The Central Place Of Play In Early Learning And Development

We should not introduce standardisation into the upbringings of children, especially not in play. We must allow play to be individualistic… Spirit and soul must be independent in play so that material things have no affect.Rudolf Steiner

The prominent early years academic, Professor Tina Bruce, has said that ‘Play cannot be pinned down, and turned into a product of measurable learning. This is because play is a process [which] enables a holistic kind of learning, rather than fragmented learning’ (in Ward, 1998: 22, 24; see House, 1999). It is often said that play is, paradoxically, a very serious business indeed. One reason why this might be so is strikingly described by David Elkind: ‘[Play] is young children’s only defense against the many real or imagined attacks and slights they encounter… [It] is always a transformation of reality in the service of the self’ (emphasis added, quoted in Oldfield, 2001: 96). It follows from this that we interfere with and impinge upon the ‘genius’ of children’s free play at our – and their – peril…‘Play’ has certainly been in the news a lot in recent years – both through the educational authorities in their move towards an organised so-called ‘curriculum’ for the early years (as typified by the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage document – hereafter referred to as ‘CGFS’ – DfEE and QCA, 2000), and also in the works of a number of commentators bemoaning the degradation of authentic play in modern culture (e.g. Elkind, 1990; Jenkinson, 2000).

The key debate that has recently dominated early years practice has been over the very nature of play itself – with Waldorf and other ‘holistic’ approaches arguing forcefully that, to be authentic, play must be an unintruded-upon, self-directed activity and experience for the young child; whereas the current fashion within mainstream early years thinking embraces so-called ‘structured (or extended) play’, in which adults actively and consciously intervene into the play of young children, guiding and manipulating it towards pre-determined ‘learning goals’ and experiences that the adult thinks the young child should have for its own good. There is hardly a better example of the incommensurable worldviews demonstrated by current mainstream approaches to early learning, on the one hand, and that of Steiner Waldorf philosophy on the other.

From a holistic and Steiner Waldorf perspective, self-directed imaginative play is therefore crucial for children’s healthy physical, emotional and social development: as Rawson and Rose (2002: 71) put it, ‘The way we allow… children to play is of spiritual concern. The health of the body; the life processes [including healthy breathing – RH]; mental, emotional, social, and moral competence; and conscience and the innermost sense of self – all are developed through play’.

It will be useful to highlight the attitude to play demonstrated in the British Government’s CGFS document, as it enables us to make a highly revealing comparison with the Waldorf approach to play. As already mentioned, ‘free play’ is central to the Waldorf early years learning environment. CGFS, however, displays a very different view. Early on in CGFS, we are told that ‘The role of the practitioner includes… supporting and extending children’s play…’ (p. i, my emphasis); then on page 7, ‘Well-planned play is a key way in which children learn…’ (my emphasis); ‘The role of the practitioner is crucial in… supporting children’s learning through planned play activity, extending and supporting children’s spontaneous play…’ (p. 25, my emphases). This latter is a quite extraordinary statement – an unintended oxymoron that reveals quite conclusively that, despite the manifold representations made to the Government on play (not least from the Steiner Waldorf movement), there is an almost wilful misunderstanding (or deliberate ignoring?…) of the nature of authentic play. The very idea, for example, that it is the adult’s place to ‘extend spontaneous play’ for children! In my view, the likely long-term impoverishing effects on the healthy development of the unfortunate children subjected to this fundamentally misguided regime can scarcely be dreamt of.

Later in CGFS, we are told that ‘practitioners need to take part in children’s play… and encourage children to sort, group and sequence in their play – use words such as “last”, “first”, “next”, “before”, “after”, “all”, “most”, “each”, “every”’ (p. 53). Not only is this a quite grotesque case of control-freakery gone mad (perhaps the practitioner will have a check-list to tick off each word when she has ‘taught’ it to the child?), but it again represents a quite fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of authentic play. And later still: ‘practitioners need to… play alongside children, using words and actions to represent objects, for example say, “Mm I’d like some more cake”, while pretending to cut a slice and pass it…; (and to) prompt children’s thinking and discussion through involvement in their play’ (p. 57, my emphasis); and practitioners should make ‘good use of opportunities to talk “mathematically” as children play’ (p. 72)!

