Play in the early years of life provides children with a wide array of activities, contributing to their cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development. Play-based educational programs use games as a context for learning, where preschoolers can explore, discover, solve problems, and experiment in playful and imaginative ways. The play-themed pedagogical philosophy for early childhood education (ECD) primarily involves child-initiated learning, which is supported by the teacher or caregiver. This implies that the preschooler is the principal participant and enjoys the liberty of creating roles and choosing activities. However, the teacher plays an integral function in encouraging, facilitating, engaging, and stimulating learning and inquiry through interactions, aiming to stretch children’s thinking to higher levels. A nurturing and effective play-based learning environment should provide diverse experiences and safe exploration through a wide selection of play materials and opportunities in the progressive stages of solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative games. Although disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments, impede the spontaneous engagement in childhood games, play-based learning promotes the executive functioning, brain structure, and overall functionality of a child.
The Role of Children in Play-Based Education
Purposeful and meaningful childhood games should place the children at the center of the play. The preschoolers should have the liberty to experience, create, imagine, and explore the environment and the provided play materials without predetermined limitations or guidelines. This implies that high-quality play-based learning programs allow spontaneous child-driven activity. From this perspective, children’s role is to initiate self-chosen exercises, which are undertaken for their interest, discovery, satisfaction, and enjoyment (Pinchover, 2017). For instance, when a preschooler is playing with blocks without disruption, their mind explores and registers various experiences and information, such as cause-and-effect, weight, and gravity. Pichover (2017) further contends that preschoolers attach profound meaning and value to the activities they initiate, enhancing the knowledge and skills acquisition process. In this regard, the child’s role in play-based learning is to imagine, create, and drive the playful behavior with their internal motivations without the constraints of external expectations and control. Therefore, the play-based education philosophy views children as the primary participants and drivers of the learning process.
The Role of a Teacher in Play-Based Education
Although children are active participants in play-based education, teachers play an indispensable role in supporting, facilitating, and enhancing the quality of the activities and their outcomes. This implies that the appropriate participation of tutors enriches the standards of the games through strategic engagement, creating opportunities for higher-level thinking, and ensuring the availability of materials, space, and time for play. According to Bubikova-Moan et al. (2019), facilitation is the caregivers’ most significant and common role. This responsibility entails the provision of the necessary and developmentally appropriate materials and setting up the play environment. For instance, the educator can provide assistive items, such as porcelain, blocks, and tree barks, allowing the children to initiate action but pose a question that promotes problem-solving and literacy concepts.
Additionally, teachers support playful learning by making modifications and adaptations to the environment for the inclusive participation of all learners. The assistance also entails ensuring that the playtime is purposeful, memorable, and enjoyable through thoughtful planning, arousing natural curiosities, and stimulating multidimensional activities (Faas et al., 2017). However, teachers’ role expands significantly when dealing with children with disabilities or when the plays are meant to impart content-specific experiences. This implies that the educator may assume a significantly influential position to promote the learning of a particular concept, enhancing the inclusivity of a game, and ensuring the safety of the environment and the supportive play materials. For instance, teachers can increase their level of engagement in activities that stimulate the acquisition of typical mathematical quantitative skills and basic geometrical concepts, such as identifying, drawing, and experimenting with shapes (Reikeras, 2020). Similarly, the educator can encourage the preschoolers’ participation in dramatic plays to improve their language, social skills, and literacy competencies.
Further, teachers offer companionship by participating and involving themselves in various categories of plays. This may entail demonstrating how a specific game is played, the safe handling of play material, and even assisting in forming playgroups for the cooperative and associate exercises. Facilitating the development of dramatic role-plays, pairing the learners in educationally useful formats, and encouraging collaborative peer engagement to validate the preschoolers’ efforts and support their progress into complex phases of play (Gol-Guven, 2017). Therefore, tutors under this philosophy of education play an integral role in supporting, facilitating, validating, and constructing appropriate and safe scenarios for play-learning.
