary situations replace real ones, and rule-governed play that is used in games.