Play, Work, and the Education of Young Children
Play differs in a number of ways from what is usually regarded as work. The major difference is that, even when work is enjoyable, it is still extrinsically motivated. It has a goal, such as to earn money, enhance status, feel useful, or attain success in a chosen field. Like play, work is sometimes freely chosen, but the option to avoid work is rarely available in our society. A person who regards work as pleasurable is fortunate; for most workers, it is not. The nonliteral element that typifies play is not usually found in work activities. Finally, work resembles play in the last characteristic: Both are actively engaged in, to some extent at least, by the participants.
Psychologists and educators agree that spontaneous, goal-free play facilitates children's development, but what is the value of work? Is play a valuable activity for children's development while work is not? Is there a role for work in children's lives? As a matter of fact, work has its place along with play, and this is particularly apparent when we address issues concerning the education of children.
How much work and how much play should be involved in the education of a young child? To what extent should goal-directed activities—not chosen spontaneously by a child but required by a supervising adult—be incorporated into the process? Few educators would see this as an either-or type of argument. Few would suggest that all learning occurs through spontaneous play while teachers assume only minor and passive roles, and perhaps no one maintains that play is completely unrelated to learning. Instead, there is a range of opinion as to the relative importance of work and play. Toward the play end of the play-work continuum, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) suggests in a listing of developmentally appropriate practices that children should be allowed to direct their own play activities, that they are more likely to "feel successful when they engage in a task that they have defined for themselves," and that learning should not be influenced by "adult-established concepts of completion, achievement and failure" (Bredekamp, 1987, p. 3). The teacher's role, therefore, is to be supportive but not overly directive. It would be inappropriate for teachers to "use highly-structured, teacher-directed lessons almost exclusively," to "direct all the activity," to "decide what the children will do and when," while expecting the children to listen passively or do pencil and paper tasks for long periods of time.
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