Reimagining the idea of ‘play’ in child’s development

5th August 2020 | Jayna Jagani

Reimagining the idea of ‘play’ in child’s development

This blog attempts to summarize the findings of the author. You may find the research paper here.

‘All work and no play make Jack a dull boy’- a popular proverb which resonates the idea of maintaining a balance between work and leisure. Let’s imagine that Jack is a four-year boy, who as any other child loves to play and explore with different play materials. But the condition under which Jack will play is going to be decided by his teacher. The way Jack will use the materials, amount of time and freedom of choice and movement in the classroom is partly pre-decided for Jack. Now, let’s get back to the proverb and see whether Jack’s play will be the same or will it feel like work? In Jack’s case, preparation for school?

The above scenario raises crucial questions about how we as adults and supposed caregivers view children’s development. It compels us to look back at our practices and to what extent we are controlling a child’s learning. With these questions, I along with my research partner Sana Aejaz decided to delve deep into the aspects of pre-school education, with a focus on children’s play

We narrowed down on understanding the teacher’s beliefs about play-time* for children and also attempted to see how those beliefs translated into classroom practices. A total of 10 teachers participated in the study. The interviews were conducted with teachers across two schools in Bengaluru (affordable private schools) who taught children between 4-6 years of age.

The teacher’s beliefs were decoded through questions which were divided into two parts. The first part comprised preliminary questions like ‘whether the teachers felt play-time was required in a child’s daily routine; what was the extent of play-time allotted; whether play helped in developing problem-solving skills of children; whether freedom of choice and control given to children with the play materials was required; and, should the play-time be entirely designed by teachers?’

The second part of the questions asked teachers about ‘the challenges they faced during play-time; how did they resolve the challenges; and, to understand the outcomes of play-time for children: whether play is seen as an important aspect of a child’s development and how can play contribute to the overall well-being of the child?’

The discussions (and answers) that followed threw up interesting aspects of teachers’ understanding about play, and also how it translates (rather, imposed) in the classrooms.

All the teachers we spoke to, felt that play-time was important for a child’s development. They also felt that when play-time was entirely designed by the teachers, the learning outcomes of the child got better. Roughly half the number of teachers we spoke to, believed in giving freedom of choice, movement, and control to children during play-time.


In Picture: Graph summarising teachers’ response to their beliefs about play-time for children. Questions about choice, control, allotment of play-time, planning the activity hour, confidence building and problem solving skills in children.


Teachers faced various challenges during play-time. First, children did not know the correct usage of the play material. Second, discipline maintenance in classrooms was a big issue. Third, children took other’s materials to play. Fourth, ensuring completion of the play material that was given and maintaining an atmosphere of control within classrooms proved difficult.

Interestingly, the resolution of the challenge was usually done through dialogue and negotiation, which was teacher-led. The resolutions which were often adopted related to reminding children about classroom rules and how they needed to abide by them. At times, the materials that children were given were for a fixed time period (say 10 minutes) after which, children were asked to exchange their material with some other kind of material. Sometimes, children were given the freedom to use the materials as per their wish, but it again depended on whether the child had achieved the desired outcome with that material. For example, if blocks were to be used to build a building/bridge, child had to first make that, and then the teachers gave the freedom to make anything as per the child’s wish (which could show, us adults, interesting ways to see usage of blocks- roads, cars, river bank, a robot, maybe?)

How do we then begin to comprehend the beliefs of teachers and their translation into classrooms? Is it something we as caregivers also feel? If yes, then why and if no, then also why? The answers that one gives to the above questions culls out our beliefs about young children, especially those who belong to the age-group of 3-6 years.

Children as producers of knowledge

We have heard from multiple sources that children are creative, imaginative, and curious. In this age, they love to play and explore all minute details that our world has to offer. But how will they explore freely when we put conditions of discipline and rules on them? 

Should children be given complete freedom to explore the materials and their usage too, or should we as educators (read: teachers and parents) also have certain learning-outcomes associated with each material?

It’s easy to place the blame on teachers and say that they are outcome-oriented and are not giving the freedom of choice, movement, and usage of materials to children. But if we take a closer look at the conditions under which teachers work, it becomes crucial to look at the number of children in the classroom, and the amount of time allotted to play based activity hours in the daily routine. The teachers’ training and its relevance in classrooms also throws light on what aspects should teachers focus upon in the child’s development. 

If education and training of teachers are outcome specific – where they are told that children ‘should’ be able to recite numbers, alphabets, and different rhymes – then this training is deciphered into classrooms as ‘correct’ usage of materials and its related outcome. An assumption of children as ‘consumers’ of knowledge draws focus on the outcome-oriented practices in classrooms and training sessions. We instead need to see children as ‘producers’ of knowledge, where they are equal stakeholders in their learning and are given the freedom of choice and control of materials.

How do we as educators go about doing that?

In my opinion, the current need of the hour is having a pedagogy of play. As Elizabeth Ann Wood in her research has pointed out that when ‘play is only seen as developing forms of knowledge like numbers, language, and cognitive skills, then we are achieving partial goals for child’s development’. Whereas, when play is seen as psychological and means to socio-emotional well-being of a child, it opens up facets which go beyond the outcome-oriented approach discussed earlier. The factors of autonomy which means giving freedom of choice, control, and movement to children, and the development of healthy student-teacher relationships are not only necessary but irrefutable in a child’s learning and education.

Coming back to the idea of pedagogy of play, it is not to say that play should be necessarily taught to children, rather play-time can be used to effectively channel a child’s creativity and curiosity. Language development, socio-emotional skills (expressing emotions, building friendships, and respecting diversity, etc.) can be focused upon during playtime. Cognitive skills too, where children stack up big to small blocks to make a monument or physical growth by running/jumping are some ideas which can be implemented in classrooms, and be used for various purposes. Giving a child the freedom to choose their play material and use it in their own way, itself gives children the space to explore with materials thus nurturing their curiosity and imagination.

To conclude, it is not to say that play-time is not given to children in classrooms at all. Rather, we need to ponder over the practices that are being adopted in classrooms by teachers during this time; whether the practices are effective for child’s learning and what changes can one make in the methods. It is also a chance for us to think about the notion of ‘holistic development’ we have in our education systems and more importantly in our minds. Is the holistic word only for ‘preparing for school – abiding by rules, maintaining discipline and having teacher-led discussions’; or, should we see holistic in its true spirit of ‘freedom of choice over learning and having confident children who can make decisions and express their opinions without any fear of being thrown out of classrooms or being reduced to a ‘pass/fail’/ ‘good student/bad student’ scenarios?

I would like to end with a quote (again!) and let’s begin to think and reflect on the ideas of holistic development that we are looking at for children.

‘Children learn as they play, most importantly, children learn how to learn’ -O Fred Donaldson, Martial Arts Master


*Play-time refers to the play-based activity hour that children get in their school time. It’s a part of their daily routine and usually 40 minutes of play-time is allotted for each class.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.