Replacing academic approach in Early Childhood Education with imaginative play

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1 Replacing academic approach in Early Childhood Education with imaginative play SRI LESTARI YUNIARTI Staff at Partnership and Institutional Division, Directorate of Early Childhood Education Development-Indonesia Public criticisms of the practice of early childhood education are currently being widely heard through the mass media. These criticisms are mainly about the misinterpretation of early childhood educational practices that have led to an overly formal, academic, approach and distorted children s learning experience. A further difficulty stems from early start learning in literacy, which is recognised as bringing about unexpected difficulties in later years which sometimes include unpredictable emotional and behavioural problems. Early start learning in literacy is currently prevalent in the practice of early childhood education when children are assigned homework from their kindergarten, over-scheduled with extracurricular learning and are taught and tested in reading and mathematics. These seem to be inevitable for some countries due to the fact that, being literate is the primary 0

2 requirement for children to be accepted in public elementary schools. This is the reason why literacy is usually addressed in kindergarten. Alternatively, parents prepare their children by enrolling them in a literacy course outside their learning in kindergarten. Consequently, children are lack of time to play because play has been placed outside children s learning context by early childhood educators. Play is viewed as wasting time. In reality, however, children s way to engage with their learning experience is actually through play. Children develop their knowledge and skills by exploration and imagination in their play, particularly imaginative play. Relevant studies provide evidence that imaginative play encourages children s learning and development. Furthermore, a sustained imaginative play is suggested to be integrated in the early childhood education to enhance its potential benefits. Sustained imaginative play plays a critical role in children s experience with regards to three areas of learning: social competence, cognitive development and language skills. Imagination, as suggested by Bodrova and Leong (2009), is a process of mental activity to create new ways of thinking about anything virtually. Furthermore, imaginative play is defined as a form of play that employs creative process to express a particular perspective (Smith and Arthur, 2009) and it is recognised as pretend play or make-believe play. Since imaginative play applies a creative process of thinking, especially when children act out a particular perspective, therefore it is argued by relevant studies as potentially leading to a further learning experience such as language and social skills. This is because in an imaginative play such as pretend play, there is an action of pretence over reality, which includes a form of metacommunication. Metacommunication occurs when children convey different behaviours and verbal signs between their pretend play and in their real life. For example, when two children act out two different roles: doctor and patient in a pretend play, they will play out those two roles by expressing themselves with different language and behaviours, which are undoubtedly different from their language and behaviours in real life. To become effective in encouraging appropriate developmental learning, imaginative play should be formed as a sustained or mature stage of play. Elkonin (2005) states that mature play is characterised as using symbolic representations and actions, using language to create scenario, employing complex themes, multifaceted roles and extended time frame 1

3 (over several days). For example, when one day children play out mother and daughter by actively engaging language skills (listening and speaking) and continue another day when the mother is back from supermarket and takes her daughter to walk around their home. This sustained imaginative play can be created in kindergarten by allocating sufficient time for performing out the play each day. As suggested by Bodrova and Leong (2007), teachers may start with 20 minutes then gradually increase to minutes. Teachers may enrich children s playing by giving them insights into extending themes. Social competence is one of the learning developments that is suggested can be gained from sustained imaginative play. This competency is important for school readiness as the later developmental stage of kindergarten attendees. Furthermore, Nicolopoulou (2010) states that school readiness is associated with the ability to regulate behaviour and emotion (also known as self-regulation); capacity and willingness for cooperation and social understanding. In imaginative play like pretend play, children are encouraged to be peopleoriented rather than toys oriented. This orientation enables children to adjust their perspective with others. For example children in a pretend play will experience what we should do and what we should not do when act out a particular role. These two aspects are important in self-regulation and significant in their real life matter. By regulating themselves, in other words, children can adjust with others perspective and fully participate in their world. This is evident in an example of a sustained imaginative play that children in the particular Centre will begin their play by assigning their roles such as being shopkeeper, cashier and the customers, then act out with or without explicit rules. Within their playing in an imaginary shop they regulate themselves both physically and emotionally in order to adjust to other s roles and the whole scenario. Other potential benefit of sustained imaginative play is its function in encouraging children s willingness to cooperate with others. Since sustained imaginative play is viewed as social play, it appears to be an interactive activity that becomes a good means to explore social skills, especially the capacity to cooperate with others. Hendy and Toon (2001) suggest that when children engage in imaginative play they will develop their skills of sharing, listening and cooperating. Children will learn about working as a member of a group, valuing others contribution and developing empathy through participating or observing others playing 2

