Discuss why play is a framework for learning in early childhood education in New Zealand and consider the role of the teacher in implementing a play-based curriculum. Use Te Whāriki and two theoretical perspectives of play to support your discussion.

Examine how Te Whāriki guides teaching and learning though play for infants, toddlers and young children.

Identify responsive learning environments for infants, toddlers and young children.

1500 words  format: 5cm left-hand margin. Double line spacing. Page numbers inserted at the middle end of page. 12 point font.

Two theoretical perspectives to support discussion : Piaget’s theory and Vygotsky’s Theory

Piaget’s Theory

One of the main theorists to influence thinking about children’s play in the twentieth century was Jean Piaget. Nixon and Gould (2002, p. 6) have summarised Piaget’s beliefs about how people learn throughout life. These beliefs include:

·         Children are active learners, who interact with their environment
·         Children use different thinking strategies at different stages of their development and their thinking strategies are qualitatively different from those of an adult
·         Children pass through different stages of development in their thinking, and these stages are identifiable by observing children’s responses to activities and questions
·         The stages follow a certain order and this order is universal.  Each child will, however, pass through stages at their own rate of development.  This development will be influenced by both heredity and social factors.


For Piaget, play is about keeping balanced. He thought this had two aspects.

  • accommodation—adapting to situation
  • assimilation—confirming what you already know through your experiences

Piaget thought there were two aspects to play, in a developmental sequence:

  • sensory movement and play
  • imagination, pretend and symbolic play

(Bruce, Meggitt & Grenier, 2010, p. 368)

Piaget maintained that play is mainly to do with assimilation and using what is known, familiar and understood. It is about applying what has already been learnt. There is a saying that you can only learn what you already know. That is the power of play- it helps you to consolidate what you know in deep and far-reaching ways.

Piaget’s stages of development directly relate to his concepts for the stages of play. He identified three distinct stages of play:

Functional or practice play

is associated with the sensori-motor period. Nell, Drew and Bush (2013) state that functional play or practice play (birth to age two) “is largely engaged in for sensory pleasure. Children repeat an action to see if it occurs again and also for the sheer enjoyment of the act” (p. 14). Children explore objects in a variety of ways using their different senses and physical abilities, for example, an infant may play by chewing on a wooden shaker in order to develop their sensori-motor skills.

Symbolic play

is associated with the pre-operational period. Somewhere around two years of age, children are able to begin to play in their heads, meaning they are able to use language and memory to extend their repertoire of play. This gives them the ability to use objects as symbols. For example, a child in this stage is able to pick up a block, pretend it is a car and drive it across the carpet. Children in this stage no longer rely totally on the physical object and begin to use their imagination and involve language in their play.

Games with rules

The stage Games with Rules is associated with the concrete operational period. Nell, Drew and Bush (2013) characterise games with rules as activities with pre-determined rules that are goal-oriented and often competitive, “Piaget notes that some games are institutional – that is, they are passed down from generation to generation” (p. 14). Hopscotch, tag, hide and seek, and organised sports such as cricket are examples of this type of game. Although Piaget associated the concrete operational stage with ages seven to 11 years, play involving games with rules does have some relevance to early childhood.

While the stages of play according to Parten and Piaget provide a useful overview, it is crucial to remember that they are only guidelines and that younger children may be seen playing in a more advanced stage of play, before reverting to their current stage of play. Similarly, older children might operate in one stage of play, but at times change to a different stage. Movement between stages might occur due to environmental influences, physical or emotional influences and is often linked to where the child feels comfortable at the particular moment in time. For example, toddlers might be able to create rules for a game and follow those for some time, before they require help from a teacher, yet the same could be said for older children. Therefore, it is essential to observe children in their play carefully to ensure that the assessment of their play provides a holistic picture of the children’s abilities.

Vygotsky’s Theory

Lev Vygotsky was a Russian anthropologist who observed the social and cultural context in which children develop, with an emphasis on social interaction. Vygotsky valued imaginative play and focussed mainly on toddlerhood and onwards, when this type of play emerges. In Vygotsky’s view, “play creates a way of freeing children from the constraints of everyday life” (Bruce, Meggitt & Grenier, 2010, p. 367). He believed that imaginative play builds children’s social and intellectual capacity (MacNaughton & Williams, 2009).


Vygotsky believed that imaginative play expresses children’s zone of proximal development as it allows the child to perform tasks, experience feelings and test competencies not possible in non-imaginative play

(Jones & Reynolds, 1992, as cited in MacNaughton & Williams, 2009, p. 372).

Vygotsky described the zone of proximal development (ZPD) as “…the gap between what a child can do alone and what he or she can do with the help of someone more skilled or experienced, who could be an adult or another child” (Pound, 2011, p. 34).

Vygotsky’s theory argued that learning needs supportguidance and modelling to make it happen. He stated that play has two crucial features:

     1 – Play creates an imaginary situation that allows the child to realise their desires
      2 – Play contains rules for behaviour that must be followed for play to be successful

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