How We See Things: Our Mediated World

How do children learn and develop?  Is it through stages of innate, biological maturation?  Is it through reinforcing desired behaviors?  Or is it through collaborative engagement with others in the world?
As a hands-on educator, researcher and academic, my answer would be: all of the above to some extent, yet children grow and develop as human beings principally through their collaborative engagement with others in world, typically through play. 
Clearly children develop according to some stages of biologically determined growth.  We can generally predict an age range in which children will sit up, crawl, walk, talk, etc.  A three-month old baby can’t walk, and there is no amount of conditioning or play that can change that fact.  Behaviorist conditioning, which positively reinforces behaviors viewed as correct, may help children to better understand what is expected of them, but it is externally regulated by another person who can reward, or at times, even punish behaviors that are deemed right or wrong.
Collaborative engagement with others through play is the most effective path to development because we work with one another to negotiate shared meaning of how the world works and see things from different perspectives.  In play we construct imaginary situations, taking on roles and creating stories.  These play scenarios are infused with rules for action that come from the meaning we make of the world and ourselves.  While the same is true in our real life situations, the imaginary situations of play bring the meaning of the rules of action to the fore such that we consciously act according to what the underlying concepts of such rules mean to us.  A child pretending to be a baby while playing house may crawl around and babble to demonstrate his/her concept of babyhood, for example.  Play participants, however, don’t always come to the play scenario with the same meaning for the concepts that their rules for action are based upon and must negotiate a shared meaning of the rules of action in the roles they choose and the stories they create.  What “family” means to one child may differ from the meaning of another child and that will be demonstrated in their play, necessitating negotiation of meaning for the play scenario to build in complexity, for instance.  The meaning we make together through this negotiation, lays the foundation for cognitive and social-emotional development. 
We often think of play as “free”, or without rules, however play is driven by rules for action constituted in the meaning we have of the world.  When we play we don’t just act in any way that we want, we act according to the rules of the game and that is what makes the game worthwhile.  These rules often emerge as the game is played, as we bump up against the constraints signaled by others playing.  For example, if children are playing fire station and one child has been injured and is waiting to be rescued, he has to lay still and wait to be picked up by a fire fighter.  If the child pretending to be injured suddenly gets up and starts running around the other children playing fire fighters will likely scold him or take some other action to confront his unruliness (literally).  The child pretending to be injured needs to see the world differently when he is in his role – imagining what an injured person might do.  Perhaps if he feels the urge to get up he might limp along or indicate his injured state in some other way.  This shows a fundamental developmental aspect: by taking on a role, a child sees the world from another perspective and acts according to what it means to embody that role.  Furthermore, he/she acts according to the rules of action based on what that role means to him/her.  An injured person is impaired in some way; this is the conceptual meaning a child may have of what it means to be injured.  The concepts of injured and impaired are inferentially linked in a network of meaning.  This meaning is the basis for the rule of action to remain still when playing the injured person waiting to be rescued.  Thus, in play, children see the world from another perspective, developing their sense of empathy, and act according to the rules of action in an imaginary situation, which are constituted by the meaning we have how the world works. 
Teachers, parents and other playmates are important collaborators in pushing children’s understanding of the world and themselves through play.  By bringing different perspectives of how the world works and what different concepts mean participants can broaden and deepen their understanding – making the teaching and learning potential of play exorbitant.  Imagine a teacher taking students on a nature walk, where they are encouraged to ask questions, make comments and record observations from the standpoints of a botanist or a landscape painter.  They could imagine themselves to be Mendel or Van Gogh.  On an everyday nature walk they might notice some mundane phenomena, but when in the play situation of scientists and artists taking a nature walk they will likely notice many more details and call one another’s attention to more specific and more intricate aspects of colors, scents, sizes and textures as they explore the world with a different lens and share their questions, comments and observations with one another in a collaborative play activity.

Taking on a different role and seeing the world from another perspective is fundamentally developmental and mediates how we engage in it.  Collaborating with others in a shared activity that depends on the negotiation of meaning is, likewise, essentially developmental and supports each one of us to grow in a myriad of ways.  As a pedagogic tool, play can act as a scaffold in supporting children to go beyond themselves.  As such, Vygotsky, the father of social constructivism, argued that play is the highest form of childhood development.   “A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality… In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, Mind in Society, 1978, 100-102).

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The founder and primary contributor to Education for Contemporary Times is Sarah O. Weiler, long-time educator with a M.A. in Global Education from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Education at the prestigious Institute of Education at the University of London in the UK.
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