These notes look at two areas

1. The place of play in children's learning and spirituality with implications for primary school religious education (link to this section)
What is children's play?
How does children's play relate to their spirituality, learning and school education?
Determining an appropriate emphasis for play in primary school religious education

2. The place of imagination in children's learning (link to this section)

1. The function of children's play in their spirituality and its place in primary school religious education

Berryman and Hyde (2010) proposed “the centrality and necessity of play in religious education for both children and adults” (p.36) and the “grounding [of] religious education in the creative process centering around play.” (p. 41). They made the strongest case in the recent academic literature for a central place for play in both children's spirituality and primary school religious education, especially in the early years. Useful links to the wider literature are given by Berryman & Hyde, 2010; and Hyde, 2009. These authors have provided a systematic, coherent and well-argued account of children's play including psychological, theological and educational dimensions. Their special focus is on the Godly play Biblical storytelling pedagogy. Hymans (1996) and Grajczonek & Hanifin (2007) provided a more general account of a place for play in children's religious education.

It is important to understand psychologically how play can be a significant component of children's learning both with respect to their own spirituality, and to religious education. An appraisal of what counts as play is needed to judge whether statements like those quoted above warrant more follow up, or whether they overestimate the significance of play. Without doubt, playing is fundamental to young children's behaviour and learning about life, and it is therefore likely to have a valuable place in learning at home, in child care and pre-school institutions, and in a local community of faith. But there remain questions about whether it should be used as a principal pedagogy in the primary school which may need to give more prominence to other strategies for teaching and learning, with a diminishing role for playing as such.

What is children's play?

Children's play is an imaginative interlude in which they jointly engage with any one or more people, animals, objects and activities, to create behaviour that is fun and enjoyable. Play is what children do. Play is a fundamental category in children's behaviour that naturally resists reduction to components; it remains fundamental to humans throughout their lives. It has biological precedents in animal play.

Children's play is diverse and it can be interpreted as having different functions. It is a way of exploring the world and learning new behaviours (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Since they were first able to examine objects closely by putting them into their mouths as babies, children have a strong natural drive to explore their immediate surroundings and relate to the people, animals and objects they encounter. Play emerges as their explorations become more structured and repetitive, and especially when they become pleasurable and fun. Play both satisfies, and is driven by, children's natural curiosity and inquisitiveness; they want to explore and become familiar with their emerging world. Play is central to children's capacity to feel good. Children play because they want to enjoy themselves. As children get a little older, play can also be motivated by their need to understand why things are the way they are; in this way, play helps them make sense of their experience – like their first steps in constructing meaning (Arthur et al., 2005; Hedges, 2000). They are always asking “Why?”

Children love to mimic their parents, family and any others in their immediate world, including animals. Young children play when they join with their family (parents and or siblings) and others in fun activities. They also learn skills and behaviour patterns through play: For example, firstly they see a new situation; they observe and pay attention; they copy the action; they repeat it over and over, until satisfied that the new capability is now part of their repertoire, or until they lose interest; then they move on to a new activity. Often they will make repetition part of a game – for example, getting those involved to take turns.

Essential for authentic play “is the lack of compulsion, or obligation, to engage in play. Play is voluntary and spontaneous; it is pleasurable and played for itself. It involves a deep engagement on the part of the players” (Berryman & Hyde 2010, p.35). Engagement of the imagination, to be considered in more detail in a later article, is also a central element in children's play. Play has a virtual/imaginative quality – often intermediate between reality and fantasy. Sometimes the words “you are playing a game” is intended to point out subterfuge or hiding the truth.

When play becomes more structured and rules are constructed for its conduct and organisation, it becomes a game (Berryman & Hyde, 2010, p. 36). Competition readily enters into games whether the individual is competing with self or with others. An extension to competitive sport is then readily made. Competition is likely to impact more and more on the life world of children at an ever increasing pace. There is a need for educators to encourage children to think about excellence and quality in their work as valuable in their own right, and that this is more important than competition – scoring better than their peers. In a society where competition and consumerism will fuel a number of personal and social problems (as well as affecting schools), care is needed so that competition is not instilled into children at an early age through overemphasis of the competitive element (Hill, 1991, p.3).

There is an adage: When it stops being fun, it is no longer play. This view of play suggests that fun and entertainment are essential to play, and if not, then the character of the activity is changed. This will have educational implications where there is too much emphasis on entertainment as a condition for learning.

