Play, Work, and the Education of Young Children (page 3)
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.
On the other hand, the NAEYC position is that while a curriculum that emphasizes spontaneous play but ignores the role of work might be beneficial to children' s overall development, it would be insufficient from an educational standpoint. Also needed is the guidance of an adult who determines what is necessary to be learned and presents specific educational goals for the children. "Child-initiated learning does not occur in the absence of teacher guidance or input" (Breedekamp, 1993, p. 118).
The work end—treating play primarily as a reward for and a temporary escape from work—is represented most clearly in the area of early childhood special education (Goodman, 1994; Odom, 1994). Perhaps this is not surprising since special education programs focus on remediation and emphasize the attainment of specific skills; while the purpose of developmentally appropriate practice is to encourage adults to let children develop naturally without placing artificial expectations on them, "the explicit mission of early childhood special education is to produce outcomes that would not occur in the absence of intervention or teaching" (Carta, Schwartz, Atwater, & McConnell, 1991, p. 4). Nevertheless, children with a variety of physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities can play and seem to benefit from doing so.
Is there some ideal balance of work and play in early childhood education settings? Joan Goodman (1994) of the University of Pennsylvania suggested that educators and psychologists too often have limited themselves by making an artificial either-or distinction between the two. Play, she argued, may be different from work, but is not its direct opposite. To be sure, there are purely work-related activities, such as when a child in a classroom is struggling with a boring and thoroughly unenjoyable arithmetic assignment and cannot wait to complete it. There is also pure play, such as when a child frolics in the waves at the beach. Somewhere between the two, however, is a type of activity that Goodman called play/work. For example, a child, with a teacher's direction and encouragement, is struggling with a block-building project. This is a goal-directed activity, and one that is occasionally frustrating. At the same time, however, the child is completely absorbed and self-motivated. It is here, at what Goodman saw as the midpoint between play and work, that the best teaching occurs. The child enjoys the project for the sake of itself, and considers it his or her own and not the teacher's. The teacher, however, provides the underlying skills necessary to solve the problem, determines that certain problems are more appropriate than others, and offers continuing support and encouragement throughout the problem-solving process.
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