The essence of children’s play has been tried to be interpreted by various theories: playing is a way for a child to rest, to gather strength and refresh its spirit. Spencer, on the other hand, claimed that a child plays because of excess strength and physical energy within itself. Hall saw in the child’s play a brief repetition of the development of the whole human race, from a purely instinctive life to a civilized one. Psychoanalysts have tried to explain the essence of children’s play by the repressed erotic aspirations of the child, since it must not express them openly, it allegedly expresses its sexual urges in a symbolic way – through play. Similar to this is Claparède’s view that the child is freed from play by the emotional tension that arises in it by suppressing illicit, socially unacceptable instincts. The individual psychological school claims that the child in the game experiences a sense of superiority over its environment, thus seeking to compensate for its unconscious feeling of inferiority. Gross’s theory is also well known: the child prepares for work through play.
Children’s play has multiple meanings. According to Troy, it affects physical, intellectual, social and emotional-moral development. By playing, the child exercises its muscles and nervous system, acquires various skills and gets to know its abilities. But through the game, it gets to know its physical environment and the laws that govern it, gains experience, builds concepts, learns how to cope with objective reality and solve problems, practices in creating social contact, adapting to other people, then meets different types of people, acquires experience in resolving conflicts in interpersonal relationships; it teaches it patience, tolerance, camaraderie, prudence, cooperation, and other socially positive traits. The game helps the child to get know the value of various moral norms. In contact with other children, knowledge of the meaning of honesty, truthfulness and courage is developed. Comrades in the game are stricter referees than parents and other educators, Troy says. Therefore, in playing with peers, the child acquires habits of positive behavior that it would not acquire if it moved exclusively in the company of adults.
In the game, the child identifies with its environment. While playing, it enjoys different roles, and at the same time it experiences various people from its environment in its toys. Through play, it expresses and forms its attitudes towards the people around it, it expresses its emotions towards them, both positive and negative. The child in the game only shows itself love and hate, sympathy and repulsion, trust and fear towards its parents, siblings or anyone with whom it has come into closer contact. That is why the game helps to get rid of aggression, anxiety and other negative emotions that have accumulated in it. Therefore, the game is also used for the purpose of treating neurotic children who have fallen ill due to chronic emotional conflicts within themselves.
The game, therefore, serves the versatile and unconscious learning of the child. It is interesting that the longer the cubs of animals play, the more they have the ability to learn, that is, the more developed the species are to which they belong. So a little kitten or puppy plays intensely, while young insects never play. They perform all actions instinctively, according to innate schemes, and do not acquire any skills.
There are some laws in the development of children’s play. The younger the child, the shorter it stays with the same type of game and the more different games it plays. The older child stays in the same game longer, but with age, the total time it spends in the game decreases. This is especially noticeable when a child goes to school. Out of the large number of available games, the older child increasingly chooses only some that are particularly dear to it, so it limits its interest to them. The older the child is, the more selective it is in the game, the more and more conditions must be met in order for it to be satisfied with a game.
The content of children’s play changes with the age of the child, and with a certain regularity. In the activities of infants and young and preschool children, three types of play occur in succession (Troy):
1) Free or spontaneous play
2) Imitative game, i.e. “alleged” game
3) Constructive play.
Free play is observed in the child’s activity during the first two years. The child mostly plays alone, and that is by first exploring its own body. In addition, it touches, feels, knocks down, puts in its mouth various objects that it notices around it. In this way, it gains basic experiences about itself and its environment. That’s why educators mustn’t stop it in that kind of game. The child has to throw everything it can reach, tear toys and picture books. It is not a sign of capriciousness, obsession, defiance or destructiveness, but a natural need. It feels an instinctive urge to know everything that surrounds it, and until it achieves this it takes in its hands everything it can reach. A small child does not yet know how to handle all objects deftly, nor does it know which things to handle with care. That is why, with the same carelessness, it reflects on an expensive vase as well as a wooden spoon that its mother gave it to play with. This fact should be taken into account and parents should refrain from punishing or being rude with the child if a glass object falls out of the child’s hand and breaks. It should always be remembered that children’s play is more valuable than any decorative object in the house.
But this does not mean that the child should be allowed to recklessly break whatever comes to hand. However, by prohibiting and constantly warning, it is not possible not to touch certain objects, such as radios, electrical appliances and the like. The child is more interested in a subject and the more persistently it tries to get hold of it, the more the educators defend it. It is best to remove all those items that could be damaged by the child, and are too valuable to be allowed to it, out of reach. The same goes for various dangerous items such as knives, scissors and the like. There is no point in telling a child about the danger that threatens it if it plays with them. It is better to deny it access to these things until it is able to handle them carefully. But in the space intended for play, it should be allowed to move quite freely and to use, disassemble, remodel and even destroy its toys without any restrictions.
