Contexts for play

Play and learning take place in contexts that are familiar to the children involved. They share experiences and understandings, talk and thinking with the other children and the adults who join in the play and explorations.

Learning is a social activity (Vygotsky, L. 1978 Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. London: Harvard University Press). Our ideas are shaped by interactions with people who are important in our lives and together we co-construct our understanding of our world and how we live in it. For young children, understanding and making sense of the world is rooted in what they know and everyday events in their lives. It often includes incorporating stories and characters from books, videos and DVDs, games and TV (such as superheroes).

Play helps children come to terms with the underlying meanings people in different communities share:

The most strenuous period of imaginative activity is that time in childhood when we play with the boundaries of our view of the world: sense and nonsense, the real and the fictive, the actual and the possible, all within the cultural domain we inhabit.

Meek, M. (1985) 'Play and paradoxes' in Wells, G. and Nicholls, J. (eds) Language and Learning: An international perspective. London: Falmer Press.

Transforming understandings

Loris Malaguzzi, one of the founders of the famous nurseries in Italy's Reggio Emilia region, argued that young children:

have the privilege of not being excessively attached to their own ideas, which they construct and reinvent continuously. They are apt to explore, make discoveries, change their points of view and fall in love with forms and meanings that transform themselves.

Edwards, C.P., Gandini, L. and Forman, G. (1998) The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia approach – Advanced reflections. New York, NY: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

This ability of play and exploration to transform understandings can also be seen in how each child's individual brain is transformed. Play interactions at around the age of 18 months impact on brain development (Gopnik, A., Meltzoff, A. and Kuhl, P. (1999) How Babies Think: The science of childhood. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) as this is when most young children begin to realise their own mind is different from that of others. This is the time when they may start to use the word 'I' and to be aware that other people do not necessarily like what they like.

Additionally, we often use the term ‘play’ to describe the recreational activities of adults and so we might think children’s play is recreation. But we might also reflect that when very young children play, they are engaging in the creation of who they are and the beliefs they hold, not re-creation.

David, T. (1996) 'Their right to play' in Nutbrown, C. (ed.) Respectful Educators, Capable Learners: Children's rights and early education. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.