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Observing Children’s Play and Facilitating Learning Through Play

The decisions that children make when choosing toys to play with are influenced by a variety of factors. By observing children at play we can begin to identify those factors and understand how we can encourage children’s confidence and curiosity, thereby motivating them to learn. In all instances, children seem to be drawn towards a particular toy as a result of a variety of reasons or needs that they experience at the time. For example, their reason for choosing a toy may result from their age and stage of development, or simply because one of their friends has chosen that toy.

Their need to play with a particular toy is more complex and difficult to define. However, if we observe children’s play closely we may become aware of their emotions, and how these have influenced their choice of play. For example, feelings of tiredness, restlessness, anxiety or calm will each produce different outcomes in their choice of toys or play. Alongside this “physical need” children may also exhibit a “learning need”; for example, they may feel the need to practise a certain skill and this will sometimes prompt them to choose the same toy over and over again.

In addition, it is true that children also have their own unique interests that influence the toys they choose for their play. Five children aged between 1 year and 3 years old were observed in a nursery setting. The children were observed for a period of approximately 20 minutes each day for two weeks. The caregiver’s responsibility during these observations was to take a non-directive role towards the play that was taking place and allow the children to explore the toys and materials in whatever safe and appropriate ways they choose.

In this way the children were allowed to become absorbed in their play, and the caregiver could respond to the children’s cues in order to encourage and motivate their learning. As infants and toddlers learn about the world through their senses, through looking and listening, touching, smelling and tasting, it is the caregiver’s role to allow them to experience toys and materials in this way. The children can then be supported in their learning by their interactions with the caregiver.

For example, a two-year-old child playing with some cups and a jug in the water tray was filling them and offering a cup to the observing caregiver as “lemonade”. With this simple, playful activity the toddler is practising important skills and learning many things. She is practising the skills of hand/eye co-ordination as she pours from the jug, and she is learning, at her own level, about concepts such as capacity, and the properties of water, how it behaves and how it feels, etc.

By including the caregiver in some pretend play, she is beginning to show “symbolic awareness” – the idea that something can represent or “stand for” something else – an important pre-literary skill. By happily joining in with this playful activity, and pretending to drink the “lemonade”, the caregiver is facilitating this learning and the development of these skills. From the observations that took place, it appeared that young children seem to show preference for toys that they can either move, (e. g. by pushing, pulling or pedalling), or manipulate, (e.

g. materials such as play dough, sand, water, or stacking blocks, construction kits, train tracks and cars etc. ). They also like to explore the sounds of simple musical instruments, and scribble with large crayons. The least popular toys appear to be jigsaw puzzles and items such as a dolls’ house or puppets. There are many possible reasons for these overall preferences displayed by children in the setting. One reason could be that infants and toddlers have great amounts of energy and a real need to physically move around in order to use up that energy.

So toys that can be pushed, pulled or pedalled are obviously attractive to these children. An article reviewed by Mary L. Gavin on the Kids Health website emphasises that toddlers have a great need for physical activity and that they develop important skills by being allowed to keep moving. Young children also seem to like malleable materials such as play dough, or materials that can be explored and poured, such as sand and water. Children are fascinated by these materials because they can explore them and use their imagination with them at the level they are capable of.

For example, play dough has the potential to become what you want it to be. Also, when children are playing with these materials they are, at the same time, practising and developing important skills such as hand/eye co-ordination, (e. g. when pouring from one container to another). Therefore, the toys that seem to be most popular are those that are fun to use, give children a feeling of accomplishment, and allow them to develop their creative thinking, hand/eye co-ordination and other physical skills.

Infants and toddlers may not play so readily with a dolls’ house or puppets because their ability to engage in pretend play, using different voices etc. may not have developed enough for this type of play. And jigsaw puzzles may not sustain children’s interest either simply because they may be too easy or too difficult, or the children have become over-familiar with the themes of the puzzles that are put out every day. When new toys are introduced into the setting, the children become immediately interested, due to their natural curiosity and enthusiasm. It is fascinating to watch what happens next.

Children who are very confident will start playing with the toy straight away, exploring and using it in whatever way feels right to them. Less confident children may observe for a while before they try out anything new and watch others at play before allowing themselves to “have a go”. It is important that infants and toddlers feel safe and secure in the environment where they are playing. And although physical safety is of paramount importance, children must also feel just as secure with their caregivers and feel that their play is respected and valued.

Knowing that children learn by doing and by exploring means that caregivers will allow children to have time to become absorbed in their activities, to explore toys and materials in whatever safe and appropriate ways they choose. Infants and toddlers are learning all the time and through all their activities. By being emotionally responsive rather than directive towards children’s play, caregivers can encourage children’s curiosity and confidence. These two characteristics – curiosity and confidence – were found to be the most important for a child’s future learning success, according to research carried out by the Zero to Three organization.

Children can be encouraged to enjoy, and learn through their play, by caregivers whose facial expressions, tone of voice and body language convey the message that they too are enjoying the play that is taking place. Along with positive body language, caregivers can also encourage and motivate children’s learning through the language they use. Again, this should be responsive rather than directive, with the caregivers responding to the cues given out by the children at play. This can be done sensitively so as not to interrupt or direct play or end the enjoyment of it, but rather to gently encourage and comment on what is taking place.

By taking time to talk with children, caregivers are helping them to become good communicators. The ability to speak clearly and to listen attentively can be seen as emergent literacy skills that children need in order to develop the literacy skills of reading and writing. Play also gives children many opportunities for problem solving, which can also be seen as a pre-literacy skill. If we remember that solving problems = greater confidence, then greater confidence = more willingness to take on the challenges of reading and writing.

It is important therefore, that caregivers do not jump in too quickly to “help” children when they encounter problems in their play, thus solving problems for them. Children need to feel that they can take risks and make mistakes when they are trying to solve problems. A sensitive response to the children’s cues is again needed. For example, if children become frustrated with a toy it may be because they are tired or hungry, and not because that toy is too “difficult” for them or because they are unable to problem solve. Distraction may be needed and a fresh try later on.

In his article, “The Dawn of Imagination”, found on the Scholastic Book website, Kyle Pruett discusses how toddlers begin to symbolize, through their play, past experiences that they have had. Pruett calls this “the sunrise of creativity” and emphasises that children have an emotional need to express themselves creatively, through imaginative play, as a way of coping with new fears in an “expanding world”. As well as helping toddlers to deal with their fears, the development of this ability to use symbols can be seen as another vital pre-literacy skill, since our written language relies upon the use of a system of symbols – i.

e. letters and words. Many play activities lend themselves to the development of this symbolic thinking, and researchers have named these “literacy behaviours”. A good example of this is when children are trying to do a jigsaw puzzle and are trying to discriminate between shapes in the puzzle in order to make them fit together. This can be seen as another important emergent literacy skill when we compare it to the importance of being able to distinguish between letter and word shapes (e. g. “b” and “d” or “saw” and “was”) when learning to read.

By understanding how infants and toddlers learn, caregivers can respond sensitively and appropriately to children in order to encourage and motivate them and to support their learning. References Gavin, M. L. MD (2008). Toddlers: Learning by Playing. http://www. kidshealth. org/parent/growth/learning/toddler_play. html Hawley, T, Ph. D. and Gunner, M. Ph. D. (2000) Starting Smart: How Early Experience Affect Brain Development. Washington DC: Zero to Three. http://www. zerotothree. org/site/DocServer/startingsmart. pdf? docID=2422 Pruett, K. (1999). The Dawn of Imagination. http://www2. scholastic. com/browse/article. jsp? id=533

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