4 their respective roles. When play entails sharing experience, moreover, might be claimed that imaginative play is satisfying. As a practice of children s learning that aims at enhancing children s capacity to cooperate with others, it seems imaginative play is also building children s self-esteem and active learning. This is because children will become more enthusiastic and confident in a satisfying play and consequently become involved in their learning. Children s capability in processing their learning is critical for their development. The mental process that is involved in learning and understanding is defined as cognition (Cobuild Dictionary). According to Vygotsky (1978) children can construct their own understanding. However, cognitive skills are also influenced by social and cultural background. Culture is important for cognitive development, both in the form of knowledge and the way to construct knowledge. For example, children who live in a rural area will know the particular species of insect. On the other hand, children in a metropolitan city will not only be unaware of what a given insect is but also of how to know an insect is. Children in a rural area will know mostly through their own outdoor play, while children in a metropolitan city probably know by science experiences in their kindergartens. Regarding cognitive development, Vygotsky states that sustained imaginative play will create a higher level of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The Zone of Proximal Development is a term for the range of tasks that a child can complete. By reaching higher level of ZPD, children not merely can play more maturely but also demonstrate better cognitive skills. In addition to that, better cognitive skills are positively correlated with higher levels of self-regulation (Bodrova and Leong, 2007). Gaining a higher level of ZPD by imaginative play is important for children s cognitive development since becoming more mature requires a higher level of thinking capability and self-regulation. For example, as children enter school they will be required to use a more complex process of thinking and a better self-regulation. This is important not merely because this is needed in understanding the learning materials but also to cope with student life matters. Since cognitive skills are crucial for further developmental stage therefore creating sustained imaginative play in early childhood education is strongly suggested. 3

5 Language is an important element in developing children s cognitive skills. This is because language is the primary means used of transferring knowledge. Relevant studies provide evidence that engaging in an imaginative play encourages the development of language skills, both speaking and listening. It is claimed that imaginative play increases vocabulary, developing complexity in children s sentences, improving children s knowledge through creative and imaginary play, and developing linguistic skills such as code switching in turntaking roles (Smith and Mathur, 2009). Moreover, Dunn and Kendrick (1982) state that pretend play is also evident in developing children s understanding of semantic domain exchange and vocalisations. Furthermore, children are also encouraged to develop their listening skills during their play particularly when they try to understand others perspectives and turn-taking roles. These specific skills are important in enhancing children s capability to communicate with others. In addition, as suggested by Vygotsky learning experience occurs in a shared situation and language is a means for understanding others perspectives. For example, when children in their imaginative play acting out superheroes. A child may begin with negotiating role to be a Captain America while others want to be Hulk and Iron Man. Then they adjust their emotions, behaviour and play out according their own role primarily using their language. As a form of play, imaginative play is evident in developing crucial children s learning experience. Furthermore, Barblett (2010) suggests that it is important for educators to plan the environment to help children in achieving the learning outcomes. A comprehensive learning environment will provide qualified play experiences and in turn will maximise the potential benefits. Barblett stresses four ways to plan learning environment with a playbased context. Firstly, the setting and arrangement of physical such as space, decorations and properties are essential. Secondly, the need of feeling secure, and sense of belonging that lead to children s self-esteem or self-confidence. Educators are expected to build responsiveness to children s needs and atmosphere of friendship. Thirdly, educators need to creatively adjust with children s availability to learn so they know, when to facilitate children s learning or when to observe. Eventually, educators are required to specifically allocate sufficient time for creating sustained imaginative play on a regular basis. 4

6 Based on the above discussion, it is clear that sustained imaginative play is critical in developing children s learning experience. It is particularly important in developing children s further learning experience for school readiness. School readiness is associated with social competency, cognitive and language skills. Social competency includes children s ability to regulate their behaviour and emotions, and capacity to cooperate with others. Furthermore, sustained imaginative play is also evident in encouraging cognitive and language skills. By engaging in imaginative play, children develop their understanding of others, use their language as means of communication and creatively think from their own perspective and adjust with others in an imaginary scene. In addition, in a sustained imaginative play children will develop their skills of sharing, listening and cooperating. This seems critical to be addressed on the current early childhood education discussion since a heavy focus on early start learning has been on the rise and becomes public s concern recently. Therefore it is imperative for educators in early childhood education to apply sustained imaginative play in order to replace early learning that is counter-productive for children s development. References Barblett, L 2010, Why play-based learning? Every Child, vol. 16, no. 2, pp Bodrova, E 2008, Make-believe play versus academic skills: a Vygotskian approach to today s dilemma of early childhood education, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, vol. 16, no. 3, pp Bodrova, E & Leong, DJ 2007, Tools of the mind: the Vygotskian approach to early childhood education, Pearson Education, New Jersey. Dunn, J., & Kendrick, S. (1982), Siblings: Love, envy and understanding, MA: Harvard University Press, Cambridge. Hendy, L & Toon, L 2001, Supporting drama and imaginative play in the early years, Open University Press, Buckingham. Leong, DJ & Bodrova, E 2012, Assessing and scaffolding: make-believe play, Young Children, vol. 67, no. 1, pp

7 Lillard, AS, Lerner, MD, Hopkins, EJ, Dore, RA, Smith, ED and Palmquist, CM 2013, The Impact of pretend play on children s development: a review of the evidence Psychological Bulletin, vol. 139, no. 1, pp Nicolopoulou, A 2010, The alarming disappearance of play from Early Childhood Education, Human Development, vol. 53, pp Smith, M & Mathur, R 2009, Children s imagination and fantasy: implication for development, education, and classroom activities, Research in the School, vol. 16, no. 1, pp Vygotsky, L. S. (1978), Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, MA: Harvard University Press, Cambridge. 6

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