Play has been considered as healthy for the development of children since long time ago however, the therapeutic settings started using play as a way through which young children usually express their feelings and emotions in the 1900s. Many scholars have in the past made various attempts to define what play and the only common element in their various definitions are that play is an activity that people tend to engage involuntarily for pleasure. Theorist have always associated play with work however Harlow argues that play usually involve work due to the fact that it requires both the use of energy and thinking or creativity. Piaget, on the other hand, states that cognitive development and play are two concepts that cannot be separated and both of them include daydreams and overt behaviors. Play forms an integral part of Piaget's theory of cognitive development.
Piaget believed that cognitive domain usually develops as a result of two processes which include assimilation and accommodation with assimilation occurring when the perception of stimuli is slanted to fit what a person already is capable of doing or already knows. On the other hand, accommodation is the imitation of reality or the changing of an individual's behaviors or schema to adapt to reality. As a result, play can then be defined as pure assimilation which is the repetition of an exercise or behavior of a schema with the pleasure of feeling power or virtuosity over the skill. This leaves the accommodation behaviors that precede mastery being classified as work and not play even though casual observation may at times record similar activity.
Play helps in the development of both fine and gross-motor activity and Piaget as well as other scholars and theorists identify the repetition of body movements that are pleasurable meaning that they are purely for the joy of self-control as well as of repeating an event as the first signs of play. The refinement and coordination of neuromuscular movements that are usually achieved through repeating of a verbal sound after the mother, hitting out at a dangling noisemaker or the shaking of a crib toy, usually give the baby some pleasure and it becomes easier for the baby to make the replication of such activities at a later date.
Piaget's theory suggests that children's cognitive development, usually occur in four stages which include formal operational stage, the sensorimotor stage, concrete operational stage as well as the preoperational stage. According to Piaget, very young children usually engage in the overall patterns of behavior whenever they are at play. These may include transporting objects, being fascinated with objects, emptying and filling containers, covering of objects as well as connecting objects together. Such behaviors are defined as schemas according to Crowley who believes that as children accommodate learning and assimilate new experiences, the schemas usually help children to make sense of the environment as well as the world around them. It is for this reason that Crowley thinks that allowing children to explore and play, usually help them in developing a schema of their environment.
According to the Piagetian theory, play in and of itself usually does not necessarily lead to the formation of new cognitive structures but it is just for pleasure. Piaget thinks that when children are allowed to practice the things that they had learned previously, this does not lead them into learning new things. Generally, according to Piaget, play usually reflects whatever the child has previously learned and usually does not teach the child anything new hence it is a reflective process of the emerging symbolic development which only contributes little to it. On the other hand, Vygotskian theory views play as a process that facilitates cognitive development. The theory argues that children do not only practice what they already know but also learns new things.
The theory views play as a process that creates thoughts and not of much reflecting though as Piaget believed. Observing children as they play, usually yields examples that support both the Vygotskian and Piagetian theories of play. Research shows that as children continue learning all the capabilities of their bodies through play, they usually incorporate gradually more complicated skills. Through play, these children get to learn on how to master a skill, how they can practice the skill repeatedly until it becomes a part of their repertoire naturally as well as how to retain the skill to use it purposefully in the accomplishment of a given goal.
Physical activities through play also help in the using of the excess energy in children hence freeing their minds to effectively concentrate on academics. Its therefore clear that play activities are important and crucial towards cognitive development. It is through play that children get to express emotions that are usually forbidden in normal social instances without fear of retaliation. Play also helps children in learning on how to cope with the environment without consequences of reality once errors are made. Piagetian theory helps in underpinning play therapy mainly because the theory acknowledges that play usually helps children to develop cognitive abilities as well as to construct knowledge. An example is in the sensorimotor stage, giving or offering children with a treasure basket exposes the young child to a wealth of sensory stimuli which in one way or another promotes cognitive development since children usually become conversant with different shapes, the texture of toys, sounds, tastes as well as colors.
Today the child-centered play therapy is accepted widely as a method to help children in preventing or resolving psychological as well as social difficulties and in assisting them to gain optimal development. A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of play therapy which utilized data from ninety-four studies which mainly focused on play therapy outcomes revealed that the impact of play therapy on varying treatment outcome usually range from 0.66 to 0.84. the guideline by Cohen on the interpretation of treatment effect shows that a value of 0.80 shows a large treatment effect hence play therapy is crucial in managing emotional as well as behavioral difficulties in children.
The findings of the research suggested that 35-40 sessions of play therapy improved the treatment outcomes significantly even though the duration of a treatment usually varies. The study proved effective for both genders and across all ages and despite this fact, the intervention is thought to be more successful in younger children since play therapy is sensitive towards the development stage of children. Play therapy helps in promoting positive treatment outcomes as well as facilitating problem-solving skills and social competence skills in preschool children. Play therapy therefore consistently ensures positive outcomes for children with as well as those without disability and it promotes cognitive and social skills in very young children. As a result, it could be employed as a method of preparing such children to transition from kindergarten towards infant school. Its impact is seen in younger boys and girls however its impact is greatest among children of younger age.
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