Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Play: Aesthetics and Ambiguity of Play in Early Childhood Education

  • Beth Ferholt
  • Monica Nilsson
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_53


Play has been the central component of most curricula for young children throughout the last century. Friedrich Froebel is considered by most to be the father of the modern, Western preschool and he held play to be the child’s natural mode of expression. The adults’ role in Froebel’s kindergarten was to stimulate children’s play through the provision of specific forms of environments and toys. This approach is in concert with contemporary Western European and American biological, psychoanalytic, cognitive-developmental, and cross-cultural psychological theories of play, in which one finds assertions that children’s play is fundamentally different from adult activities and that adult knowledge, experience, or developmental stage is a teleology for children’s play. See, for instance, the work of Groos, A. Freud, Klein, Erikson, Winnicott, and Piaget, although these are just a handful of the theorists who make this claim.

The ideal of modern Western childhood, with its emphasis on the innocence and malleability of children (Aries 1962), has combined with various social conditions to promote two categories of curricula for young children in regards to play: one in which children’s play is directed toward adult-determined developmental goals and one in which children’s play is protected from adult interference (so called “free play”). These two categories of curricula appear to be equally powerless in response to the current crisis, in which “academic” subject matter learning is becoming the focus of the curriculum, in place of play, in many early childhood classrooms internationally (Brooker and Woodhead 2013). Article 31 of the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child states that all children have the right to play. Recently, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) reminded State parties of this right and warned that children’s time for play is often reduced. They write: “For many children in both rich and poor countries, child labor, domestic work or educational increasing demands serve to reduce the time available for the enjoyment of these rights” (UNCRC’s General Comment No. 17, 2013, emphasis added). However, these two categories of curricula remain uncontested by any third alternative.

Aesthetics and Ambiguity of Play in Early Childhood Education

Gunilla Lindqvist’s (1995) work traces this limitation of curricula for young children back to the dichotomy between imagination and realistic thinking, and her response is her exploration of the “common denominator” of play and aesthetic forms, which she calls the “aesthetics of play” (Lindqvist 1995). Lindqvist is one of the few play scholars who have focused on the relationship between play and art. Lindqvist’s study of the aesthetics of play is based in Vygotsky’s theories of play, imagination, and creativity (1978, 1987, 2004) and also in Vygotsky’s (1971) psychology of art. Vygotsky’s (1978) rebuttal to theories of play that position imagination and realistic thinking in opposition to one another was first published in 1933 and was hailed as overcoming the naturalistic and psychoanalytic theories of children’s play that preceded it (Elkonin 2005). (One can use the terms imagination and fantasy as synonyms, but the term imagination is preferred, as the term fantasy has connotations of being “not true” which imagination does not have.)

Vygotsky (1987) highlights the importance of understanding imagination as an aspect of the process of creating and experiencing reality that defines our species rather than as something “other” than reality. He elaborates upon his claim that “(i)magination is an integral aspect of realistic thinking” (1987, p. 349), thus:

No accurate cognition of reality is possible without a certain element of imagination, a certain flight from the immediate, concrete, solitary impressions in which this reality is presented in the elementary acts of consciousness. The processes of invention or artistic creativity demand a substantial participation by both realistic thinking and imagination. The two act as a unity. (1987, p. 349)

As Cole and Pelaprat (2011) explain, human conscious experience is a process that requires not just our phylogenetically constrained abilities and our culturally organized experience but also our active reconciliation or “filling in,” our imagining, as we try to make sense of our world.

Vygotsky describes four basic ways that fantasy is associated with reality in the creative process: (1) Anything that one’s imagination creates is always based on elements from reality – from one’s past experiences. (2) Experience is also based in imagination, for instance, through imagining/remembering of one’s own or someone else’s experiences, through stories or through other means. (3) Emotions that arise in reality affect imagination, but imagination also affects emotions. (4) Fantasy becomes reality when imagination is crystallized in a material form which is returned to reality as a new and active force that has the potential to change reality: “(T)o combine elements to produce a structure, to combine the old in new way, … is the basis of creativity” (2004, p. 12).

