17 The Diversity of Beliefs about and Practices of Play

In an extensive and thorough review of international research on adults’ beliefs about play, children’s play with parents, and children’s own play[1] conceptualizes play as “both culturally framed and unframed activities that are subsumed under the umbrella of ‘playfulness’” . This conception is elaborated thus:

As distinguished from conventional definitions of play, playfulness is a more universal phenomenon and includes childhood and parent-child unframed play activities that co-occur during caregiving and in children’s encounters with different individuals and objects within specific developmental niches. [2]

This notion of playfulness appears in line with how we approach play in the present study. However, while Roopnarine includes what she refers to as ‘framed and unframed activities’, that is, both activities initiated as play and playfulness that enters other kind of activities, we would argue that when children (or adults) introduce playfulness into what has been initiated as activities other than play, they in fact, at least temporarily, reframes the activity as play(ful). Still, the openness to identifying and analyzing playfulness beyond activates clearly initiated in terms of play is necessary, we adhere to, when investigating what we refer to as play-responsive teaching.

An important finding of Roopnarine’s review is that parents differ in their view of the merits of play. Parents from what is referred to as European or European- heritage cultures, and particularly among higher-educated middle-class backgrounds, differ in being positive to “‘concerted cultivation’ during socialization (constantly coaching, creating opportunities) compared to low-income families who believe that children naturally acquire certain skills”, including play support. Regarding the latter, here was a positive relationship between play support and parental education, and an inverse relationship between parental education and academic focus, suggesting that parents with higher levels of educational attainment were more likely to endorse play as a means for learning early cognitive and social skills than those with lower levels of educational attainment.

That is, higher-educated parents are more positive to play as a means of facilitating children’s development – and children’s development more generally than promoting particular learning outcomes – than lower-educated parents. Among the latter group, “economic and social pressures may lead parents to choose didactic approaches over play in early education in order to minimize the risk of attendant to school failure later on” [3]. It is important to realize that what is here referred to as ‘didactic approaches’ denote practices based on traditional school instruction, and therefore practices markedly different from what we, in the present study, refer to as (play-responsive) didaktik.

Not surprisingly, but importantly, variation in parental beliefs concerning the value of play corresponds with the frequency, nature and quality of parent-child play [4], with parents in European and European-heritage communities engaging, for example, in playful activities with children and objects in ways that involve labelling more than parents with other cultural backgrounds.

The role – if any – of play in education is, of course, controversial[5][6]Burghardt[7]  renders experience that “it is often necessary to avoid the label ‘play’ when seeking to integrate playful activities into school curricula. The lay view that play is not serious, and thus not important to ‘real’ education, is still all too common” (see the discussion of Vaihinger [8] in the present volume for a powerful refutation of such objections)..1 In their extensive review of studies on play in education, Fisher, Hirsch-Pasek, Golinkoff, Singer, and Berk[9] deduce this controversy to a more long-standing debate on how children learn. They argue that historically there are two traditions to this question, what they refer to as “the ‘empty vessel’ approach” and “the whole-child perspective”, respectively. The former is presented thus:

Arising from the essentialist and behaviorist philosophies, some believe that there is a core set of basic skills that children must learn and a carefully planned, scripted pedagogy is the ideal teaching practice. In this ‘direct instruction’ perspective, teachers become agents of transmission, identifying and communicating need-to-know facts that define academic success. Learning is compartmentalized into domain-specific lessons (mathematics, reading, language) to ensure the appropriate knowledge is being conveyed. Worksheets, memorization, and assessment often characterize this approach – with little academic value associated with play, even in preschool.

In terms of Swedish preschool, we argue, such an approach is not feasible; in Swedish preschool there are no worksheets or assessment of children’s knowledge (this is not allowed according to law), neither is knowledge compartmentalized into the instruction of particular subjects as such (themes rather than lessons constitute the form of facilitating children’s experience and learning). In addition, the notions of direct instruction and transmission of knowledge are unproductive to understand how teachers and others facilitate children’s development and learning).

