February 10, 2021

Three Lenses: Play, Pedagogy and Play Pedagogy

Sarah O. Weiler

A note from popatplay: In the spirit of condoning an occasional breaking of the rules (ie, doing some risk-taking of our own) we're sharing a post this week that is a bit different in form and tone from our usual. Rather than sharing stories from the classroom, reflections on our research, or ideas we're playing with, this post shares some theoretical underpinnings of learning through play. It comes from an educator and researcher who, in her own words, wanted "not to argue that educators must determine which conception of play, pedagogy and play pedagogy they adhere to, but rather to empower educators to construct their beliefs and practices with a fuller understanding of what those decisions mean in terms of their theoretical roots and their implications to develop a more meaningful pedagogy of play." We hope it sparks some questions for you.

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All too often the use of the terms “play,” “pedagogy” and “play pedagogy” are used without situating them within a theoretical framework.  This can produce somewhat diffuse and disconnected discourses as educators are using the same words with different meanings.  By discussing these concepts within three highly influential theoretical frameworks – behaviorism, constructivism and cultural-historical theory – educators can more fully understand the diversity of meanings these concepts hold, including what they follow from (their theoretical origins) and what follows from them (their implications).

Each of the following sections briefly explores these concepts within each framework in order to support educators to make more informed, deliberate and intentional choices in how they develop a pedagogy of play. The fundamental purpose of this post is not to argue that educators must determine which conception of play, pedagogy and play pedagogy they adhere to, but rather to empower educators to construct their beliefs and practices with a fuller understanding of what those decisions mean in terms of their theoretical roots and their implications to develop a more meaningful pedagogy of play.

Behaviorism

Framework Introduction & Conception of Pedagogy:

Behaviorism is the study of behavior, viewed as how animals (including humans) respond to stimuli in their environments.  A stimuli can be anything in the environment that elicits a response.  An animal could hear a loud noise, as a stimuli, and run, as a response, for instance.  Pedagogically, the basic behaviorist model, explained by Skinner (1976), is stimulus-response-reinforcement.  Learning is equated with conditioning students’ behavior in accordance with desired outcomes (typically determined by teachers).  For example, a stimulus could be an academic task and a teacher can condition students’ responses through reinforcements, such as rewards (from star charts to material rewards) to incentivize students to perform optimally.  In addition to setting up reinforcement schemes to condition students’ behavior, teachers model desired behaviors for students to replicate.  

Conception of Play:

A naturalist view of play based in evolutionary psychology would be the one most suited to a behaviorist framework (although not exclusive to it), as it shares the same basic unit of analysis: behavior.  Evolutionary psychologists’ studies of animal play have found that it naturally occurs amongst all animals (including humans) for the purpose of adapting behavior for survival or success.  Burghardt (2010) categorizes play types as physical play, object play and social play. Burghardt defines play as repeated behavior that is incompletely functional, initiated voluntarily, spontaneous, pleasurable, rewarding and reinforcing.

Conception of a Pedagogy of Play:

The more naturalistic view of play posited by evolutionary scientists can be seen in a pedagogy of play as a means for practicing behaviors, or learning skills, needed for adult life.  Pretend play with a set model to follow, conditioning students’ responses with rewards is one type of behaviorist-inspired play pedagogy.  An example of this would be a teacher setting up an area in the classroom for students to play house.  The teacher models how students should (and shouldn’t) behave, perhaps asking them to repeat scripted phrases such as “May I have one?,” as the children might ask their parent for a cookie, in order to teach children how to ask for something politely.  The cookie then acts as a reward, or reinforcement, when students appropriately re-spond (following the teacher’s model) to the stimulus (the teacher’s modeled phrase).  Another form of behaviorist-inspired play pedagogy is highly directive educational games, often characteristic of tech-driven gamification, in which students engage in repetitive practice (such as times tables problem solving or spelling words) with built-in reinforcement systems (points, level promotion, competitive ranking and other re-wards).  If the student plays an educationally altered version of Pac-Man in which a multiplication problem is set up and there are four houses with four different potential answers to choose from in the game, the Pac-Man needs to go to the house with the right answer to score points while avoiding the ghosts. Once enough points have accumulated the player is rewarded by advancing to another level in the game.  In such educational games there is typically one answer deemed correct within a closed system of possible moves, all of which follow the conditioning model of stimulus-response-reinforcement.