Perhaps the most common word that children themselves would associate with play is ‘toys'. Imaginative playing with toys is fundamental in their play. They can relate to stuffed toy animals as if they were real people – talking to them, expressing affection, taking them for walks, keeping them warm, etc. It is unlikely that they think these toys are alive in the same sense that they and their family are alive; but imaginatively they can readily treat their toys as if they were alive in some sense. Toys populate their world with imagination-enhanced figures that help them both enjoy and make sense of life and keep them company. They may repeat or reprise past actions and events with their toys (like putting them to bed, feeding them etc.). Similarly, non-toy objects can be used in a toy-like way, mimicking their use by parents and others do (E.g. a pre-verbal, 11 month old child putting a mobile phone to her ear and making noises; or pressing a button on the remote control and then looking up to see if something happens on the TV screen.). Children can manipulate toys to explore new situations and circumstances using their imagination.

How does children's play relate to their spirituality, learning and school education?

It seems reasonable to conclude that one should be reluctant to invoke the notions of spiritual, spirituality, religion and religiosity for interpreting children's behaviour until they are old enough mentally to have some idea of what the words ‘spirit', ‘spiritual', ‘creator', ‘creation', ‘God', etc. can mean; and until they are capable of understanding something basic about what the child's religious tradition says about these ideas. And it may be difficult to identify just when these competencies emerge. For example, well before they understand the spiritual terms, children may mimic the religious/spiritual behaviour of parents and others in their immediate families. They can acquire religious behaviours before they know what the spiritual/religious dimension means. So almost imperceptibly they are socialised into primal understandings about religion and God; or they may be socialised into understanding life without any reference to religion (Rossiter, 2012).

It is both unrealistic and inappropriate to project an adult spiritual/religious awareness onto children before it has developed. Their first steps in engaging with religious stories and religious practice may be better interpreted in terms of basic age-appropriate psychological capacities – for example: the ordinary feelings of pleasure, fun, curiosity, inquisitiveness, repetition, behavioural achievement etc. It is difficult to judge just when young children's natural urge to understand their immediate world becomes the construction of personal meaning, in the same way this is understood for older children and adolescents. However, it is still appropriate to interpret these psychological capacities as pre-spiritual, pre-cursors to the spiritual, or proto-spiritual – reflecting the view that humans have a genetic capacity for the spiritual. Educators' being cautious about a religious interpretation of behaviour and thinking becomes less of an issue as children grow older and can understand talk about the spiritual and God.

How play can contribute to spiritual development is mainly dependent on how children learn through play. Links between play, learning and spiritual development are explored in detail in the writings of Berryman and Hyde noted above. Below, attention will be given to the way in which primary school religious education enters into this equation.

For children, there is a strong link between play and the collection of feelings including fun, entertainment, enjoyment, absorption in activity and feeling good. If children learn through play, then such learning is also inevitably linked to fun and entertainment etc. This poses a problem for the place of play in primary school religious education. One of the difficulties in addressing this problem is that the word ‘learning' is often used without qualification; it has become a buzzword. ‘Promoting children's learning' it the new educational ‘motherhood statement'. Correspondingly, there is less emphasis on the word ‘teaching' (Moran, 2006). It seems that as long as children are ‘learning' – no matter what they might happen to be learning – everything is all right. There is a similar problem where some educators think that as long as children are using computers, then it is ‘learning'. In the broad sense of the word ‘learning', people learn all the time throughout their lives. So if its meaning is not delimited to ‘learning in particular contexts', then learning tends to become equivalent to the whole of life. The precision in its educational meaning is compromised, and it functions like a cliché that everyone agrees with, and which excuses them from having to articulate exactly what sort of learning is intended.

Play can generate different types of learning. What is important to this discussion is clarity about what school classroom learning involves so that the potential contribution of children's play can be appraised. For preschool children, there is no doubt that a significant amount of their learning language and motor skills can proceed through play. But when children go to primary school, the commonly accepted views of the nature and purpose of schools suggest that they are to be socialised into a new type of learning community that opens them to significant new sorts of learning that are essentially associated with literacy and numeracy. This has the general purpose of helping them learn to become well informed about their heritage of intellectual culture and to learn how to think critically. Given this view, there will be a natural need to progress from the extensive volume of learning, time consumption and entertainment through their previously unrestricted children's play towards children's school-work. And in church school religious education this will require specific knowledge/understanding outcomes related to the Christian tradition. But such a transition needs to be careful not to neglect the reality that play-based activities can provide concrete, experiential reference points for the learning of new knowledge and skills. Hopefully, what children learn at school will be incorporated into their learning from life – their capacity to learn better from their life experience and how to address life with more self confidence in their own capacities (Austin et al., 2003). Hopefully too, cultivating this new type of learning can result in children's experiencing that it too can be interesting, engaging and even enjoyable – while not thinking that because it is enjoyable, it must be play!

