While referring to literature and play theories, criticallly analyse the play episodes observed. Play can take many different forms and can have various aims. Play can be solitary, in pairs, parallel, in a group and communicative among other things. The aim can be simply fun, to learn physical motor skills, to learn to be imaginative and creative, to build teamwork, to learn communication skills and problem solving.
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Studies show that all young animals play to acquire the necessary skills for life. Play has an enormous impact on the child’s development. Many believe that it is “one of the primary needs of a child and is often said to be a child’s work” (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005, p. 1). It helps the child for his development in:
- Social skills,
- Physical skills,
- Emotional skills,
- Language skills and
- Cognitive development
Play can be either structured or free. Most of the time, the structured play is organized by an adult or an older peer. It is usually guided and planned, and very often there’s only one way to do it. In the meantime, free play is often self-initiated which encourages the child to be creative and imaginative. “Play involves exploring feelings, ideas, materials, relationships and roles, making connections between one experience and another and representing ideas, objects and environments.” (Pound, 2000, p. 74)
The Observations of the Structured and Free Play activities took place in a classroom environment. The class consists of twenty four children, the teacher and a Learning Support Assistant. This is an inclusive school and there is one child with special needs. At the time all twenty four children in the class were playing with the same things. They are all girls and aged between 4 years and 5 years. Six children were observed during these two activities. The sessions lasted between 20 minutes and half an hour each. Photos were taken of the children playing. The person observing the children sat to the side and did not participate in the play. Communication with the children was kept to a minimum and the children’s actions and some dialogue were noted.
In Structured play activities the adult usually has “a high profile role” (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005, p. 74) and the child has a more passive role. The adult teaches or demonstrates to the child how the activity must be done and the child follows instructions. Very often the activity can only be carried out in one way, for example completing a puzzle or painting a specific art project and the children tend to be less involved in structured play and loose interest more quickly. However there are benefits in structured activities. “They allow the adult to focus children’s attention on a specific concept, skill or knowledge”(Tassoni & Hucker, 2005, p. 73) and by using structured activities the adult can also ensure that the child is developing specific skills like hand and eye coordination and fine motor skills.
Observation of a Structured Play Activity
Wooden jigsaw puzzles of varying difficulty were used for this activity.
Improve hand and eye coordination
Fine motor skills
Develop reasoning and problem solving skills
Understand shapes and colours
The teacher put out a number of jigsaw puzzles for the children to choose from. The puzzles were put in the middle of a large table and the children were able to choose at will and encouraged to share and swop puzzles when ready. The children started playing by picking a puzzle each and tipping the pieces on the table. The teacher said that this was not the first time they have played with these puzzles so they were confident in their actions and did not need her to guide them in what they were doing. The teacher walked around the classroom supervising their play. After a few minutes of playing the children were observed talking about the puzzles they had picked out for themselves and commenting about which ones were difficult and which were easy. FA and P wanted to play with the puzzle L had picked so, after a short discussion, they came to an agreement; once L finished playing with her puzzle, she would give it to P to play with and when she was ready from playing with it she would then pass it on to FA. This sort of negotiation can be described as social play since “almost every aspect of play in a social group involves negotiation and conversation over the ownership of bikes and blocks” (Riley, 2007, p. 46).
TD also wanted the same puzzle so the teacher intervened and told her that she must wait for the others to finish playing with it and then it would be her turn. TD accepted this compromise and continued playing with the puzzle she had originally chosen. Although this play activity could be quite solitary with each child having their own puzzle, in reality the children were observed sharing, discussing and cooperating in their play.
K was helping TD and P as they had similar puzzles and some of the pieces were mixed up. She showed them which pieces fit in which puzzles and they continued to complete their puzzles following her instructions. This was a good example of scaffolding where “more knowledgeable others provide assistance to learners” (Wood & Attfield, 2005, p. 94).
R and FA were playing parallel to each other without any communication at first, and then they started to talk and joined their play by comparing puzzle pieces and discussing the characters on them.
The children played with the puzzles in a structured way for about ten minutes. Suddenly the play activity did not remain structured any more as one of the children started to use the jigsaw pieces in symbolic play. Symbolic play occurs
when the child either “pretends to be something that he or she is not or uses a material as something that it is not normally used for” (Charlesworth, 2008, p. 73). In this case P started to pretend to eat the pieces of the puzzle she was playing with (her puzzle was of a bear). The teacher played along with this and asked her what it tasted like and P replied “of a bear”. She then continued with her symbolic play and pretended she was baking the puzzle pieces in the oven. The table she was playing on took on the symbolic role of the oven and P started putting the completed wooden puzzle underneath the table.
P, who seemed to be a very popular girl, took on the role of leader and it was observed that she was very creative. Within a couple of minutes some of the other children took up the idea and R and FA started baking their jigsaw puzzles underneath the table too.
P then changed the game and tried to encourage the other girls into a competition by having a race. “Let’s see who’s going to be the fast one!” she said. However the other girls either ignored her or were too busy thinking about their play and nobody took on her challenge.
FA changed her play. She was neither cooking nor putting the pieces in their place. She was making the puzzle pieces stand up. Her puzzle portrayed a construction site complete with people and machinery. She used the pieces in a type of small world play, where the figures became characters in an imaginary world (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005, p. 274). At one point FA became a bit worried as her pieces kept falling down so she asked for P’s help, who then joined in the game.
