Make Believe Play

1 January 2017

Pretend or make believe play has been associated with child development and mental cognition. Piaget and Vygotsky in particular contended that children learn constructively through their interaction with their physical, social and cultural environments and that make believe play enhances their development. Enculturation, language development, the zone of proximal development and scaffolding are aspects of developmental significance considered.

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Make believe play has been used successfully in educational settings; however, there are gaps between theory and application, in particular, with regard to culture. Make-believe play: theoretical origins, developmental significance and application in educational settings. Introduction Thinking of ‘play’ is often in the context of children and this brings to mind visions of children at school, kindergarten or at home engaged in self-directed, fun, unstructured and spontaneous activities such as playing dress ups or playing grownups with dolls at an imaginative tea party.

While such activities may be looked upon with amusement and perhaps indulgence by parents or major caregivers, the concept of play has been the subject of theoretical discussion, some of which has recognized the significance of make believe play to overall child development and mental cognition (Berk, 1994). This essay discusses the origins of play and considers some aspects of developmental significance of imaginative play in early childhood through the major theories of Vygotsky and Piaget, specifically linked to enhanced learning in the educational setting.

Theories of play Berk (1994) points out there is a plethora of literature exploring theoretical contributions to the understanding of children’s play, most of which views the concept from different vantage points. Stagnitti (2004) highlights the early influences of Spencer (1878), Lazarus (1883) and Groos (1985) who contended that play occurs because children have a surplus of energy to burn and play is an innate process linked to evolution and survival.

Through his psychodynamic theory, Sigmund Freud (1961) took another approach and emphasized the role that play has in influencing emotional constraints in development due to problems hidden in the unconscious mind and that play provides an avenue for children to express these problems and control desired outcomes (Stagnitti). The above early accounts of play were precursors to the well known theories of Piaget and Vygotsky who made major contributions to cognitive development and learning (Matusov & Hayes, 2000).

Vygotsky and Piaget held similar views on learning and development, both contending that children learn and develop through internalising experiences presented in the environment and interacting with that environment (Berk, 1994; Gray, 2002). They both supported the notion that children start with a knowledge of ‘self’ and then through the integration of new ideas and knowledge gained through their physical, social and cultural environments, they become aware of others (De Vries, 2000).

Even though they held some similar beliefs, the views of Vygotsky and Piaget originated from two different perspectives – Vygotsky approached his theory from a combination of socio-cultural perspectives while Piaget focussed on a constructivist/cognitive view (De Vries). Piaget’s constructivist view contended that children are little scientists spontaneously reacting to and experimenting with stimulus (symbols or objects) presented in their physical environment (Rogoff, 1990 in Gray, 2002).

For example, Piaget (De Vries, 2000) argued that a stimulus is not a stimulus until the child had acted upon it. In this case, children internalise their reactions and explorations of the object/stimulus and mentally categorise the functional and physical properties. These reactions are stored as internal representations or schemes, and the child is able to recall and apply the same actions to future objects/stimulus or restructure existing schemes to accommodate new information presented.

Children progress through different stages of schemes to improve their ability to mentally ymbolize objects and this progression eventually equips them with the ability to proficiently symbolise objects which are not present: that is, engage in relational and representational thought (Gray, 2002). Piaget held that the representational thought process contributes to the emergence of spontaneous make-believe (Berk, 1994). Where Piaget regarded the child as a little scientist, Vygotsky saw the child as an apprentice who is part of a greater society and actively engages with others to learn from them (Rogoff, 1990 in Gray 2002).

Vygotsky attributed significance to experience in the socio-cultural environment and also held that make believe play does not develop spontaneously but it is nurtured through the social interactions of other people (Berk, 1994). Children do not exist in a social vacuum: they are born into a pre-existing culture and their society is made up of family, peers and others, all of whom have an influence on how the child interacts with the environment (Gray, 2002).

He contended that the socio-cultural environment provided the impetus for the child to realise the existence of other people and understand through cooperative interaction, the affects of his/her own actions on others. Through the child’s social interactions, exposure to language results and becomes the major communication tool used in that environment. Vygotsky linked language with symbolism and acknowledged the child’s ability to internalise the symbols into verbal thought (Gray).

Vygotsky’s social and cultural environments promoted communication, social rules, self-control of actions and significance of culture (Gray, 2002; Berk, 1994) and he considered that together, all these aspects develop from make believe play (Vygotsky, 1933, as cited in Berk, 1994). Make believe play – its significance to development Through the examination of the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky, it is possible to draw some conclusions as to why make believe play is significant.

For example, they both agreed that make believe play occurs as a result of the interaction of the child with its environment and vice-versa. While Berk (1994) contends that evidence from the socio-cultural viewpoint mostly justifies the importance of make believe play in cognitive development, both point to the significance of make believe play. Children learn the social norms and rules of society through the mechanism of make believe play, although Vygotsky and Piaget view the basis for this differently.

Vygotsky contended society and culture dictate that implicit and explicit rules, morals and social norms exist to ensure acceptable behaviors. During infancy, the child’s main caregivers expose them to these rules and together with peers, help shape the child’s behaviors and competencies for acceptance and meeting social expectations (usually facilitated through verbal guidance and pretend play) (Gray, 2002).

