The following sections propose that a model of learning through par- ticipation in cultural activities can encompass a pedagogy of play, along with other pedagogical models, and thus can accommodate the diverse cultural contexts in which children learn. I begin with a brief clarification of the notion of culture, and hence of the range of ‘cultural activities’ which children may encounter.
Whose culture, whose activities?
Rather than attempt to explore the multiple meanings and implications of ‘culture’, it can be helpful to revert to the simple reminder, by the Eng- lish cultural critic Raymond Williams, that ‘Culture in all of its early uses was a noun of process: the tending of something, basically crops or animals’ (1973: 87). By extension, as Michael Cole argues, it often describes the construction of an environment for growing up in: ‘an artificial environ- ment in which young organisms could be provided optimal conditions for growth’ (Cole 1998: 15). Since families and communities, and the caregivers and educators charged with bringing up young children, hold implicit goals and values for the kinds of adults these children will become, and implicit theories of how to achieve these goals, the ‘cul- tures’ provided for young children are inevitably shaped towards these ends. Family and community cultures, like school and pre-school cul- tures, are fashioned to bring about the desired outcomes for children, although these outcomes will vary from one group to another. Different families may provide an environment which prioritizes play, or one which prioritizes work, as the appropriate activity for children; one
42 ENGAGING PLAY
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LEARNING TO PLAY, OR PLAYING TO LEARN? 43
which fosters deference and compliance, or assertiveness and challenge; conformity or non-conformity; independence or interdependence (Göncü et al. 2000). Thus, children’s enculturation in their home com- munities will have taught them distinctive participation repertoires. They may have ‘learned’ to care for younger siblings and fold the washing; or to navigate a CD-ROM or build a complex Lego model from a diagram; or to recite and copy alphabets, or sing along with the ABC songs on Sesame Street.
Educators, similarly, build their environments and their practice on their conscious or unconscious beliefs about what is best for children: the knowledge and skills they should acquire, and the optimal ways to acquire them. The early learning environments beloved of Western educators, with their airy open spaces, clear bright colours, natural objects and invitations to play and have fun, communicate a coherent system of beliefs about young children’s learning. Children ‘need’ (we tend to believe) sand and water, paints and crayons, blocks and climbing structures, and the ‘artificial environment’ we create is designed to meet those needs. These ‘material arrangements of children’s activities and responsibilities’ (Rogoff 1990: 18) are the physical embodiment of our beliefs about learning, and are very often grounded in the importance of play for childhood.
In consequence, as children enter their first group care setting, or make the transition to a subsequent one, they encounter a plethora of new cultural activities and new ways of learning. They must, in Rogoff’s terms, gradually transform their participation in these new activities in order to become an expert in the setting. Learning how to learn in a new setting is a major challenge for children, especially when the values, goals and cultural activities of the setting contrast starkly with those of the home (Brooker 2008). The status and function of play, for the different stakeholders in any setting – peers, parents, practitioners – are one factor which informs the range of cultural activities in which children must acquire expertise.