Adult intrusion into child’s play is, then, seen as being perfectly acceptable: thus we read that practitioners encourage ‘children’s mathematical development by intervening in their play’…: ‘Intervening in children’s play includes asking appropriate questions such as, “How many people have you drawn?”, “Are any of those shapes the same?” and “Have all the trucks got the same number of wheels?”’ (ibid.). Later, we read that practitioners need to ‘participate in children’s play to encourage use of number language’ (p. 75). Later still, the following ‘Stepping stone’ is set out: ‘Introduce a story line or narrative into their play’ (p. 124), and the injunction, ‘Be interested [i.e. feign it? – RH] and participate in children’s play’ (p. 125).

In contrast, there is a host of literature – non-Waldorf as well as Waldorf – which explains at length just why free play is so crucial. First, creativity and freedom are inextricably linked, and the roots of creativity lie in the capacity to play in what the celebrated psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott called the ‘transitional space’ (e.g. Winnicott, 1971). In Waldorf terminology, authentic play can only occur within a ‘dream’ or ‘mythological’ consciousness (sometimes also called ‘participative consciousness’) ,from which the child should not be prematurely ‘awakened’ through inappropriate, adult-centric intrusions.

The distinguished child psychologist Susan Isaacs (House, forthcoming) wrote eloquently and with perennial wisdom about the true nature of play and its central role in healthy child development: for Isaacs, the child’s imaginative play ‘is a starting point [or foundation – RH] not only for cognitive development but also for the adaptive and creative intention which when fully developed marks out the artist, the novelist, the poet’ (1930: 104). The psychic process involved in play is seen by Isaacs as both crucial and highly complex: thus, in play the child is ‘re-creating selectively those elements in past situations which can embody his emotional or intellectual need of the present, [as] he adapts the details moment by moment to the present situation’ (ibid., original emphasis).

Several years later, Isaacs was to write that the lessening of inner tension and anxiety resulting from free dramatic play ‘makes it easier for the child to control his real behaviour [i.e. he learns self-regulation – RH]…, helps to free the child from his personal schemas, and to enhance his readiness to understand the objective physical world for its own sake’ (Isaacs, 1933: 210). On pages 425-7 of her Social Development in Young Children, Isaacs sets out a truly magnificent and inspiring statement on the crucial importance of free play in healthy child development and learning, which should be required reading for each and every early years worker and policy-maker (see House, 2000: 12). Thus, there are also quite crucial self-healing and emotional-developmental aspects to authentic play, as Jenkinson points out in Chapter 3 ofThe Genius of Play, which she fittingly titles ‘Teaching the heart’. For as Rawson and Rose write, ‘The activities and games that express the heart are also the games that develop the heart, together with the whole of our rhythmical system’ (2002: 77).

Both prominent psychoanalytic theorists (typified in this case by Isaacs; but see also Winnicott’s important work, 1971) and Rudolf Steiner viewed fantasy as a crucial indissoluble accompaniment to authentic play. Thus we see Steiner saying that ‘Our willing depends on sympathy…, [and] out of sympathy there arises fantasy’ (quoted in Konig, 1998: 65). For Karl Konig, such sympathy takes the form of a ‘continuous joy of existence…, uniting ever anew with the world around’ (ibid.), as is the origin of all fantasy. The child takes her fantasy from her ‘ceaseless need for lively activity… fantasy is born out of [her] limb system’ (ibid.: 65, 66). Further, ‘Each… form of movement is embedded in a story that… begins without ending , and ends without having begun’ (p. 65). Indeed, in all play, ‘there is no beginning and no ending, and yet all is happening’ (ibid.: emphasis added). According to Rawson and Rose (2002: 75), fantasy begins to arise as the child approaches her fourth year, and they define it as ‘the child’s ability to project her increasingly conscious inner life on to the world around her’ (ibid.).