In contrast, Piaget argued that it is through their own intelligence that children know how to act and behave and as they are ‘solo thinkers’, the emphasis of social guidance (through mechanisms like pretend play) affects their thinking and not their actions (Matusov & Hayes, 2000). Through their short-term longitudinal study comparing nonsocial peer play behavior with emotionality, regulation and social functioning, Spinrad et al. (2004) cautions against nonsocial behavior. They found that solitary play (nonsocial play) appeared to be linked with peer exclusion and rejection, thus resulting in anxiety problems.

These studies therefore support the importance of the social contact given in pretend play to enhance growth of self-esteem and social acceptance. Research supports the notion that make believe play enhances language development and communication processes in young children (Berk, 1994). While Piaget believed that language is a side effect of the development of thought, and not essential to it (Gray, 2002), Vygotsky believed language to be major foundation for the development of thought and the main basis for social interaction.

Lewis (2003), in a study considering the relationship between language and play, concluded that there is a connection, although this can be mediated by how parents and their children interact while they are playing. An area of importance to pretend play pertains to Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD): he believed that children increase developmental potential under the specific guidance of an adult/teacher or better skilled peer (Gray, 2002).

Through interaction, the child learns from heir peers and advances their level of knowledge (Berk, 1994). Vygotsky’s view on educational practices connected with the ZPD saw the teacher as modeling the program, guiding the child through demonstrations and asking leading questions (De Vries, 2000). In contrast, Piaget felt that the concept of a ‘skilled peer’ or the teacher as the superior created the possibility of an abuse of power (Matusov and Hayes, 2000). He also considered the Vygotskian view of the teacher’s role a little directorial and not child-centered.

His own model proposed ‘cooperation’ of equal partners instead (i. e. child and teacher on equal footing) in which the teacher asks guiding questions and offers hints, and essentially interferes as little as possible (DeVries, 2000). The various research on ZPD fluctuates between support and disagreement on what constitutes the level of competence needed to influence a child’s ZPD. For example, Vygotsky’s view was that the teacher/skilled peer is more competent than the child and this is supported through research conducted by Gray and Feldman (2004).

They studied the interactions between adolescents and young children in terms of pretend play and other associations at the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, USA, and found that after adolescent intervention, the children acted in advanced ways more so than they normally would have if they had been interacting with same-age peers. The implication is the child’s ability to act in their own ZPD is enhanced by the pretend play facilitated by the older peers.

The concept of a ZPD is closely related to ‘scaffolding’, the process by which the more competent peer/ teacher assists or controls the less competent child to successfully complete an activity or problem that they would not have been able to do on their own (Matusov & Hayes, 2000). Scaffolding contributes to successful social collaboration between the child and peer/teacher and therefore to make believe play (Berk, 1994). As the child becomes more competent at an activity, the peer withdraws their assistance bit by bit, until the child is competent in their own right (Gray & Feldman, 2004).

Piaget and Vygotsky supported the idea of scaffolding in different ways; however, the common theme was that the teacher’s role is to be encouraging and non-interfering. Make believe play in educational settings Scaffolding is an excellent enhancement in the educational setting, especially in a special learning environment. An example of this is in autistic education: due to congenital abnormalities, autistic children’s modes of social reasoning, emotions and understanding of others is not developed (Gray, 2002).

Their language is usually compromised and they do not exhibit mutual social interaction skills. As a result, this fundamentally affects their ability to process or display imaginative or make believe play (Salazar Smith, 2004). Given that make believe play plays a significant role in a child’s social and cognitive development, a child with autism would find it difficult to function in the social world. Yang, Wolfberg, Wu and Hwu (2003) conducted research into the use of IPG (integrated play groups) models to promote play in autistic children.

They emphasized a child-centered approach, which entailed evaluation of the child’s abilities and limitations, continual encouragement and systematically scaffolding to higher levels of unstructured social interaction and play. As a result of the study, the autistic children developed the ability to partake in social play and, notably, there was an increase in pretend play (Yang et al. , 2003). The importance of enhancing make-believe in the educational setting can be further supported by a longitudinal study conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan (High/Scope, 2002, in Almon, 2002).

Three groups of randomly selected young students were assigned to two curriculum approaches: child-initiated activities (play orientated) and direct instruction activities. All three groups did well with increases in their IQ, however, the study found that the groups who were assigned to the child-initiated activities excelled in social developmental aspects of personal and social responsibility (High/Scope, in Almon, 2002). While applications in educational settings can enhance and address shortfalls in social and cognitive development, sometimes there is a gap between theory and reality.

Research by Cheng (2001), for example, shows that in attempting to apply the application of pretend play in Hong Kong, difficulties were encountered for both the teachers and the learners, the children of two kindergartens. These difficulties related both to the teachers’ understanding of pretend play theory as well as how ‘pretend play’ could work in a tradition that does not normally involve play in learning. One key issue identified by the researchers related to culture. In this case, there were clashes between the ideological underpinnings of the theory and the culture into which the theory was to be applied.

For example, given a tradition of formal, didactic teaching, an apparent non-directive encouragement of ‘play’ instead of a focus on academic results was difficult to incorporate into the teaching curriculum and almost alien. Conclusion In summary, make believe play is important to cognitive development and functioning in children. Early theories established a survival-oriented approach to explaining the significance of make believe play, however, Vygotsky and Piaget established a developmental framework that emphasised the role make believe play has in enhancing social and cognitive development.

While this essay has not explored every aspect, its role in developing social norms and rules, the connection with language, the implications for the zone of proximal development, and scaffolding are considered. While the significance of make believe play has been established in a western educational context, it may not be so easily transferable, in practise, to other cultures and this would seem to be an interesting avenue of investigation.

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