Discussion:

Advocates of educational gamification argue that it affords students the possibility to learn at their own pace and to cultivate a more positive relationship to failure through a more low-stakes, potentially resilience-building game-based learning.  Learning involving memory (such as times tables and spelling) and skill improvement (such as a sport or musical instrument) through repetitive practice seem to be well-suited to a stimulus-response-reinforcement game design.  Learning involving reasoning and complex problem-solving, however, may not be well suited to closed-system behaviorist game design that only allow for a few discrete moves that result in success or failure.  Generally, there has been criticism of the behaviorist model of stimulus-response-reinforcement and the basic premise of conditioning for its lack of attention to the development of human reason that grapples with the intrinsic meaning of actions, as behaviorism focuses on incentivizing behaviors with rewards to externally motivate children to behave in the way deemed correct or legitimate.    

Constructivism

Framework Introduction & Conception of Pedagogy:

Constructivism is a child-centered approach that views individual children as discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge through active engagement in the world, in accordance with their biological-cognitive development.  A constructivist-inspired belief is that if children are exposed to different situations, they will learn on their own through formulating and testing out their hypotheses, as long as they are developmentally ready to learn what those situations have to offer.  When a child’s hypothesis is confirmed the new experience is “assimilated” and when it is not confirmed a child must make “accommodations” to his mental representations, or “schemas”, to make sense of it.  For example, if a child sees a pictures of a family that is similar to his own family he will assimilate this information.  If, however, the child comes across a picture of a family with a different composition, he may need to accommodate this information and learn that there are many types of families.  If, however, the child is unable to accommodate the new information, he may not be developmentally ready to learn it.  Pedagogically, the role of educators is to prepare the environment for students to learn what they are developmentally ready for by planning activities with opportunities for assimilation and accommodation as children progress through the stages of their development.

Conception of Play:

Constructivist ideas about play build upon the naturalistic basis of evolutionary psychologists, yet specify how play changes as children’s cognitive abilities develop through discrete, progressive stages.  Piaget (1969) argued that children start off as practicing repetitive actions (such as dressing a doll); then advance to more elaborative imaginative play, which he called “symbolic play” due to the use of objects to represent other objects (such as using a stick as a horse); then finally to games with rules (such as board games or sports).  A contemporary of Piaget, Parten (1929) built upon his stages, arguing that children’s play progresses from onlooker play to solitary play to parallel play to associative play, and finally, to cooperative play.  These progressions from one stage to another occur in accordance with a child’s cognitive development, such that game play follows pretend play, and once a child has progressed through one stage he does not go back to it.    

Conception of a Pedagogy of Play:

In a typical constructivist-inspired play-based approach, educators select materials that are age and stage appropriate and plan the pedagogic spaces for children to explore freely, without the interference of teachers or other adults.  A pretend play situation may be set up, such as house, with all the materials available to students to play together with little to no teacher intervention.  While playing house, students might discover a bit of what it is like to be a little brother in a large family when in reality the student playing that role might be an only child in a small family.  The children learn from each other in pretend play, from the diversity of experiences that they bring to the imaginary situations.  The role of the teacher in children’s play is de-emphasized in this perspective, as it is argued that children develop by investigating their environments in non-directive, free play.  Through children’s free exploration in play they will have opportunities for assimilation and accommodation as they progress through the stages of their cognitive development.

Discussion:

Piaget’s constructivist theoretical framework has revolutionized educators’ understanding of how children cognitively develop.  The educator’s non-interventionalist role of facilitating an environment rich for each individual child’s self-directed discovery leaves open the question of how environmental factors limit and afford different possibilities for children’s development and choice-making.  Fleer (2009) has found that when children are left to only freely explore in play, their conceptual development does not go beyond that of everyday notions.  With the support of more experienced play partners, such as educators, however, children can be supported to make connections and relations to more scientific understanding of how the world works.

