Children Learn Best Through Play- Child Developmental Theorist perspectives

Children learn through play - Childhood developmental theorist explored

By Karen Elzinga 30/06/2018

Learning through play allows children to discover their likes, dislikes, what excites or disinterests, and creates a desire for more of one thing and less of another. 

Many theorists such as Plato, Montessori, Piaget, and Erikson have researched and developed unique philosophies and theories into how children discover their surroundings that add credibility to any modern day educator's handbook.

In this blog Child Developmental Milestones, Cognitive Development, Psychosocial Theory, Maturation Theory along with modern day perspectives of current child development researchers will be explored to showcase a philosophy that children learn best when they are allowed to be children.

It has always been a philosophy of many that to learn and grow people make mistakes along the way, and through those mistakes they learn new knowledge, whether it is never to do that again, or how to do it better or differently in the future.

 Mistakes should not be seen as failures but windows into future successes. Plato's (child specialist) theory of philosophy was also developed from an understanding that humans learn from their mistakes, so if that theory is to be pursued as philosophy in child education and development, than children require an environment where mistakes are able to happen (Booker, 2014). 

When play engagement is done correctly according to Plato, effective learning takes place. Plato believed that when children are stimulated through play, they harness a sense of enjoyment through the interaction and socialization with others. This in turn extends positive or negative feelings for the child and thus extends upon various areas of their learning (Booker, 2014).

An environmental befitting Plato's theory would be the Montessori influenced Early Child Education and Care centers of today. This approach takes in specially set up environments that build upon children's natural instincts or behaviours, and allows for socialization and stimulation through a child's own enquiry and thus creates opportunities for mistakes. For example by providing a toy kitchen complete with utensils, pots and pans children can mimic parent's actions in the home kitchen whilst building on their own theories about the workings of a kitchen environment through trial and error (Booker, 2014). This philosophy allows the child to fully explore an environment without preconceived expectations being placed on the child. The child can fully immerse themselves in play to discover and build upon their prior cognitive knowledge of how things operate, how things are formed, how things are, and how things should be.

 This approach to extending and expanding upon prior knowledge is known as a constructivist or scaffolded approach to learning and a way of learning embraced by schools today (Byrnes, 1996: Yager & Lutz, 1994).

Along with making and learning from mistakes, I am a huge believer in a constructivist style of learning, and learning from prior knowledge. As a professional artist in the process of learning and honing my craft l would have made hundreds of construction mistakes from early childhood through to adulthood. It was through those mistakes new knowledge about materials and processes by constructing new knowledge from old mistakes was acquired and my current day knowledge was obtained and built on through a process of constructivist acquisition.  

A constructivist approach is a way of learning embraced by psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Piaget developed a theory called the Maturation Theory. He believed there are 4 stages to a child's cognitive development: Sensor Motor (0-2yrs), Preoperational (2-6/7yrs), Concrete Operations (7-11/12yrs), and Formal Operations (12+) (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010). 

Piaget's 4 stages of growth in cognitive development stem from the theory that through varied exploration and environmental experiences for e.g. cultural, social, and political experiences  children grow their own understanding of their surroundings. Piaget believed that children learn from a co-construction process of building upon previously acquired knowledge and that children have their own individual and qualitative variations based on characteristics such as their genes, and in how they perceive and interpret the world around them in a patterned way (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, Farmer, 2015).

Reflecting on my own experience of Piaget's belief of individual and qualitative variations, l surmise that this theory is something l had common accord with in raising twin boys. The qualitative variations were evident in the twins 0-2 years age range. Both boys were introduced to the same exact stimuli and experiences, yet one child cognitively and physically developed skills at a much quicker rate than his twin. It was obvious he understood his surroundings and thus interpreted them in a more advanced way in this stage of his sensor motor development than his twin brother did. The differences that came early in the twin's development were less evident as they reached the preoperational stage of Piaget's theory, but left me thinking very differently about early child development. Back then l used to refer to it as the story of the hair and the tortoise, a story that l found relatable then, however now l hold a philosophical approach like both modern day theorists Pellegrini and Whitebread.

Pellegrini and Whitebread both hold strong ideologies of shifting the focus from the end achievement, to what happens during the process or the journey of getting to the end point. This shift in focus allows children to be more explorative, experimental and able to tease out and test new concepts and ideas with freedom (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, Farmer, 2015). By facilitating these approaches children are able to make mistakes and grow in time by changing and modifying behaviours, whilst building problem solving and adaptive skills, a notion also theoretically explored by Piaget (Whitebread, 2012; Duchesne, & McMaugh, 2016).

