“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth” (Ginsberg, 2007, p. 182). Play is so important to children’s development is that it has been recognised as being of vital importance by the United Nations (1989), as it makes a contribution to the holistic development of children, allowing them to discover the world through experimenting within the various environments to which they are exposed (Bruce, 1996). Ginsberg (2007) makes the observation that all those involved with children’s development, learning and education must consider every factor which has the potential to interfere with children realising their full potential, and to work towards ensuring that every child has access to circumstances which allow them opportunities to reap the benefits that are linked with play. The aim of this essay is to investigate the notion of play in the light of learning theories, in order to determine its importance in children’s development during their early years.
It is important to recognise that it is difficult to give a single definition of play (Lillemyr, 2009) and that it is regarded as an all embracing term (Bruce, 1991) which describes a diverse range of behaviours which see children interacting with each other (Dunn, 1993) in order to make sense of, and to enhance their understanding of, the environments in which they find themselves (Bruce, 1996; Wood, 2004). Play can be regarded as the means through which children are able to discover things about the world in order to amend their vision of it (Oko, 1987, p. 44 in Bozena, 2007, p. 80), as well as an avenue through which children can experience joy and/or recreation (Buhler, 1993, p. 91 in Bozena, 2007, p. 80). Play is an opportunity for children to develop a sense of self as a result of solving problems within their environment, which allows them to enhance their cognitive skills in the context of specific cultural environment/environments (Dunn, 1993; Meadows, 1993; Bruce, 1996; Gallahue and Ozman, 1998; Wood, 2004; Robson, 2006). Froebel (cited in Bruce, 2004, p. 132) believes that it provides children with opportunities to utilise their newly accumulated knowledge in different situations which encourages them to adopt flexible attitudes and ways of thinking, as well as providing them with opportunities to practice and understand societal ‘norms’ and their role in specific environments (Rogoff, 2003). Play also affords children the opportunity to discover the difference between fantasy and reality, safety and risk, order and anarchy and to grasp the concept of potential in themselves for the future (Wood and Attfield, 2005). It is a vital component in children’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual development (Elkind, 2008) which allows children to utilise their imagination whilst enhancing their communication skills through engaging in a number of different roles, depending upon their environment and the environment in which any specific interaction is taking place (Eddington, 2004).
The value and importance of play is the motivation behind recent developments with regard to Early Years education in the form of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) documentation (Department for Education [DfE],
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