In contrast to the ‘empty vessel’ approach, described by Fisher et al. [10] above, they present what they refer to as ‘the whole-child approach’, in which children themselves are ascribed an active role in their learning, where meaningfulness is critical, and “play, in particular, represents a predominant method for children to acquire information, practice skills, and engage in activities that expand their repertoire”. A recurring concept in discussions and theorizing emphasizing children’s active participation is agency. [11]

While our present position is aligned with the latter conception (i.e., what is above referred to as ‘the whole-child approach’, as distinct to an ‘empty vessel’ approach), it is important to remember that dichotomies like the above distinction are simplifications necessary for some analytical purpose. In actual practice – as necessarily investigated empirically – one would not expect to find clear-cut examples of either one. While sympathetic with the latter, rather than the former perspective, something that is under-communicated in the latter is the important roles of more experienced peers and in particular teachers in children’s learning and development. Hence, rather than arguing for one or the other position (perspective), it is critical to theorize teaching in play-based activities in more nuanced ways than what dichotomies allow.

Reviewing studies on play and learning, Fisher et al.[12] conclude that “the findings show that play can be gently scaffolded by a teacher/adult to promote curricular goals while still maintaining critical aspects of play” . What they refer to as ‘playful learning’ consists of two parts: free play and guided play. The latter has two aspects: adults enriching children’s environment with toys and other objects relevant to a curricular domain (e.g., literacy), and adults playing along with children, including critically, asking questions and “the teacher may model ways to expand the child’s repertoire (e.g., make sounds, talk to other animals, use it to ‘pull’ a wagon)” Hence, while children’s play provides the basis for this form of pedagogy, “teacher guidance will be essential”. Teacher guidance, as Fisher et al. point out, “falls on a continuum”, that is, the question is not whether or not the teacher participates (or should participate) but the extent to – and more critically, how – she does so.

The example of developing preschool children’s shape concepts can illustrate the merits of this form of pedagogy. In the study, children were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: guided play, direct instruction or control condition. In the guided play condition, children were encouraged to “discover the ‘secret of the shapes’” and adults asked what the researchers refer to as ‘leading questions’, such as how many sides there are to a shape. In the instruction condition, in contrast, the adult verbally described the shape properties to children. In the control condition children listened to a story instead of engaging with shapes. Afterwards the children were asked to draw and sort shapes.

Results from a shape-sorting task revealed that guided play and direct instruction appear equal in learning outcomes for simple, familiar shapes (e.g., circles). However, children in the guided play condition showed significantly superior geometric knowledge for the novel, highly complex shape (pentagon) than the other conditions. For the complex shapes, the direct instruction and control conditions performed similarly. The findings suggest discovery through engagement and teacher commentary (dialogic inquiry) are key elements that foster shape learning in guided play.

Hence, there is no difference in learning outcomes between guided play and direct instruction when it comes to relatively simple content, but when it comes to more complex content, guided play outperforms direct instruction; in fact, as found, when it comes to complex content, direct instruction was no better than what the control group performed (i.e., in this case, direct instruction made no difference to learning outcomes, on a group level). As clarified by Fisher et al.’s reasoning, teacher participation is critical to the success of guided play, not least to engage children in talking about the matters at hand and how these may be understood.

In their extensive review of research on play and learning, Fisher et al. [13] show how correlational, interventional, and comparative research all show the benefits of learning on the basis of play. They give examples from domains such as language and literacy, and mathematics, as well as social and self-regulative skills.

Particularly dramatic play is emphasized as developing children’s language and literacy skills, requiring play partners to make known to others their intentions and play scenarios, and for participants to synthesize their ideas and suggestions into a shared narrative.

While there are many commonalities between the explanatory framework of Fisher et al. [14] and our present study, differences in research traditions also emerge. This is evident when Fisher et al. ask, “What are the optimal combinations for literacy development (e.g., the number of literacy learning activities, length of time per activity, time devoted to free vs. guided play)?”. These are all quantitative matters, that is how much of X and Y are optimal to support children’s development. In contrast, from our theoretical point of view, what we need to ask is qualitative questions, for instance, what qualities of teacher-child interaction, and children’s interaction, are critical to scaffold children’s development in various domains of knowing; what modes of participation by more experienced participants such as teachers promote children’s play, and through play, learning beyond play; in what way can conceptual resources necessary for the development of play be planted within the framing of ongoing play, and how may these conceptual resources be planted in establishing a mutual play frame for children to play in and beyond? These are all questions that require a different kind of analysis and, in part, different kind of empirical data, to the questions posed by Fisher et al. Asking the kinds of questions we pursue in the present study requires detailed interactional data from everyday activities in preschool.

