Why Play is the Work of Childhood
When my daughter was about a year old, she would pretend to talk on the phone. She held up a banana or a plastic toy to her ear and carried on an animated conversation—mostly babbling, with some real words and phrases mixed in.
Now, at age 3, her pretend play has become more intricate and complex. It involves a rotating cast of imaginary friends who take part in exciting adventures like eating chocolate soup at a restaurant or going to outer space in a shopping cart.
I find her make-believe mostly funny and endearing. But Fred Rogers taught us that play is more than just fodder for the next phone call with Nana.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning,” he said. “But for children, play is serious learning.”
Imaginary play it turns out, helps children develop some necessary survival skills.
In this video, author and kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley discussed the critical role of imaginative play in a child’s development:
Writing for Psychology Today, cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman writes that pretending has an important role in the development of “theory of mind,” or the “awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable.” Knowing these perspectives exist is a critical step toward developing empathy and understanding.
Research also finds that play helps children develop self-regulation skills such as delayed gratification and reduced aggression.
So how do we foster and encourage imagination and pretend play?
Last month this blog explored the positive influence the maker movement has in bringing the “spirit of play and discovery” back to formal classroom settings.
In a NAEYC interview, University of California, Berkeley, psychology professor Alison Gopnik said, “The old standbys of water, sand, mixing bowls, and cardboard boxes are still the most effective ways for babies and young children to learn about the physical world, while the whole world of pretend—dolls and costumes and toy dishes—is the most effective way to learn about the social world.”
Deborah J. Leong and Elena Bodrova authors of “Accessing and Scaffolding Make-Believe Play,” stressed a more structured focus on pretend play: “Teaching children to play has to be as intentional and systematic as teaching literacy or math and at the same time must take a form very different from adult-initiated practices often used to teach these content-related skills.”
They detailed how educators can examine things like language, play scenarios, role playing, and time frame to assess the maturity of play in their classroom, from the most basic level (where children engage in object-oriented action) to the most mature stage (with an emphasis on planning and negotiating and engagement in multiple roles). Educators can then scaffold a particular child or group of children to the next level of play.
With the focus on academic preparedness and standardized testing at younger and younger ages, play is often given short shrift in the classroom and at home. But there’s good reason to delay, if not abandon entirely, that skill-and-drill mentality.
“There’s hard evidence that children learn more things through play than they would in some academic setting,” Gopnik says. “Children are eventually going to learn to recognize letters. But learning how people work and what’s in others’ minds is a much deeper and more profound learning.”