Theoretical Framework: Lev Vygotsky Socio-Cultural Theory
The Lev Vygotsky Socio-Cultural Theory indicates that play is an important aspect of early childhood development and should be encouraged to promote social, emotional, and cognitive development (Scharer, 2017). Vygotsky’s theory addresses the development of the human mind from systemic and social approaches (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). The systemic approach provides a holistic approach in which both bio-social and bio-psychological aspects of development play a part in a child’s development. The human mind consists of interdependent elements and a change in one element has a significant effect on the whole system (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). Accordingly, the Socio-Cultural context of education, that is, the classroom environment and social interactions, do influence learning.
Vygotsky observed that in the preschool age, children could do more than they can understand (Taylor & Boyer, 2019). Ultimately, action is initially dominant over meaning, a phenomenon that is incompletely understood. Being that learning is a social process, then the culture in which a child lives and the interactions they participate in and observe within their society impact their learning. Therefore play-based learning provides an opportunity for children to grow their conceptual abilities, develop an understanding of the world, and develop abstract thought (Taylor & Boyer, 2019). Educators should capitalize on play-based learning to provide opportunities for play learning experiences.
Vygotsky envisioned play as an involving role-play and an imaginary context with rules for participation (Scharer, 2017). Every imaginary circumstance contains a set of roles which are characters that the children imitate. In addition, every imaginary circumstance contains a set of rules that guide the behaviors allowed by each role. In this theory, play rules are not those that inhibit impulsive and spontaneous behavior. Rather, the rules are often hidden in the play initially but later unfold, become explicit, and are negotiated by the children (Scharer, 2017).
Play promotes cognitive development. The Oxford dictionary defines cognition as “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” As such, cognitive development encompasses the development of the mind. Vygotsky believed that real-time processes stimulate both brain and body (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). Hence, complex cognition is a process taking part in different locations within a system. Children’s interaction with language, cultural items, artifacts, and social surroundings causes changes in the brain, fostering new functional systems. Play influences development by facilitating the separation of thought from actions and objects. In the early stage, play is object-oriented. Children explore an object’s physical characteristics and how they are used. Later on, children use everyday objects in imaginary situations and, in the process, actually learn what happens in real-life situations. For instance, in an imaginary situation whereby a child plays with a doll, they are imitating an actual situation of a mother caring for her baby (Taylor & Boyer, 2019). Vygotsky perceived mental functions comprising the system as changing qualitatively in development. Consequently, memory, decision-making, and the formation of behavioral programs acquire new properties as they are mediated through symbols (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). That is, emotions, affect, decision-making, and memory attain certain qualities once they become a part of the general cognitive system.
Play promotes the development of social-emotional skills. Once the acting-out phase in play wanes, the talking phase takes over. Through play, communication skills, routines of conversation, and oral vocabulary are extensively developed (Taylor & Boyer, 2019). Moreover, the experiences created through play and interactions with peers and teachers further promote the development of social-emotional skills (Taylor & Boyer, 2019). During play, children get an opportunity to practice using language to express, communicate, and share their thoughts and feelings with fellow children. Play creates opportunities to teach children the social norms and rules of play explicitly. When children take turns, transition, share materials, and take responsibility and clean up after play, social norms are instilled in them. The development of language and vocabulary skills supports the children’s abilities to indicate their reasoning, express their ideas, and achieve independence (Scharer, 2017). Vygotsky postulated that speech develops first in the social environment, whereby an adult’s input is required. Later on, it becomes internalized into mental processes, becoming a child’s thinking (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). Play among preschool learners also helps in self-regulation and developing leadership. Self-regulation occurs following a child’s need to adhere to the rules of the play, and children often monitor each other (Scharer, 2017).
This theory was chosen to ground this study as it explores the role of structured and unstructured play in developing behavior and leadership skills among preschool learners. Children explore and learn about their surroundings through cultural, social, and physical interactions; therefore, structured and unstructured play should be encouraged (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). Vygotsky maintained that learning is a step ahead, enduring further development (Vasileva & Balyasnikova, 2019). A child develops and learns when working on a challenging task with the help of a teacher or other children. The agency of various learners and the educational value of a child’s interaction with the environment cannot be ignored. As such, the teacher has a duty to sustain this interaction and not just impart decontextualized knowledge.
This theory also demonstrates the fundamental role of socio-dramatic play in helping children develop prerequisites for learning the primary level of education. Children who lack a fully formed play activity in preschool years develop a low level of psychological preparedness for learning in the school setting (Scharer, 2017). For such children, their play hinders them from developing within the educational settings. Preschool should not focus on academic learning but instead teach children how to play maturely to prepare them for learning. Mature play entails using objects and actions symbolically to represent other objects or actions (Scharer, 2017). Play-based learning is quite feasible as children can pretend to have objects or pretend some action without the need to have or do it. In this type of play, language creates this pretend scenario, and themes are complex and interwoven. Children participate in the same play for a long time because they have a high concentration capacity and can use more self-regulation, planning, and memory. In today’s world, where children are playing less and less due to the lack of physical conditions that allow for play development, this can lead to situations where children are ill-prepared for academic learning.
Vygotsky’s theory is a socio-cultural theory hence its emphasis that individual learning and development is heavily influenced by culture and the interactions an individual engages in and observes within their society. Educators can use this framework to provide opportunities for play learning experiences to foster early child development.