Imagination and creativity are therefore both necessary for thinking, human growth and development, and the process that is the interrelation of the two is a trait of all people, including young children. This second point can be seen especially clearly in play, claims Vygotsky, as he argues that play is imagination embodied in the material world. A child’s play is not a reproduction of what she has experienced nor is it unrelated to these experiences. Instead a child’s play is a creative revision of what she has experienced.

Lindqvist (1995) designed the creative pedagogy of play to foster and study the aesthetics of play. Within this pedagogy children’s play is understood to be an early form of the artistic and scientific endeavors of adulthood and, therefore, to produce new and intrinsically valuable insights that can be of value to adults and children alike. This pedagogy features playworlds, which are adult-child joint play activities in which children and teachers jointly create, enter, and exit fantasy worlds. Children contribute their play expertise and adults contribute their experience with art and science. A playworld often takes its starting point in a text, such as a children’s book, poem, or story.

Playworlds are created and studied in a variety of forms and for a variety of reasons, internationally, for instance, in Japan, Finland, the United States, and Serbia, as well as in Lindqvist’s home country, Sweden (i.e., Marjanovic-Shane et al. 2011). However, Lindqvists’ (1995) study of playworlds led her to conclude that there are two aesthetical forms of play. One is connected to music, poetry, and rhythmic movement. This form takes its starting point in the young child’s poetic and rhythmic relationship to objects and language. The second form is connected to literary forms and originates from the basic pattern in folktales. This form can be found in children’s play and stories from the age of three but also in children’s literature. The plot dominates in this esthetical form of play. These two esthetical forms can each constitute a basis for creating a playworld, which in turn supports these two esthetical forms.

These conclusions of Lindqvist’s (1995) concerning the aesthetics of play in curricula for young children can be further developed through theories of aesthetics and early childhood pedagogies that focus on aesthetics. Early childhood pedagogies that focus on play tend to be less useful in developing Lindqvist’s conclusions because they remain firmly based in play theory that does not acknowledge Vygtosky’s challenge to the separation of fantasy and reality and does not value play for its intrinsic qualities. As Brian Sutton-Smith (1997) writes: “…extrinsic academic, social, moral, physical, and cognitive play functions, with a progress-oriented thrust, have been the major focus of most child play scientists …” (1997, p. 50). It takes an outsider to the field, such as Gadamer (1960), to argue that play ontology is linked to experiencing, understanding, and bildung and that play thus has a value in itself.

Wartofsky (1976) argues that “(h)uman beings become human in coming to know themselves as human” and that the creation and appreciation of art, what he calls “the very activity or praxis of art,” is “humanizing praxis” because it “is a praxis which comes to know itself, i.e., which takes itself as its own object” such that “this very activity is a fundamental mode of human self-knowledge” (1976, p. 357). Wartofsky continues thus:

“(A)rt represents its own process of coming into being and insofar, exemplifies and objectifies the distinctively human capacity of creation. It is in the self-recognition of this creative capacity that human beings come to know themselves as human, in the specific sense that they come to know themselves as creators or as artists”. (1976, p. 357)

If one understands art in Wartofsky’s terms, then one can ask if the esthetics of play consist of coming to know oneself as human. Others have used the work of Mikhail Bakhtin to consider play as humanizing, although this work is not based in the study of aesthetics, such as Wartofsky’s study of aesthetics within the field of philosophy, but in interdisciplinary stances, such as Stetsenko’s (2015) “transformative activist stance.” Marjanovic-Shane and White write: “As an act-deed (postupok), play is considered as a way of relating to others as well as a means of co-creating and representing subjectivities” (2014, p. 119). Working from both Bakhtin and Vygotsky’s positions, Stetsenko and Ho argue that in play “children sort out the difficult challenge of becoming unique, self-determined, and free persons within the communal world shared and co-created with others” (2015, p. 221).

