Make-believe play: theoretical origins, developmental significance and application in educational settings.
Pretend or make believe play has been associated with child development and mental cognition. Piaget and Vygotsky in particular contended that children learn constructively through their interaction with their physical, social and cultural environments and that make believe play enhances their development. Enculturation, language development, the zone of proximal development and scaffolding are aspects of developmental significance considered. Make believe play has been used successfully in educational settings; however, there are gaps between theory and application, in particular, with regard to culture. Make-believe play: theoretical origins, developmental significance and application in educational settings.
Thinking of ‘play’ is often in the context of children and this brings to mind visions of children at school, kindergarten or at home engaged in self-directed, fun, unstructured and spontaneous activities such as playing dress ups or playing grownups with dolls at an imaginative tea party. While such activities may be looked upon with amusement and perhaps indulgence by parents or major caregivers, the concept of play has been the subject of theoretical discussion, some of which has recognized the significance of make believe play to overall child development and mental cognition (Berk, 1994). This essay discusses the origins of play and considers some aspects of developmental significance of imaginative play in early childhood through the major theories of Vygotsky and Piaget, specifically linked to enhanced learning in the educational setting.
Theories of play
Berk (1994) points out there is a plethora of literature exploring theoretical contributions to the understanding of children’s play, most of which views the concept from different vantage points. Stagnitti (2004) highlights the early influences of Spencer (1878), Lazarus (1883) and Groos (1985) who contended that play occurs because children have a surplus of energy to burn and play is an innate process linked to evolution and survival. Through his psychodynamic theory, Sigmund Freud (1961) took another approach and emphasized the role that play has in influencing emotional constraints in development due to problems hidden in the unconscious mind and that play provides an avenue for children to express these problems and control desired outcomes (Stagnitti).
The above early accounts of play were precursors to the well known theories of Piaget and Vygotsky who made major contributions to cognitive development and learning (Matusov & Hayes, 2000). Vygotsky and Piaget held similar views on learning and development, both contending that children learn and develop through internalising experiences presented in the environment and interacting with that environment (Berk, 1994; Gray, 2002). They both supported the notion that children start with a knowledge of ‘self’ and then through the integration of new ideas and knowledge gained through their physical, social and cultural environments, they become aware of others (De Vries, 2000). Even though they held some similar beliefs, the views of Vygotsky and Piaget originated from two different perspectives - Vygotsky approached his theory from a combination of socio-cultural perspectives while Piaget focussed on a constructivist/cognitive view (De Vries).
Piaget’s constructivist view contended that children are little scientists spontaneously reacting to and experimenting with stimulus (symbols or objects) presented in their physical environment (Rogoff, 1990 in Gray, 2002). For example, Piaget (De Vries, 2000) argued that a stimulus is not a stimulus until the child had acted upon it. In this case, children internalise their reactions and explorations of the object/stimulus and mentally categorise the functional and...
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