Cultural-Historical Theory

Framework Introduction & Conception of Pedagogy:

Vygotsky argues that human beings develop through social, historical and cultural activities with other human beings, cultivating a zone of proximal development (zpd) in which each one supports the other to do collaboratively what he/she is unable to do yet independently (such as solving a problem together).  Vygotsky’s theory centers on the mediation of tools in human activities, such as language and the concepts encoded in it.   This means that the way that people see and act in the world is filtered through the lens of the concepts they have learned up to that point.  As such, the zpd can be understood as a meaning making space for teaching and learning concepts collaboratively with others.  Vygotsky distinguishes between two dimensions of concepts: the everyday and the scientific.  Children typically learn everyday concepts first through their practical, concrete, everyday life experiences, such as seeing people around them use and name things. The everyday conception of “family” develops as a child hears her family members refer to themselves as a family.  Scientific concepts develop when a child studies a concept in greater depth and breadth, at school for instance, identifying its defining characteristics in general, theoretical and abstract terms.  Scientific concepts, importantly, are systemic in nature, deriving meaning from their relations to other interconnected concepts within a framework that can “penetrate through the external appearance of phenomenon into their essence” (Vygotsky, 1998, 54).  A more scientific conception of “family” develops when a student studies about what makes a family, including the various members that can constitute it, the roles they take within the family, how they relate to one another and the larger society, etc.  With young children this may be through stories and observations.  The role of educators is to support students to fuse the everyday concepts, which might be used without much conscious awareness or deliberation upon their meaning, with scientific concepts into what Vygotsky called “real” concepts that can be used with greater intention and agency.  By understanding more fully the concept “family” students can make more informed and meaningful decisions about how they relate to their family members or how they view the division of labor (or who does what) within a family.

Conception of Play:  

A cultural-historical conceptualization of play as an imaginary situation importantly involving rules, can take the form of pretend play or game play.  The rules that constitute the imaginary situation of play mediate the relationship between meaning and action.  In play meaning dominates action, such that attention and awareness to meaning is heightened as play participants aim to show the meaning of who they are (their roles), where and when they are (the scenario) and what they are doing and thinking (the props they use and the scripts they create).  This meaning is conceptual and is embodied in play participants’ actions according to the rules that they believe to govern the concepts literally “at play.”  When children play house, for example, they will bring their understanding of the concept “family” from their previous experiences, observations and knowledge from stories to the imaginary situation.  When conflicts in their conceptions arise with one another, they negotiate meaning with other playmates, which can often broaden and sometimes deepen their understanding of what the concept “family” means.  From the make-up of a family to who does what in the family to what the household rules are to how the family relates to one another can vary widely from child to child, leaving much room for negotiation of meaning and the rules to govern the play situation.    

Conception of a Pedagogy of Play:

A cultural-historical pedagogy of play is joint play amongst educators and students, alternating between positions of guiding and following, with the educator supporting students to move beyond the conceptual understandings they bring to the play situation, which are often everyday conceptions, to more scientific ones that empower them to make more informed, intentional decisions in play and in their everyday lives.  At times the educator may observe students playing and later question aspects of what happened at play in a moment of reflective discussion with students. At other moments the teacher may take a role while playing together with students, perhaps introducing problems into the play situation.  The educators’ key purpose is to support students to make connections between everyday concepts and scientific concepts to produce more fully developed, “real” concepts that empower them to make more meaningful decisions in play and in their real lives.

Discussion:

As play pedagogy within a cultural-historical framework is a joint activity amongst educators and students, educators must take care not to “hijack” the play situation by over-directing or over-guiding it, whereby marginalizing children’s voices and running the risk of turning play into an overly academic, or schooled activity. This necessarily involves a pedagogic commitment to joint, shared activity amongst educators and students as co-constructors of knowledge, with the educator supporting students to mediate the relationship between everyday and scientific concepts.  

Bibliography
Burghardt, G. (2012) Defining and Recognizing Play, The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play.
Fleer, M. (2009) Understanding the Dialectical Relations between Everyday Concepts and Scientific Concepts within Play-based Programs, Research in Science Education, Volume 39, Issue 2.
Parten, M. B. (1932) Social Participation among Pre-school Children, The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3).
Piaget, J. (1969) The Psychology of the Child, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
Skinner, B. F. (1974) About Behaviorism, Knopf: New York, NY.
Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.
Vygotsky (1987) The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky, Vol. 1: Problems of General Psychology, R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.), New York: Plenum Press.

Sarah O. Weiler (contact@contemporaryeducation.com) is the founder of Contemporary Education and creator of the Pedagogic Play early childhood curriculum.  She has been an educator, researcher and school leader across three continents for over twenty years.  For more information about Sarah O. Weiler and Contemporary Education please access this link: http://www.contemporaryeducation.com/2019/08/what-is-contemporary-education.html.