The pedagogical approach of the preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, known internationally as the pedagogy of listening, focuses on aesthetics understood as a process of empathy that relates the self to things and things to each other. Exploration is the central component of the pedagogy of listening, and within this approach play is often regarded as an expression of a traditional Fröbel – inspired preschool didactics that are based on a vision of the child as “nature” (Dahlberg and Lenz Taguchi 1994). However, insights from the pedagogy of listening into the nature of aesthetics in relation to exploration can help to deepen an understanding of the aesthetics of play.

Within the pedagogy of listening, children are considered to be culture and knowledge creators rather than just reproducers of knowledge. Children are understood to be developing theories and hypotheses about the world that should be considered to be equally possible to those of adults. Key components of this process of exploration are the environment and materials, which are thought of as a “third teacher” who supports children and teachers in formulating problems rather than searching for correct answers.

The pedagogy of listening employs a studio or atelier, which is regarded as a place of exploration, invention, and experimentation, and an atelierista, an educator with an arts background. The hundred languages is a term within the pedagogy of listening that describes the many ways children explore, make and test hypotheses, and express themselves, i.e., through dance, music, gesture, the visual arts, etc. The atelier and atelierista are both resources that exist to support processes of exploration and listening through these 100 languages.

Central to this process of listening is documentation, as exploration is not based on pre-defined goals but is instead developed from the children’s interests, questions, and engagement. When documentation is reflected upon, it becomes pedagogical documentation. Pedagogical documentation is used to guide a project based on what teachers perceive to be children’s meaning-making processes.

A founding atelierista of the pedagogy of listening, Vea Vecchi, writes the following of the “esthetic dimension” of this pedagogy:

Perhaps first and foremost it is a process of empathy relating the Self to things and things to each other. It is like a slim thread or aspiration to quality that makes us choose one word over another, the same for colour or shade, a certain piece of music, a mathematical formula or the taste of a food. It is an attitude of care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning: it is curiosity and wonder; it is the opposite of indifference and carelessness, of conformity, of absence of participation and feeling. (2010, p. 5)

Hutt et al. characterize the difference between play and exploration succinctly. They write: “Implicit in the behaviors we termed ‘exploration’ was the query: What does this object do? whilst implicit in the behaviors we termed ‘play’ was the query: What can I do with this object?” (1989, p. 11). The pedagogy of listening shows exploration in which art is a tool in the activity of exploration. The creative pedagogy of play shows play in which art (aesthetical form) is the activity. Both of these pedagogies have been developed in great part by teachers of young children, and these teachers continue to be engaged in problematizing the differences and similarities between play and exploration.

If, just as science and art are two key forms of adult creativity, exploration and play are two key forms of early childhood creativity, it may be that art as experience (Dewey 1934) in early childhood, which both of these pedagogies point to, is the necessary area of focus in an ongoing study of the relationship between play and aesthetics. The question of how one might best study the aesthetic experience of play may be most fruitfully addressed not only through theories produced within the academy but also through knowledge generated within early childhood pedagogies themselves, whose curricula stand to be shaped by a better understanding of the aesthetics of play.

Currently, learning is emerging internationally as the primary focus of preschools, at the expense of play (see the United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child’s General Comment No. 17, 2013). Arguments in support of play remaining the primary focus of preschools have proliferated and have tended to disregard one of the few things that a survey of the diverse literature on play can claim with any certainty: Play is ambiguous (Sutton-Smith 1997). The resulting proliferation of studies that focus on play in curricula for young children as a knowable entity with knowable outcomes has both moved the field further from the preschool and further into the academy and also stifled some of the most promising and relevant branches of study of play in curricula for young children, such as the study of the esthetics of play.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brooklyn College, City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Jönköping UniversityJönköpingSweden