Children new to school need to understand that there is a lot to be learned about life and participation in society, but the acquisition of knowledge and skills here will not be just the same sort of learning they have been accustomed to in play. This does not mean that play-based activities cannot be a valuable component of school education; but if play is over emphasised or got out of perspective, then children could be socialised into an unrealistic feeling that intellectual work is unnecessary or is only appropriate when it is entertaining, playful and enjoyable. Teachers should therefore avoid giving the impression that school is for play. If not, this could jeopardise children's acceptance that intellectual work was central to the school education.

Progress in literacy, numeracy and critical thinking needs to be experienced by children as not just ‘fun and games' but as a competencies to be mastered – much like the way effort and training are needed for competence in sport. Ironically, it could be through competitive sport where children learn that competence and skills require work and effort – and this applies as much to school work as it does to sport.

Naturally, play in the classroom will generate a lot of entertainment and enjoyment for children. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoyable aspects to academic learning. But too much attention should not be given to this linkage. School learning is also about self-discipline, and learning skills, many of which require repetition and practice. With excessive emphasis on play, children may feel that things should always come easily for them without much effort or commitment on their part. They could also come to expect that the role of the teacher revolved around provision of entertainment. This could handicap progress in academic learning. It also puts unwanted pressure on the teachers – as if they needed to become be ‘fifth wiggle' to be successful in promoting children's learning.

Hence one of the goals for primary school religious education pedagogies should be inclining children to develop satisfaction and pride in their learning. This should outweigh concerns about making it entertaining. Hopefully the result would be a balanced place for play within a broad range of pedagogies.

Further on this point, it is valuable to note that within the Australian government's Early Childhood Learning Framework (DEEWR, 2009) there is an expected emphasis on children's learning through play. However, right after the section on ‘play' is one on ‘intentional teaching'. Of the 23 times the word ‘teaching' is used in the document, ‘intentional teaching' is specified in 10 cases. Similarly, in the related Teachers' guide book (DEEWR, 2010), 19 of the 64 references to teaching include the phrase ‘intentional teaching'. These documents imply that while play may be the central mechanism for learning in early childhood, intentional pedagogical interventions should become increasingly relevant. In turn, this seems to have significant implications for assessing the appropriate place for play-based learning in the primary school.

This cautionary thinking about the place of play is not to imply that authentic intellectual learning has to be dull and boring; but it is making the fundamental point that it cannot always be purely playful and entertaining. There is little doubt that children are always learning through playing, but the crucial questions for educators are what can they learn in the way of content, skills and dispositions through play-like educational activities, and a determination of whether this is the most appropriate and efficient way of their learning particular items by contrast with other non play-like pedagogies.

It could be useful when steering away from potential problems like the above not to use the word ‘play'. Rather, words like ‘experiential', ‘hands on', ‘imaginative', ‘creative', ‘interesting' and ‘engaging' etc. could be used to describe pedagogy. Such usage is less inclined to equate the classroom with play.

It could be expected that the extent to which children's play might be part of the religious education curriculum should parallel its relevance to primary school curriculum generally.

Determining an appropriate emphasis for play in primary school religious education

Berryman and Hyde (2010, and in other publications Berryman, 1991, 2002, 2009; Hyde, 2008, 2009, 2010), proposed two things about children's play in spirituality and religious education. Firstly they used play/game as an overarching metaphor or framework for interpreting the way an individual communicates with God in religious experience and storytelling. They also used it to interpret the work of the Christian church, as well as liturgy and religious education. Like the use of any metaphor (E.g. revelation, story, ministry etc.) in a scheme to interpret such a range of aspects, ‘game' will have both strengths and limitations. Secondly, they endorsed wide use of play as a pedagogy in children's religious education, especially in the early years.

Berryman and Hyde's ideas about play generally, and about Godly play in particular, seem well placed for early years, pre-school religious education in the home and especially in the local faith community. But treating it as a principal approach in primary school religious education seems to be stretching its significance beyond capacity. Here, the need for a less play-like orientation, together with children's rapidly developing cognitive and interpretive capacities would seem to eclipse, or at least cut back significantly, the applicability of the Godly play principles.

As discussed earlier, educative play in primary school religious education needs specific religious knowledge outcomes, without necessarily endorsing all aspects of what is involved in the ‘outcomes movement' in religious education (Ryan, 1998). An over-estimation of the significance of play in religious education appears in Hyde's (2009, p.37) claim that “when . . . play is substituted with activities emanating from a directive based on power, as opposed to an invitation, which are more concerned with the attainment of predetermined outcomes, than with genuine play for its own intrinsic worth . . . dangerous games are instigated which can stifle both the spirituality of children and their learning in religious education.”  This view unnecessarily contrasts knowledge outcomes and play as if they appeared incompatible, and tends to dismiss the responsibility for knowledge outcomes in curriculum development as an exercise of unwanted power over children's play. Hyde (2009, p.41) negatively labelled attempts to have learning outcomes from play as ‘pseudoplay'. “Activities such as problem solving, language learning, and the like are being disguised as genuine play, but are effectually concerned with the attainment of predetermined outcomes. In other words, it is pseudoplay, rather than genuine play.”