Fantasy has a special place in infancy: it ‘takes hold of any kind of material, movements as well as ideas, for activating itself;… [and] fantasy without play and play without fantasy are almost unthinkable… – play enlivens fantasy…, [and] fantasy kindles and diversifies play’ (Konig, 1998: 64). Moreover, ‘Real experiences have their sources only in the child’s fantasy… [T]he child can grasp his environment only as interpretation of his fantasy, and existence gains its true meaning and becomes experience in this way alone’ (64, emphasis added). As Konig graphically puts it, ‘Without [fantasy] all ideas stagnate… Concepts remain rigid and dead, sensations raw and sensuous’ (Konig, 1998: 66). And here is one of the last century’s greatest minds, Albert Einstein: ‘I have come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking’ (quoted in Rawson and Rose, 2002: 21).

What seems quite unarguable is that as soon as an external (adult-centric) agent intrudes upon those crucial self-regulative and intrinsically healing processes triggered in and through authentically free play (as occurs in ‘structured’ play), then these processes will at the very least be significantly distorted – and at worst their value to the young child will be largely destroyed. In this spirit, I agree wholeheartedly with Frommer when, writing of the child’s ‘time of magic and omnipotence’ between 3 and 6, she writes, ‘The clumsy adult must be careful not to destroy this web of magic by stupid and tactless intervention… It is a world we adults have lost, and we can only regain understanding of it… by sympathetic intuitive insight and faithful non-interference’ (Frommer, 1994: 24, my emphasis).

The form taken by play also changes and evolves through the early years. Fantasy play around ages 4-5 is spontaneous, often based on imitation and the inspiration gleaned from stories and the archetypal fairy tales. The 5 year old is normally content to adapt to reality as he finds it, whereas there is a discernible shift in the 6 year old, when his play becomes more inward and idea-based, with fewer props needed, and with the child becoming more interested in creating a reality through play (the famous example being the difference between the child who finds a stick and decides to make it into a sword, and the child who decides she needs a sword, and then sets out to find one!).

So what are the implications of these views for the way in which the Waldorf Kindergarten environment is organised? First, the provision of space and unhurried opportunity is crucial. In most if not all Waldorf Kindergartens, there is an extended period of free play near or at the start of the Kindergarten session, in which as far as is possible, and within sensible boundaries of safety and sociality, adults do not intrude into the children’s play unless they are specifically asked for assistance by the children; and then the tacit guiding principle is that the adult intrudes only to the absolutely minimal extent that is required by the specific situation, and should continually reflect inwardly on their own behaviour and its appropriateness. The mature self-awareness and self-development of the teacher is crucial here; for teachers and assistants need to know their own ‘inner child’ and her/his needs very well, in order that they do not unconsciously ‘act out’ their own issues with the children. I believe that this is in fact what is often happening when adults do over-intrude (and when policy-makers advocate it!) into the worlds of the young children in their charge. Rudolf Steiner himself recognised this danger early in the last century:

[The teacher] yearns to have something in its own nature as vital as the wisdom of the child. (It goes without saying that he will never admit this.) In his subconscious life…, longings for the wise life forces of the children play a great part, though he may not know it… He begins to prey upon the young souls as a vampire… Anyone who looks into the life of the classroom freely and without bias will be driven to… corroborate this statement… [T]hey will see how the teachers rob the children of force, instead of giving it.
Rudolf Steiner, 1931: 37, emphasis added

It is important that there is an adequate and appropriate range of play resources available for the range of ages (3 to 6) which is typically present in the mixed-age Waldorf Kindergarten. In the Waldorf Kindergarten children are also provided with simple and unelaborated, natural play materials and ‘props’ – ones which encourage the children freely to engage their developing and fertile imaginations and fantasy lives, and which avoid, if at all possible, ‘dead’ human-made materials like plastic, nylon material, and so on.

Dolls are a case in point. What the child needs in its play is something which can reflect her own condition and her own unfolding developmental potentials, and she will find this in a doll made of soft natural material, with no more than the slightest hint of a face, which can then be made to represent whatever expression the child needs it to have at any given time (Rawson and Rose, 2002: 74). Steiner also had prescient remarks to make about the kinds of toys that children should ideally be provided with: ‘Our materialistic age produces few good toys… [The] work of the imagination moulds and builds the forms of the brain. The brain unfolds as the muscles of the brain unfold… Give the child the so-called “pretty” doll, and the brain has nothing to do’ (quoted in Grunelius, 1991: 45).