Analyzing and discussing discourses on play and learning in early childhood education, Hedges [15] argues that “reluctance to incorporate content in children’s learning arises from non-empirical traditions and ideologies”. A historical precursor to what is today often voiced as objecting to ambitions to support children’s learning in early childhood education, is Rousseau:

In the eighteenth century, Rousseau promoted play as a natural form of children’s healthy development as playful, innocent and optimistic human beings. The role of education was to let these instinctive abilities unfold without adult interference. The type and extent of con- tent knowledge learning developed in this apparently effortless way remained unspecified and Rousseau’s ideas were developed without any empirical basis [16]. Yet these ideas have been the origins of a long-held child-centered ideology related to play as a spontaneous activity that ought not to be interfered with.

In terms of a common set of metaphors, children’s abilities have thus come to be seen as ‘unfolding’ (as if prewritten on a piece of paper that, when unfolded (‘de-veloped’), reveals what is already there waiting to be recognized. Accordingly, teachers and other adults should not ‘intervene’ in the allegedly natural scheme of things. As Hedges[17] points out, such a stance risks making content knowledge invisible and unattended. In contrast, and recognizing the importance of allowing children to develop insights into many domains of knowing, Hedges argues that some critical questions to such approaches are “when adults might provide input into children’s spontaneous play, what the substance of that input might be and the pedagogical framing for such contributions”. The questions are well aligned with the interest of the present project. Building her reasoning on research by Fleer[18] and others, Hedges[19] concludes that “playful and integrated pedagogical models depend on teachers’ ability to recognize and act on possible links between play and content in a genuine way. This is in contrast to trying to slip content disingenuously into children’s play, emphasizing content as if it were the only end- goal of play or teaching content didactically” . (As we have already clarified what we refer to as didaktik in the original German/continental tradition is markedly different to what in the English-speaking world is referred to as didactics.) In our study, we intend to analyze such ‘links’ between, primarily playing and teaching, and thus in extension with learning.



Chapter copied from: The Diversity of Beliefs about and Practices of Play section in Pramling, N. et al., Play-Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education, International Perspectives on Early Childhood Education and Development 26, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15958-0_7. Shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

  1. Roopnarine, J. L. (2011). Cultural variations in beliefs about play, parent-child play, and children’s play: Meaning for childhood development. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 19–37). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid.
  5. Pellegrini, A. D. (2011a). Conclusion. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 363–366). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press
  6. Pellegrini, A. D. (2011b). Introduction. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 3–6). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  7. Burghardt, G. M. (2011). Defining and recognizing play. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 9–18). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  8. Vaihinger, H. (2001). The philosophy of “as if”: A system of the theoretical, practical, and religious fictions of mankind (6th rev. ed., C. K. Ogden, Trans.). London, UK: Routledge. (Original work published 1924).
  9. Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D. G., & Berk, L. (2011). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 341–360). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Clarke, S. N., Howley, I., Resnick, L., & Rosé, C. P. (2016). Student agency to participate in dialogic science discussions. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 10, 27–39.
  12. Fisher, K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Singer, D. G., & Berk, L. (2011). Playing around in school: Implications for learning and educational policy. In A. D. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 341–360). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Hedges, H. (2014). Children’s content learning in play provision: Competing tensions and future possibilities. In L. Brooker, M. Blaise, & S. Edwards (Eds.), The Sage handbook of play and learning in early childhood (pp. 192–203). London, UK: Sage.
  16. Grieshaber, S., & McArdle, F. (2010). The trouble with play. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.
  17. Hedges, H. (2014). Children’s content learning in play provision: Competing tensions and future possibilities. In L. Brooker, M. Blaise, & S. Edwards (Eds.), The Sage handbook of play and learning in early childhood (pp. 192–203). London, UK: Sage.
  18. Fleer, M. (2010). Early learning and development: A cultural-historical view of concepts in play. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  19. Hedges, H. (2014). Children’s content learning in play provision: Competing tensions and future possibilities. In L. Brooker, M. Blaise, & S. Edwards (Eds.), The Sage handbook of play and learning in early childhood (pp. 192–203). London, UK: Sage.


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