In infancy, in addition to their own body and objects of daily use, rattle toys and figures of people and animals made of rubber or plastic are the most suitable for a child. Since the baby puts it all in its mouth, the toys need to be washed occasionally, especially if they fall to the floor. When it starts crawling and walking, the child should be given a ball, small objects that it can pull and push on the floor, simple toys on wheels (but not ones that can be rolled up, because the child wants to be active with the toy, not passively watch it), so various boxes, empty bottles and the like.
Free, spontaneous play is followed in preschool by the so-called imitative game. Here the child relates to things and treats them as if they have different properties from those they actually have (Troy). The imitative game develops in three phases:
2) Imagining the material
3) Imagining situations (dramatization).
The child now develops its imagination, so its projects its experiences into the objects around it, reproduces them in contact with toys, attributes the fruit of its imagination to various things, and imagines that inanimate objects are alive, immovable that are movable. This is how it experiences its doll is its child, so it treats it as if the doll can eat, walk, sleep, talk. It is a phase of personification. Then it imagines various objects of everyday use with something completely different, i.e. something that will satisfy its imagination: it uses an upturned chair as a car, it sees the space under the table as its house, etc. It is aware of the fact that these objects are “just” a chair or just a table. But it doesn’t bother it at all to develop with these things the activities it imagined in its imagination.
In the dramatization phase, the child imagines various situations that it has experienced or is experiencing in everyday family relationships. It repeats, changes and complements its experiences in the game as its emotions require; it enjoys the game of cooking, shopping, going on visits, medical check-ups and more.
While for the first two years it was not interested in other children, it is now looking for company to play with. Initially, at the transition from the period of a small child to preschool age, the child does not yet know how to play with other children in the true sense. It now wants to have another child with it, but it plays more beside it than with it; i.e. young children do not yet play with the same toys, do not cooperate in the same activity. But in preschool, especially in the dramatization phase, the child shows an increasing tendency to participate with its peers in the same game.
The child should be provided with material that it can change at will and build and assemble whatever it imagines from it. Toys that represent the raw material for children’s activity are very useful for preschool children: sand, clay, clean paper, colorful papers, cubes, cloths and the like. From perfectly shaped objects, educators should purchase water and sand bowls, a spatula, a ball, simple dolls, small plastic figures, colorful pencils, cubes with pasted pictures, strollers, simple houses, animal figures, small household furniture, small utensils, utensils for washing and dressing the doll. Complicated mechanical toys and large very ornate dolls are not as good as the previously mentioned ones. They are expensive and do not serve a purpose. Mechanical toys are more fun for adults than children; they are “finished”, the child cannot change anything on them, it cannot be active, so it gets fed up with them soon. The ornate doll serves as an ornament, as does the painting, and the child remains passive towards it again and has no use for it.
Towards the end of preschool, the child increasingly switches to constructive games. This means that it likes to assemble, build and construct various objects from various semi-shaped materials. It now builds a house from cubes, boards, boxes, rags and other objects, assembles a locomotive, sews a dress for a doll and the like. For it, what it has created becomes an increasingly important form and it is increasingly critical of the result of its game. The child should be provided with wooden or metal rods, tiles, rollers, screws and similar material, which will serve it to satisfy its imagination. A variety of tools will also serve it as well: a hammer, a drill, a small saw, scissors, needles and sewing thread.
In the first years of schooling, constructive play culminates. After the eighth or ninth year, it becomes less interesting, but new contents appear at the same time. These are (Troy):
2) Social and sports games
3) Hanging around with friends.
Already in preschool, the child shows interest in collecting various items: bottles, corks, colorful balls. But now that collection is becoming more meaningful, more persistent and consists of more systems. Children are happy to collect stamps, postcards, various pictures, booklets and more. This interest of theirs can be used for teaching purposes. It is useful, for example, for children to collect pictures of various animals, historical events or celebrities, for children’s stories to be published in a small format, and so on.
