play for preschoolers

As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development. (Vygotsky 1896-1934)

Play for Preschoolers

Research has shown that play for preschoolers is crucial to their development. Given it’s importance I will dedicate several posts to it.

A good place to start our exploration is with the work of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). Although his theories came about in the early twentieth century, it was Vygotsky’s work that has provided key insights into our understanding of the role of play. His work has been hugely influential in current research. In the 1960s when his work was translated, the depth and scope of his educational vision dazzled academics around the world, (C.S. Palmer), with American scientist, S. Toulmin calling him the, Mozart of psychology.

Who was Vygotsky?

play for preschoolersA Russian educator and psychologist, Vygotsky started his career during the 1917 Russian Revolution. A pioneer in the field of children’s cognitive development, he contributed a considerable amount of ideas showing how, children’s efforts to understand the world around them, working in concert with teacher’s sensitive, responsive interactions, rouses their young minds to life.. (E. Bodrova, 2013).

What is Vygotsky’s theory?

In brief, his theory focused on the idea that children’s development comes about through them being active partners in their interactions with other children and adults. It is where they construct skills and knowledge as well as attitudes without just reflecting the world around them.

With regard to education, he believed that its purpose should not just be about gaining specific knowledge, but about developing children’s ability to learn: their ability to think, be creative, plan and communicate effectively.

As this post is about play, I will concentrate on the part of his theory that focused on the importance of play in early childhood.

How does imaginative play enhance a preschooler’s development?play for preschoolers

For preschoolers and children at primary school, Vygotsky focused on children’s imaginative play. He looked at how when children are engaged in this form of play, they are continually developing a variety of skills such as:

Imagination: for example, creating a story and characters.

Language: developing vocabulary and dialogue that helps them to navigate their world.

He also observed that information from the external world is internalised through language. When playing, a child is engaged in constant dialogue with themselves as well as others. They are making sense of the world around them through their inner speech; talking out loud and mimicking adults. This results in children developing competency in their use of language as well as being able to regulate their own thought processes.

Problem solving skills: such as working out the plot of a story and who’s who. These skills are also needed to resolve any conflict that may arise with the children playing, I think this is something that we are all familiar with. In our case, it is nearly always who is going to play the mummy when playing families!

How play develops willpower/self-regulation

Vygotsky noted that it is through play that the preschooler is first driven not by the need for instant gratification, (a common trait at this age), but by the suppression of it. When preschoolers play it requires a certain amount of restraint:

At every step the child is faced with a conflict between the rule of the game and what he would do if he could suddenly act spontaneously. In the game he acts counter to what he wants…(achieving) the maximum display of willpower.

During imaginative play, the child needs to follow certain rules in order for the game to work. When playing doctors for example, they need to act as their character would act. If playing the patient, they will resist the desire to do what they may want to do such as play with the doctor’s equipment. I’m not always good at showing such restraint! When playing doctors, I’ll often plant a kiss on my daughter, to which she dissolves into a fit of laughter explaining that a patient can’t kiss the doctor!

In addition, he observed that preschoolers need to spend time planning their play. For example, they may need to plan the plot, who the characters are going to be and who is going to play those characters. This kind of planning is important for the development of reflective thinking, which helps to regulate the child’s behaviour (Goldberg, 2009).

Finally, he noted that older preschoolers will often take the role of adults in their play, such as vets, fire fighters and so on. This kind of role play forms an important part of their development, as they are learning to:

…adjust their actions and conform to the norms associated with the behaviours of these role models, thereby practicing the planning, self monitoring and reflection essential for intentional behaviour.
(Elkonia, 1978/ – E Bodrova, 2013)

Today’s children and play

As parents, we are only too aware of the decline in free play in our preschools and primary schools. This, coupled with children’s often packed schedules outside of school, has led to an even greater decline.

E. Bodrova’s (2013) study, found that today’s children do not seem to reach the same level of self-regulation in play as they once did. They also concluded that studies across the world are showing that children are often not reaching the levels of mature play at the stage Vygotsky noted. Instead of reaching this stage, they are showing signs of immature play. Miller (2009), explained that children in the past often played complex games such as an artic exploration; but are now often, playing out a single theme for months..preschool teachers often will not provide much needed support for play…children not only fail to make progress, but even regress. (Farren et al, 2001).

Closing comments

play for preschoolersAlthough the previous paragraph doesn’t make for uplifting reading, we can try to determine how much our children take part in free play outside of school. And we may be successful, only to find there’s no-one to play with as they are all too heavily scheduled!

I will finish with one of my favourite quotes from Jean Piaget:

Play is the work of childhood.



Related: The Power of Parental Play/Cultivating a Love of Learning Through Play


If you have any experiences/comments that you would like to share based on this post, then I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.