There was a time when play was king and early childhood was its domain.
(Paley 2004: 4)
This time, like most golden-age theories, proves hard to define and demonstrate despite its vivid presence in the mind. Theories of learning have evolved wherever human communities have had sufficient leisure and luxury to turn their attention away from the primary goals of sub- sistence and survival towards the decidedly secondary goals of improv- ing the minds of their children; but theories of play are both recent and anomalous. Modern educational theory is often described as commenc- ing with Locke’s (1690) account of the child as a tabula rasa or ‘blank slate’ to be inscribed with adult knowledge, an account that went unchallenged until the publication of the Romantic proposals of Rousseau (in Emile, 1762) and the subsequent pioneering efforts at child-centred education initiated by Pestalozzi and Froebel (Nutbrown et al. 2008). These early kindergartens were characterized, not by the ‘free-flow play’ advocated by late-twentieth-century educators, but by carefully sequenced learning activities such as Froebel’s ‘occupations’, along with virtuous habits such as gardening and handicrafts (Anning 1997). Montessori’s (1912) manual prescribing her ‘scientific pedagogy’ was precise as to the types and sequencing of ‘didactic material’ which should be presented to children, and the ‘intellectual work’ (not play) which was to occupy their day.
The belief that ‘well-planned play … is a key way in which young chil- dren learn’ (QCA 2000: 25) not only arrived relatively late in the history of theories of instruction, but has remained relatively ‘local’ to European and English-speaking communities. Its appearance marked the conver- gence of a number of emergent streams of thought: streams originating in the child study movement and the growth of developmental psychology as a discipline (Smith 2006); in the radical democratizing proposals of Dewey (1916) and the experimental learning environment created by Susan Isaacs (1929); in the ethological studies in the 1950s which prompted the first experimental studies of the impact of play on the cognition of human children (Sylva et al. 1976); and in the gradual dissemination of the work of both Piaget (1951) and Vygotsky (1933). In England, once the liberal-progressivism of the 1960s had taken hold (CACE 1967), the orthodoxy that children ‘learn through play’ seemed unassailable, even if actual practice rarely matched the rhetoric (Bennett et al. 1997). By the early 2000s, belief in play as an instrument of early learning dominated the pre-school curricula of European, American and Australasian nations,
40 ENGAGING PLAY
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Brooker, Liz, and Suzy Edwards. Challenging Play, McGraw-Hill Education, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ubc/detail.action?docID=771397. Created from ubc on 2022-10-21 05:48:59.
LEARNING TO PLAY, OR PLAYING TO LEARN? 41
and had begun to infiltrate the curricula of former colonies with very dif- ferent cultural traditions (Hamza 2009).
These then are the kingdoms where, for a brief historical period, play has been king, and these are the early childhood domains where it has reigned. In other eras and in less privileged parts of the world such ideas have had little purchase, but the scientific knowledge which informs dominant discourses pays little attention to such places – a fact which, as educators, we should always keep in mind.