A recent German research project gave compelling corroboration of the Steinerian approach to toys and play. In this so-called ‘nursery without toys’, children were left with spartan resources (blankets, tables, chairs…), and before long it was found that their imaginations thrived, their interactive social skills developed dramatically, and their sense of purpose and capacity to concentrate improved greatly (Roberts, 1999: 6; see also Mowafi, 2001; Clark, 2002). What is so interesting is how the findings of modern empirical research are progressively confirming so many of the principles of Waldorf educational philosophy and practice – especially in the early years; and what is so galling is how little public recognition still seems to be received by an educational approach which in many ways seems to have ‘had it right’ all along.

In sum, and quoting Rawson and Rose, ‘Children who are allowed to play freely will demonstrate a genius for lateral thinking and problem solving of which we adults should be envious. All too often…, well-intentioned adults are too quick to intervene…, and on both sides important possibilities remain unrealized’ (2002: 78). This in turn highlights just how important are the sensitive attunement and subtle, sometimes intuitive nuances entailed in healthy adult-child relating – or what Steiner evocatively called ‘the intangibles of education’, which demand of the parent, adult and teacher qualities of openness; self-awareness; the capacity to listen and not unconsciously project; of empathy; and, above all, of unconditional non-possessive love (Carl Rogers).

DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION AND SCIENCE (DfEE) and the QUALIFICATIONS AND CURRICULUM AUTHORITY (QCA) (2000) Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage (London).
ELKIND, D. (1990) ‘Academic pressures – too much, too soon: the demise of play’, in E. Klugman and S. Smilansky (eds), Children’s Play and Learning: Perspectives and Policy Implications, Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, 1990, pp. 3-17
FROMMER, E.A. (1994) Voyage through Childhood into the Adult World: A Guide to Child Development, 2nd edn, Hawthorn Press, Stroud
GRUNELIUS, E.M. (1996) Early Childhood Education and the Waldorf School Plan, Rudolf Steiner College Press; Waldorf Curriculum Series
HOUSE, R. (2000) ‘Psychology and early years learning: affirming the wisdom of Waldorf’, Steiner Education, 34 (2), pp. 10-16
HOUSE, R. (forthcoming) ‘The Whistleblowers: Susan Isaacs’, Education Now: News and Review.
ISAACS, S. (1930) Intellectual Growth in Young Children. George Routledge, London
ISAACS, S. (1933) Social Development in Young Children, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London
JENKINSON, S. (2001) The Genius of Play: Celebrating the Spirit of Childhood, Hawthorn Press, Stroud
KONIG, K. (1984/1998) The First Three Years of the Child, Floris Books, Edinburgh (orig. 1957)
OLDFIELD, L. (2001) Free to Learn: Introducing Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Education, Hawthorn Press, Stroud
RAWSON, M. and ROSE, M. (2002) Ready to Learn: From Birth to School Readiness, Hawthorn Press, Stroud
ROBERTS, D. (1999) ‘Toys aren’t us’ (letter), The Independent newspaper, Education Suppl., 18th November, p. 6
WARD, I. (ed.) (1998) The Psychology of Nursery Education: Papers Presented at the Anna Freud Centenary Conference, November 25 1995, Karnac Books, London
WINNICOTT, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality, Tavistock, London (Penguin edition)

Further Reading
JENKINSON, S. (2001) The Genius of Play: Celebrating the Spirit of Childhood, Hawthorn Press, Stroud
KANE, P. (2005) The Play Ethic: A Manifesto for a Different Way of Living, Pan Books
MACINTYRE, C. (2001) Enhancing Learning Through Play: A Development Perspective for Early Years Settings, David Fulton
MOYLES, J. (2005) The Excellence of Play, Open University Press
REIFEL, S. and BROWN, M.H. (eds) (2001) Early Education and Care, and Reconceptualizing Play: 11 (Advances in Early Education & Day Care), JAI Press


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