Group games consist first of all of playing ‘tag’, of hiding, of playing ball together, of playing “school” and similar activities; there is also interest in raffle, in the game of playing “ladies”, in playing cards and others. In the pre-adolescent period, and especially in puberty itself, children are more and more interested in sports, whether they passively attend sports games and competitions, or whether they participate in them themselves. The sense of competition and constructive cooperation in sports teams becomes more and more alive. At the same time, there is a need for entertainment, which continues and is increasingly prevalent in adolescence; to read, listen to the radio, watch television and attend various events, especially film performances.
Picture books should be provided to the preschool child. Reading a text to a child promotes the development of its speech, enriches its vocabulary and helps it to form concepts. That is why picture books help to form children’s intelligence. The child should be allowed to freely use the picture book, to retell what it has heard from adults by looking at the pictures, to paint in it, to cut out individual characters from it. At the end of that age, children become able to understand various fairy tales and children’s stories. When they learn to read, they should be encouraged to read on their own. And children’s books should be richly illustrated, preferably realistic, because they best suit the children’s way of thinking.
It is necessary to procure those fairy tales and stories that in a simple and child-friendly way depict the essence of man, express centuries-old human aspirations, show essential life values and significant life truths. Such fairy tales and stories should be discussed with children, they should be shown what they mean in a symbolic way, these findings should be brought in the child’s consciousness in connection with the reality of life. In this way, it contributes to the ethical maturation of the child, and at the same time helps it to gain more experience in getting to know people.
In the pre-adolescent period, children increasingly prefer to read adventure novels and historical narratives, and in puberty there is an interest in romance literature. It enables educators to spontaneously increase their knowledge through what the child is interested in, to build healthy attitudes towards life in the human community, towards oneself and towards the opposite sex. Sometimes a child will reach for a book that is still too difficult for it. It should then be warned that its knowledge is still too small to understand those books. But it should not be prevented by force to read such a book if it still wants to. If no book is presented as a “forbidden fruit”, the child will spontaneously lose interest in it if it does not understand it. If it understands it, letting it read it will not hurt the child. However, the educator should talk about it with the child, clarify some concepts in its mind, free it from misunderstandings with the book, help it understand the ideas presented and look at them critically. And various bad, worthless or even pornographic books should be removed from the child’s environment.
Just as a child imitates adults in everything, it will do the same in its attitude towards reading. It’s hard to demand that it get excited about a good book if its educators don’t read anything but the daily press and movie shows or comics, or don’t even read that either. Educators must first have good taste, in an aesthetic sense, in order to develop a sense for beauty in the child.
In the same way, the educator can influence the child’s attitude towards movies. Only at school age does a child become able to understand a cartoon or feature film. Initially, it is interested in fairy tales and filmed children’s stories. In pre-adolescence, there is an interest in adventure and historical films. In boys, interest in such films continues into puberty, while girls in puberty become more interested in romantic films. Children’s films can be used in conversation with children just as much as children’s literature. And movies can serve to teach a child, talk about various life truths, and practice knowing people. With their interest in valuable films and critical attitude towards bad films, parents instill good taste in their child. When a child starts attending film performances on its own, there is no point in determining what it will watch or forbidding it from watching a film. It is the task of the educator to recommend good films, to point out the positive characteristics and to discuss the ideas of the film. If a child has watched a weak, banal or even brutal, vulgar, pornographic film, educators should talk about that film as well. Only in this way can a child develop aesthetic criticality.
The negative impact of bad movies and fair readings on the development of a young person is often mentioned. But this impact must not be generalized. If a child develops mentally in a healthy way, bad movies and reading will not attract it, so it will only be superficially interested in them. In such a situation, educators enjoy the trust of the child, so it will accept their suggestions and reject worthless entertainment. A wrongly brought up, neurotic child easily falls under the influence of poor reading and vulgar movies. But this is primarily due to the wrong action of the educator. It is said that there are young people who, after watching a gangster movie, commit a crime themselves. That is true, but it is not yet proof that the film caused the delinquent behavior. It just caused something that would have happened sooner or later without it. Because the young person does not become a criminal at the instigation of the film, but because the negative action of the environment has nurtured criminal tendencies in it.
The same goes for television programs. Adults should give children an example of good taste by watching only valuable programs and critically looking at everything empty and banal in bad programs. No event that a child has the opportunity to attend should be made a “forbidden fruit”. If the movie is too difficult for the child – for example, a psychological drama – the child will even give up watching it or will ask the parent for an interpretation and thus give them the opportunity to teach it about various life facts. If the movie contains too much eroticism or portrays sexuality in a vulgar way, educators again have the opportunity to interpret the fallacy of such behavior or the inaccuracy in depicting human sexuality.