Bangladesh, November 2009 - As a Program Specialist at the Early Childhood Development Resource Center at BRAC University in Bangladesh, as well as a father of a young child, I confront and deal with a myriad of early childhood development (ECD) issues on a daily basis. Among them, one of the most important issues is young children’s scope for play and parents’ perception of play. Parents’ different beliefs influence their attitudes and role in play with children and vice versa. Perhaps due to variations in knowledge, understanding and cultural diversity, they hold different perceptions of play.
For instance, in a cross cultural study of play, Edwards (2000) found that play enhances children’s learning and development, but also depends on parents’ perceptions. Parents’ perceptions derive from and are determined by socio-cultural norms, for example, whether play with children will be stimulated or neglected. Surprisingly, it may even be actively discouraged and not allowed by parents. In this article, the importance of play in child development and learning and the importance of parents’ perception of play will be discussed.
Sluss (2005) suggests that “Play is fun and, for most young children, something that occurs naturally.” (p. xi). Play should coincide with early childhood education (Ailwood, 2003) as it is argued to be the most essential for children (Bloch & Pelligrini, 1989).
There is a long history of developmental theory and research concerning play. Psychoanalytical theorists use play for helping children deal with emotional problems (e.g. play therapy). Jean Piaget established the link between play and the growth of intelligence. He believed that play serves as a vehicle for learning.
To Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist, play is one of the most important sources of development and learning for young children. He believes that during play, development occurs because play creates a zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). According to Vygotsky’s theory, “It is critically important that adults enter play to scaffold and support, not extinguish.” (Sluss, p. 58). Playing with a more advanced partner such as an adult, parent or older child can enhance the child's skills and build more confidence to take part in higher quality play (Howes & Unger, 1989). For Vygotsky, play is beneficial for the development of language, memory, reasoning, higher level of thinking, and social skills.
The importance of play for child development is endless and enormous. We know that children’s brain development is associated with all domains of child development and learning. A significant linkage between brain development and play during early years has been found, suggesting that high quality play quickly increases neuron connections at a significant rate (Angier, 1992). Ginsburg and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychological Aspects of Child and Family Health (2007) found that children can recreate and explore their world through play. They argued that “Play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges” (p.183). They also added that through play, especially through undirected play, in other words free play, children get opportunities to exercise socialization skills (i.e. group work, sharing, negotiation, conflict mitigation, and self-advocacy). According to them, if play is child-driven, other life skills of children will develop and become essential for their future (i.e. decision-making, to know one’s own pace, to discover one’s areas of interest).
Bodrova and Leong (2003) found that there is a link between play and many foundational skills and complex cognitive activities that are significant for early childhood development and learning. They also found that these skills construct a strong foundation for children and help them learn effectively in school and beyond. Therefore, play is essential for child development and also for academic success.
Researchers also found an association between parents’ perception of play and children’s competencies in different developmental domains (Parker et al., 1999). Studies show that parents who do not understand the importance of play tend to have an interfering role rather than an interactive one when playing with their children (Levenstein & O’Hara, 1993). In the context of play, children are receptive to parental suggestions and they play in a more sophisticated manner when their parents and caregivers join them (O'Reilly & Bornstein, 1993). When social and didactic modes can be successfully integrated in parent-child play, there can be long lasting social and cognitive benefits for the child (Vandermass-Peler, 2002).
There are cultural variations in parents’ perception of play in child development and the role of parents in supporting children's play in their respective cultures. The amount of attention devoted to play in a particular society depends, partly, on the cultural beliefs about the nature of childhood (Vandermass-Peler, 2002). Adults’ involvement in children's play and the types of interactions with children may vary due to socialization values and goals (Haight, Wang, Fung, Williams, & Mintz, 1999).
Frost, Sue, and Reifel presented some examples in Play and Child Development (2005) of how Chinese parents perceive play as being valuable for children and encourage pretend play. On the other hand, Korean parents are less likely to play with their children; as a result, Korean children are more likely to engage in academic play, solitary and parallel play, and less involved in pretend play (Tudge, Lee, & Putnam, 1998; Farver, Kim, & Lee, 1995).
In the Bangladesh context, based on limited data, we find that parents do play with their youngest children, though frequency is not clear. However, they have little to no understanding of how play helps prepare children for school (Haider et al., 2001).
UNICEF Bangladesh’s statistics also show that only 1 per cent of Bangladeshi parents create opportunities for sports/games for children ages 0-2 year-old and only 3 per cent of parents for 2-5 year-old (Progatir Pathey – MICS, 2003). In urban areas of Bangladesh, children are very much deprived of play as children gets less opportunities to play outdoor since there aren’t many safe, developmentally appropriate, and available playgrounds and parks (Ahmed & Sohail, 2008).
Across Bangladesh, a number of preschools now have provision for free play (circle activities, outdoor play) as part of the curriculum since NGOs and government ministries have intervened. The time allocated for play for 3-4 year-old children is typically 1 hour, and for 5 year-old children only 30 to 40 minutes. To date, there is no significant study on play perception of mothers in Bangladesh.
Given the importance of children’s development through parent’s interaction and relationship-building with children through play, it is recommended that countries include play in their ECD policies. In order to formulate an appropriate policy, cultural-relevant research-based evidences are needed to formulate the policy and to prepare awareness-raising program for this issue.
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By Shahidullah Sharif, Institute of Educational Development, BRAC University