After a few minutes of playing in this way, they changed their play again. This time it changed into celebratory play. This type of pretend play represents a form of celebration whether a birthday, a feast, or a holiday. In this case the two girls began to pretend that the puzzle pieces were the candles on a birthday cake. They pretended to blow out the candles and FA started singing the Happy Birthday song while the other girls round the table; R, P and K joined in. Another girl who has special needs and who was playing on another table heard the enthusiasm of the group and came to join them too.
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It is worth noting that just before this play occurred some older children from another class came to our classroom with pieces of a birthday cake to offer to the teacher and LSA. The teacher said that this is a common occurrence which the younger children are used to, she also said that it is a tradition for all children to bring a cake to school on their birthday and celebrate with their class friends.
Developing the imagination and creativity
Personal and social development
Very often during free play, children imitate life situations and take part in role play. Adults can provide play opportunities and make suggestions. They can organise material and equipment as well as listen and take part in the play, however only if they are asked to.
It is important that adults support free play or the children will get the idea that free play is not as important as structured play and end up associating play with “work-related activities”, which destroys the whole experience for the child (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005 p. 5). Free play is also very important for the child’s self esteem and for his overall development (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005). This is because when two or more children are given the opportunity to self-initiate play, they will be encouraged to communicate between themselves and develop their socially interactive skills, which helps to gradually develop their self-concept. Moreover being allowed to play freely, gives them the opportunity to make decisions and choices for themselves, which enhances a positive self-esteem. Above all, communication between them leads to the increase of their vocabulary from their peers and from the adults watching or taking part in their play.
Usually during free play, the children concentrate longer as the play and the ideas are chosen by themselves (Bruce, 2004). Very often during the self-initiated play, children tend to play by using their imagination which includes pretending, fantasy play and symbolic play (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005). In our observation, pretend play was the most common one together with the symbolic play. Fantasy play was not rehearsed in our observation. It was very clear that all the play was part of their life experience, what they encountered when they were at home or when they were with their mothers or other relatives. The “imaginative play develops self expression as well as giving children the opportunity to explore their experiences.” (Tassoni & Hucker, 2005, p. 10). Sometimes this is noted when the child expresses anger or maternal care during their play.
Observation of a Free Play Activity
Six girls were observed playing in the various areas of the classroom. These areas were the home corner, the reading area and the toy box area. The children used various items in their imaginative play and their role play. They moved from one play scenario to another fluidly and had no problem changing roles as they went along. They used the items in their playing areas symbolically to represent something else according to their play like a small doll used as a hairdryer. The adult observing sat to the side.
The teacher told the girls that they could play wherever they wished. Some girls who were sitting at the same table got up and went to the reading area. TC pretended it was her birthday. The other girls joined her in associative play where they played with each other and came together because they shared an interest. They gave her books from the reading area, which were symbolically changed into presents. One of the wooden puzzles that they had been playing with earlier, was turned into a birthday cake. FP went round with the puzzle pieces pretending to give cake to the rest of the girls. The girls pretended they were having a party and the teacher was invited to sit down and join in the play.
The girls brought cups and plates to the teacher who sat down near them. They pretended to give her all kinds of food, the teacher took part in their play by pretending to eat what she was given and asking questions about the food, aiming to introduce new vocabulary during their play.
J was mixing the imaginary food using a cup and a spoon. Then she poured it in the teacher’s plate for her to eat.
MC pretended that it was her baby’s birthday party and used a book to represent the cake.
MB, who was cooking, pretended to drop sauce on the teacher, who played along by pretending she was a mess and needed to get cleaned up.
This comment made the girls change their play. While the teacher sat on the same chair in the same place, the girls started to put cream and make up on her face. Glitter was also mentioned. They used ‘Teletubby’ plastic toys as their tools and started styling the teacher’s hair.
J imagined having a hair dryer in her hand and styled the teacher’s hair while making a humming sound. Another girl associated a toy in the box with the play scenario and got a toy hairdryer and started doing the same motions.
In the meantime C and FP went to the library area where they found a large plastic box and sat in it pretending it was their cot. They imagined they were babies, and one of them said “Trid tirrabja mieghi? Int il-mummy!”
MB pretended to put nail polish on the teacher’s nails and then she started painting the teacher’s hand. The teacher explained that during the school bazaar, which was held the month before, some children were allowed to have their face painted and other parents preferred that their children have just their hands painted instead of their face, so that is what this girl was doing to her teacher using the ‘Teletubby’ toy as her tool.
At the same time MC and TC were playing doctor and patient. MC was lying on two chairs while TC was checking her back with a toy toaster which she symbolically used as a medical instrument.
During the observation it had been noted that during free play the students were playing imaginatively and preferred using the provided toys symbolically rather than using them with their original play intentions; like the ‘teletubby’ toy being a hairdryer and the toy toaster being a medical instrument.
The theme of a birthday celebration was observed in both the structured and free play activities. The children were fascinated by the festive environment; the gifts, the food and above all the cake. They were engrossed in their pretend play and the teacher could use this to great advantage by planning learning activities around this idea. The teacher could use the birthday theme and provide many opportunities for literacy, numeracy, creative and social skills. She can do this by preparing activities such as painting, story telling, encouraging children to write cards to each other, as well as preparing the classroom environment to suit her purpose.