This project is presented with a twofold task. First: articulate the benefits of play. Second: identify the ways in which play can be incorporated into a structured learning environment, or, more accurately, in which a learning environment can be structured around play.
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Either approach yields positive results, but this project argues that the most viable ethos for educators who wish to benefit from play is not to shoehorn play into their existing attitudes toward and plans for teaching, but to start with a play activity and explore the learning opportunities it presents. Power and Park (in Laosa, 1982: 148) indicate that pre-school learning takes exactly this form. Parents are seldom qualified educators with a formal scheme of learning and development; they provide opportunities for play, engage in play, and promote learning indirectly. Historically, say Power and Park, researchers have suggested that this parent-guided learning through play develops children’s goal-directed behaviour, object permanence and the acquisition of turn-taking skills. More recent research (Fleer, 2010: 101) asks whether these play activities are motivated internally or externally, e.g. whether they arise out of biological imperatives in the individual parent or are inspired by social/cultural forces which define what a parent should do. In the Anglophone world, Fleer explains, research on play has tended to emphasise the biological imperative. Encouraging and engaging in play has been seen as something which parents do naturally, and therefore not part of a teacher’s remit. By contrast, social forces are more emphasised in Eastern European research by cultural and historical theorists like Vygotsky, Leontiv and Elkonin (in Fleer, 2010: 105). Elkonin (2005) observes that play has developed over time. What was a procedure of imitative learning in which children were involved in the work of keeping their communities alive became a process of teaching using scaled-down versions of more complex tools: play with toys was in Elkonin’s view originally a form of learning. As work tools became even more complex or actively dangerous for children to use, the concepts of ‘childhood’ and ‘play’ (as discrete from work) as we know them today came into being. Teaching could not begin until the child was physically and cognitively able to understand what was being taught; a new stage in development emerged. During this stage, children pretend to participate in the adult world in which they cannot be directly involved. This kind of play â€“ role play and make believe â€“ is socially necessary (children must be occupied, and they must understand concepts such as safety and co-operation in order to participate in the complex survival activities which have emerged). As a consequence, it is social in nature: play which develops the child’s sense of interpersonal relationships.
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