My standpoint on play based pedagogy having merit and value and being more than simply play, is based from a theoretical and scientific perspective. It encompasses play based practices like function play, where Piaget suggests that children master skills in movement through play, for e.g. when children plunge their hands in and out of water. Other forms of play include symbolic play where play takes on an imaginary aspect for e.g. pretending to be a super hero. This later forms alternate play structures like constructive play, drama filled play and playing and obeying games with rules (Van Hoorn., Monighan Nourat., Scales & Rodriguez Alward, 2011).

Language development is one aspect of childhood development that is crucially important to building structurally good neurological pathways, and synapses in the brain (DEEWR, 2009). Theorists and philosophers (Vygotsky), (Lester & Russell, 2008, p.9) & (Bodrova & Russell, 2008, p.9) back up this science. They surmised that a child's brain development is structured by the stimulation and caring attachments formed during play and that good social interaction with meaningful word associations, build stronger brain pathways which in turn sets children up for enhanced school success and academic learning potential (Early childhood Australian, 2010; Reid, 2002; Fitzgerald, 2014).).

 Modern day theorist Whitbread, hold views on evidence based theory that is built around child evolution and psychology, highlighting the theory that through play children are incredibly adaptable in building developmental milestones both cognitively and emotionally. As children develop these skills it builds other skills both linguistically and metacognitively whilst increasing their ability to self regulate (Whitebread, 2012).

When children are mentally, emotionally, and socially ready to acquire and build new concepts and form new knowledge, they will do so and via a particular order. 

This philosophy is cemented by the work and research of theorist, Erik Erikson who surmised a Psychosocial Theory. Human beings under this theory develop certain developmental milestones within 8 defined age brackets, centering on a child through to adult's social and emotional needs.

 Erikson believed that although he had defined age brackets to acquire certain characteristics within; that children in his predominant stages called autonomy versus shame and doubt (toddler years), Initiative versus guilt (preschool years), Industry versus inferiority (primary years) and Identity versus role confusion (adolescence) will meet these developmental targets differently, and thus should not become fixated if full development does not occur (McDevitt & Ormrod, 2010).

 Erikson suggests that children have developmental issues to tackle in each of the 8 psychosocial stages leading into adulthood and that children will eventually resolve these to varying degrees of success (DeHart,. Sroufe, & Copper, 2004).

Having children of my own Erikson's theory runs very true for me, l often wondered why there seemed to be almost clear stages of development, that seemed to have a line down the middle, where suddenly my child would go from being 6 years old to feeling and acting like he had suddenly jumped a few years to 8 the following week. I see clearly how Erikson gained his logic and understanding of his psychosocial theory. But in saying that l would also take on the notion of Pellegrini and Whitebread in that it's not about the end result but the journey of how you reach the end result.

 I think that by purely taking on Erikson's theory that a philosophy would be too results driven and slightly more one dimensional. A blend of numerous theories, Pellegrini,Whitebread, Piaget and Erikson makes for a great educational view for not only teachers but for parents as well. 

As parents we can sometimes rely to heavily on our children's teachers to teach our children everything they know, however a simple bit of research into various childhood philosophers can change your views entirely on how and what you choose to do when raising your children.


Arthur, I. Beecher,B. Death, E. Dockett, S. Farmer, S. (2015) Program and Planning in earlychildcare settings 6th ed. Cengage Learning Australia.

Booker, L. (2014). SAGE Handbook of Play and Learning in Early Childhood. Retrievedfrom https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.scu.edu.au/lib/scu/detail.action?docID=1712668.

Byrnes, J. (1996). Cognitive development and learning in instructional contexts. Boston: Allyn& Bacon.

DeHart, G.B., Sroufe, L. A., & Copper, R.G. (2004). Child development Its Nature and Course. New York. McGraw- Hill

Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations (DEEWR), (2009). The earlyyears learning framework for Australia. Bardon: Commonwealth Government of Australia

Duchesne, S., & McMaugh, A. (2016). Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching 5th Edition. Melbourne, Australia: Cengage Learning Australia Pty Limited.

Early Childhood Australia. (2010). Why Play Based Learning. Retrieved from http://www.earlychildhoodaustr.../every-child-index/every-child-vol-16-3-2010/play-based-learning-free-article/

McDevitt, T. M., & Ormrod, J. E. (2010). Child development and education. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Merrill.

Reid, J. (2002). Managing Small Group Learning, Primary English Teaching Association. Sydney.

Van Hoorn, J., Monighan Nourat, P., Scales, B. & Rodriguez Alward, K. (2011) Play at the centre of the curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., Chapter 2: Play and development Theory  pp. 26- 47.

Pellegrini, A. (2009). The Role of Play in Human Development. Oxford. Oxford University Press

Whitebread, D. (2012). The Importance of Play. Retrieved from http://www.importanceofplay.eu...

Yager, R & Lutz, M. (1994). Integrated science: The importance of how versus what. School Science and Mathematics.


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