Play and young children seem to belong together like peanutbutter and jelly. Or do they? Currently, with the emphasis on learning outcomes filtering down from primary grades to kindergarten and even to pre-kindergarten, teachers may feel compelled to abandon play in favor of more "school-like" activities. Is play to be viewed, then, as something children engage in only when they have no "real" educational experiences available to them?
The answer is a definite "no." As the academic content taught in school becomes more demanding, young children need to spend more, not less, time in play-to experiment with symbols, ideas, and relationships not tied to any particular content. Children who miss out on play in their early years may have gaps in their social, cognitive, and linguistic development.
Research demonstrates that make-believe play develops symbolic thinking, self-regulation, and creativity. When children play together they get a chance to practice their social skills. Teachers will note the number of children playing, the amount of social interaction, and the frequency of conflicts. However, in determining whether their play also supports linguistic and cognitive development, it is the combination of what and bow the children are playing that tells us.
Features of High-Level Dramatic Play
Children act out various themes from real life. To combine themes ("grocery store" and "hospital"), they compromise by creating a scenario that includes elements of both. (For example, a cashier in a grocery store gets sick and is taken to the hospital.) Thus, children plan and problem-solve.
Children play various roles, acting out different relationships (not just following commands, but issuing them; not only asking for help, but being the one that helps). They learn how to use their emotions and actions "on demand"-an accomplishment in socio-emotional development.
Children know the rules for playing their roles. They learn to delay immediate fulfillment of their desires and conform to the behavior expected of the role. (A child playing a patient cannot seize a toy stethoscope when it's a prop for the doctor!)
Children use nonrealistic play props with imagination, language, and symbolic thinking.
Children use language extensively. They jointly plan the scenario, negotiate the roles and actions, agree on using imaginary props, and remind each other about the rules. They try out new words, expressions, and intonations to fit their characters. They develop vocabulary, mastery of grammar, and use of language.
In the past, children learned how to play as part of an extended multi-age group within their own family or neighborhood. Nowadays, children are more likely to spend their time in age-segregated groups or playing alone. And we all know that TV shows and even computer software with carefully selected educational content cannot replace live play.
Promoting High-Level Dramatic Play
1. Provide children with experiences they can use to develop new play themes. Field trips, guest speakers, books, and videos can take play beyond housekeeping into a pet store, fire station, or spaceship. In choosing a field trip, make sure that children will observe people performing various jobs such as a tour guide at a nature center.
2. Introduce many different roles associated with each play theme. If children know just a few, they may fight over a role with more "status" (doctors and parents versus patients and babies). Children who want to play spaceship don't all need to be pilots; they can play space scientists or photographers.
3. Look critically at the toys and props children use in play. Can children make their own props? Once you take away all the ready-made props, encourage the transition from a realistic prop (plate with a fried egg on it) to a more generic one (paper plate with a circle painted on it) to a symbolic one (any circle) and finally the imaginary one (when a child indicates that she has the dish by using a word or a gesture only).
Play is indispensable in children's development. Let's give them an hour of play everyday!