Problems can easily arise related to the association of educational play with fun and entertainment. As suggested earlier, it will be helpful to use alternative language with precision to minimise this difficulty. For example, the following:

Teachers use pedagogies that engage children in experiential, hands-on learning activities that are enjoyable and entertaining for the children as well as instrumental to their learning new knowledge, ideas, principles and/or skills. Such experiential pedagogy may be play-based and/or involve games or game-like actions. This can result in the same sort of engagement observed in children's play, and it may also carry the same sort of enjoyment as does children's play. But primary school education's use of play-based teaching and learning needs clear differentiation.

This sort of language differentiation is reflected in the summary by Thomas & Grajczonek (20011, p. 76) “The work of teachers is to teach and the work of children is to play. Play is a pedagogical tool drawn on by teachers to support children's learning, but for children, play is what they do.”  However, what needs to be added here is that children's specifically school classroom learning (distinguished from the much broader learning about life), which is mainly of an intellectual type, involves what can be called ‘academic work'. And this academic work requires the exercise of discipline and the development of skills. Making a transition from children's play to children's academic work is one of the basic goals of the primary school.

It is noted that this understanding of a school's academic work and the use of the words ‘intellectual culture' and ‘critical thinking' do not neglect or minimise its capacity to educate with respect to emotions, imagination, the aesthetic, and creativity (often labelled as the affective domain), as well as to attitudes, values, beliefs and commitments (the volitional domain). This question is explained in detail in Crawford & Rossiter (2006, pp. 283-292).

2. The place of imagination in children's learning

This section provides a summary interpretation of the place of imagination in children's learning, specifically in the classroom context that serves as a background to the discussion of story telling.

In the discussion of children's play (Rossiter, 2012B), as well as more generally in the literature of children's religious education (E.g. Adams et al 2008; Grajczonek, 2009; Hyde, 2008), the words ‘imagination' or ‘imaginative' figure prominently. This illustrates the centrality of imagination to children's play – it is difficult to talk about children's play without reference to the imagination.

Imagination is the capacity of the mind to transcend reality to some extent by constructing new scenarios and new possibilities for action. It is a creative mental process showing new ways of thinking and acting, or novel ways of reprising past actions. Previous learning can be applied or extrapolated to new circumstances. Imagination thus helps construct virtual new realities or possibilities that can be enjoyed, as well as tested and evaluated for their appropriateness, their meaning and usefulness. Some imagined possibilities can be frightening or distasteful for the individual, and this can serve as a warning or a prohibition. Imagination can not only be casual and relaxing – like day-dreaming, it can involve serious application of the mind to exploring new possibilities. Imagination can thus be like a behavioural pathfinder or precursor to action that tentatively explores possible ways ahead that the individual can try out in advance.

It is useful to single out three types of imaginative learning that are common in children (as well as in adolescents and adults).

Imaginative reprise is where children imaginatively ‘copy', ‘replay' or ‘mimic' past experience or action in their own way, sometimes adding novel elements. This may involve exploring what the original experience means for them. Or it might simply be the repetition that children engage in as part of their coming to know something or to develop a particular skill / capacity.

Imaginative identification (Crawford & Rossiter, 1985, p. 73; 2006, p. 292) occurs when children explore with their imagination what it would feel like to be in the shoes of others. They can identify what they think would be the feelings and thoughts that others have, and of how they interpreted their experience. And this can help them learn how both to take and appreciate perspectives other than their own.

Imaginative rehearsal (Crawford & Rossiter, 1985, p. 72; 2006, p. 291) is where children construct new virtual realities and then try themselves out in these circumstances; or they imagine how they might manage in some current real situations. It is like answering the question: “What would it be like for me to be in this situation? Or in a new situation? How would I feel? How would I manage?”  This is the creative ‘pathfinder' function referred to above for ‘lighting up' new ways of behaving; they can explore new territory in advance and, depending on the result, this imaginative experience may either encourage or deter them from entering the new situation. Children can experiment imaginatively with different responses in the new situations; this can be a prelude to decision-making and future action.

As noted in Rossiter (2012B), imagination is fundamental to play with toys. Imagination endows toys with life; children invest them with imaginative life and they interact with them. They can pass considerable time by themselves absorbed in such imaginative play.

This section shows how children's imagination functions in their learning. And it illustrates the psychological basis of how it might contribute to spirituality, when they apply their imagination to interpreting their spiritual/religious experience and to understanding their religious culture.

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