The Role of Environment in Play-Based Education
Quality and enriched environments are the context and foundation on which an effective and meaningful play-based education is built. The setting and the surroundings in which learning occurs can either promote or impede learning. This implies that a well-designed and arranged environment is an indispensable component that directly impacts the children’s social and language interactions. Poorly configured play areas can trigger disruptions and adversely affect the interrelationship among learners and/or students and teachers. According to Matthews and Lippman (2016), the physical organization, configuration, and arrangement of the learning environment significantly affect the learners’ developmental trajectory and overall wellbeing. Factors such as adequate lighting, temperature, and ventilation provide an excellent and conducive atmosphere for a wide array of activities. For instance, a large open space with expansive windows encourages exploration and play behaviors through natural light, while minimizing the risk of injuries from crowding, obstacles, and assistive materials.
Additionally, a properly configured environment promotes the aspects of learners’ social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development, which cannot be achieved in any other way. For instance, appropriate zoning, organization, and arrangement foster the children’s freedom to choose their activities, which reinforces their ability to participate in complex exercises. This implies that the setting should facilitate the easy transition from dramatic plays, manipulative tasks, and experimentation engagements. The space and the specific attributes of the neighborhood are also critical considerations with a potential effect on children’s levels of aggression, unfocused behavior, and opportunities for discovery, interactions, and communication (Meier & Sisk-Hilton, 2017). Therefore, the environment generally shapes the complexity, flow, safety, and effectiveness of the plays.
Moreover, the environment plays a vital role in facilitating various play stages, including the solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative phases. This implies that the play area’s arrangement and configuration should be developmentally appropriate and support the different stages of play among the learners. For instance, the play area should be spacious enough and designed to accommodate learners at the onlooker level without disrupting those at the associative phase. Similarly, those in the cooperative part should not be inhibited by the solitary players. Therefore, the environment is a fundamental factor and is an essential consideration in the play-based education philosophy.
Benefits and Challenges of Play-Based Education for Children with Disabilities
Although play-based education is highly beneficial to children with disabilities, it poses significant challenges, particularly regarding their participation and engagement in regular play exercises. Lenakakis et al. (2018) contend that play-themed education programs are significantly useful in promoting social and cognitive skills for students with disabilities. This view is corroborated by Movahedazarhouligh (2018), who notes that visual impairments, mobility problems, hearing challenges, and conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, impede a child’s spontaneous engagement in playful activities. However, their continuous participation in these exercises, however limited, is critical since the uninterrupted interaction with others enhances their self-confidence and esteem, which are necessary for the exploration of new experiences and environments. Additionally, this learning model improves their flexibility, coordination, muscle strength, motor skills, balance, and body awareness.
However, play-based education poses a major challenge for children with disabilities due to the physical nature of the learning process. This implies that these preschoolers cannot effectively learn in the typical setting and requires significant environmental adjustments. For instance, cognitive disabilities impede the development of pretend play, while visual impairment limits a child’s ability to explore toys. Additionally, these learners engage in fewer play behaviors and complex exercises than their non-disabled peers. This implies that learners with disabilities are at a distinct disadvantage in play-based education.
Conclusively, play-based education allows preschoolers to gain intellectual and developmental momentum in the early years of their schooling. This model uses meaningful and purposeful play as the context within which learners experiment, discover, explore, and acquire complex skills in imaginative ways. Although effective learning integrates both the child and the educator, the former is the primary participant and the driver of the process. However, teachers play the fundamental role of supporting, facilitating, and ensuring the activities’ safety. Additionally, the environmental design, organization, and configuration are critical components that shape and influence the effectiveness of the playful activities in enhancing the knowledge acquisition process. Although play-based education provides numerous vital benefits to children with disabilities, it poses severe challenges due to their impairments, limiting their ability to explore and engage in diverse activities fully.
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