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May 22, 2017

Play: The Work of a Preschooler

By Elaine Winter
Grades PreK–K

    One would think that Paw Patrol, that animated Canadian TV series, would have run its course and lost all attraction for today’s preschooler. Not so in our preschool. Paw Patrol is definitely alive and well here. Three- and four-year-olds bound into the classroom, eager to tell each other about their new figures or game, re-enacting moves and sounds, creating manipulative-based games with accompanying sound effects. This is one kind of play: commercial, contagious, and exciting.

    Rory in our 2/3’s class loves playing with a set of small wooden trains and tracks. He likes to settle in on the rug and play out his own stories for long stretches of time.

    Leo and Sarah live for their outdoor time. They bound around our small playground kicking balls, rocking raucously in the boat, and bouncing together on large handled balls. Everything is physical, and everyone is included.

    The point of these illustrations is that preschool play comes in many shapes and sizes. At the right moments, it’s all good. It’s just that we know some play is “gooder” — more growth promoting and self-expressive — than others. It is also the most challenging socially and emotionally.

    This play is often referred to as shared dramatic play. It occurs when two or more 3- or 4-year-olds pretend together without ever announcing that they are pretending to be a mommy, doctor, or puppy. That’s because they are that mommy, doctor, or puppy. They are completely, one hundred percent in the moment. Shared dramatic play can last five minutes or be reprised day after day. It can involve costumes, dolls, and steering wheels, or none of the above. It can be loud and boisterous or just a whisper. It can be first-person (I’m the princess…) or one step removed as kids play and build with blocks and with block figures. What dramatic play does need is lots of language and expressive motions; its actors need to communicate viscerally with each other.

    Recognizing the subtleties of play requires considerable attentiveness and sensitivity, and . . . time. Even then, it’s only half the story. As teachers, we not only want to identify rich play activity, we want to foster and encourage it.

    Let me take a leap and say we all know that play, especially shared dramatic play, is our preschoolers’ work. Here’s why:

    •      Through dramatic play, children reach for a deeper understanding of the world around them: a new baby, a new school, a move, an argument, or a birthday party. They can process what is happening to them and around them, and share it with each other.

    •      Children practice and extend their command of language. Their exchanges are playful; they can experiment with new words and phrases as they respond to each other. “I’m under-arresting you!” said Lola.

    •      Children expand their imaginative powers in order to create make-believe scenarios with classmates, actively setting and shape shifting a shared narrative. They engage in adult-like conversation. “Honey, I’m home with the flowers,” Corey sang out yesterday.  (If only …)

    •      Play can be therapeutic. Children dig into their feelings. “There’s a lot of anger in my game,” Josh announced.  It’s hard to imagine a stronger boost to a young child’s esteem than being able to meaningfully connect with a classmate through pretend play.

    •      Dramatic play allows us to learn what’s on our children’s minds, how they interpret their world and how they cope.

    And our role? It’s a subtle one. Sometimes I feel like that there are as many ways to interfere as there are to support children in their play. And, of course, each child and each situation is unique. Given these caveats, and if we agree that there is no One Way, here are a few tips that seem to be effective: (attachment – Rules to Play By)

    •      Listen and observe before jumping in. Get the lay of the land, feel the tempo.

    •      Respect each child’s point of view; no one has to be the bad guy, and, yes, there can definitely be two mommies or kitties . . . just as there are in life.

    •      Offer in situ guides for the ones who are less expert and facile. I see this baby is hungry. Can someone give her a bottle? Can this daddy make dinner for everyone? Oh no, we need to call a doctor!

    •      Stay in the background; we’re the voiceovers, linking one interaction to another, threading the storyline. Give players the prompts they need then recede when exchanges pick up. 

    •      Help preschoolers examine stereotypes when they sneak into their play. When Max said, “I’m the Jedi warrior, and, Mia, you’re the Jedi secretary.” I HAD to jump in and open conversation, even briefly, to perceived vs. actual gender roles.

    •      Help shyer children join in when it looks like they’d like to. Invent an intro that fits into the action.  Avoid, “Can I play?” (so often the kiss of death)!

    •      Help players find creative solutions to conflicts, and/or help them to transition out when feelings chafe and play hits a standstill.

    We all know that a teacher’s role in supporting dramatic play is more an art than a science. It requires finely tuned observational skills, sensitivity, empathy, emotional intelligence, and an active social radar.  Is there a better description of the preschool teacher? You tell me.

     

    One would think that Paw Patrol, that animated Canadian TV series, would have run its course and lost all attraction for today’s preschooler. Not so in our preschool. Paw Patrol is definitely alive and well here. Three- and four-year-olds bound into the classroom, eager to tell each other about their new figures or game, re-enacting moves and sounds, creating manipulative-based games with accompanying sound effects. This is one kind of play: commercial, contagious, and exciting.

    Rory in our 2/3’s class loves playing with a set of small wooden trains and tracks. He likes to settle in on the rug and play out his own stories for long stretches of time.

    Leo and Sarah live for their outdoor time. They bound around our small playground kicking balls, rocking raucously in the boat, and bouncing together on large handled balls. Everything is physical, and everyone is included.

    The point of these illustrations is that preschool play comes in many shapes and sizes. At the right moments, it’s all good. It’s just that we know some play is “gooder” — more growth promoting and self-expressive — than others. It is also the most challenging socially and emotionally.

    This play is often referred to as shared dramatic play. It occurs when two or more 3- or 4-year-olds pretend together without ever announcing that they are pretending to be a mommy, doctor, or puppy. That’s because they are that mommy, doctor, or puppy. They are completely, one hundred percent in the moment. Shared dramatic play can last five minutes or be reprised day after day. It can involve costumes, dolls, and steering wheels, or none of the above. It can be loud and boisterous or just a whisper. It can be first-person (I’m the princess…) or one step removed as kids play and build with blocks and with block figures. What dramatic play does need is lots of language and expressive motions; its actors need to communicate viscerally with each other.

    Recognizing the subtleties of play requires considerable attentiveness and sensitivity, and . . . time. Even then, it’s only half the story. As teachers, we not only want to identify rich play activity, we want to foster and encourage it.

    Let me take a leap and say we all know that play, especially shared dramatic play, is our preschoolers’ work. Here’s why:

    •      Through dramatic play, children reach for a deeper understanding of the world around them: a new baby, a new school, a move, an argument, or a birthday party. They can process what is happening to them and around them, and share it with each other.

    •      Children practice and extend their command of language. Their exchanges are playful; they can experiment with new words and phrases as they respond to each other. “I’m under-arresting you!” said Lola.

    •      Children expand their imaginative powers in order to create make-believe scenarios with classmates, actively setting and shape shifting a shared narrative. They engage in adult-like conversation. “Honey, I’m home with the flowers,” Corey sang out yesterday.  (If only …)

    •      Play can be therapeutic. Children dig into their feelings. “There’s a lot of anger in my game,” Josh announced.  It’s hard to imagine a stronger boost to a young child’s esteem than being able to meaningfully connect with a classmate through pretend play.

    •      Dramatic play allows us to learn what’s on our children’s minds, how they interpret their world and how they cope.

    And our role? It’s a subtle one. Sometimes I feel like that there are as many ways to interfere as there are to support children in their play. And, of course, each child and each situation is unique. Given these caveats, and if we agree that there is no One Way, here are a few tips that seem to be effective: (attachment – Rules to Play By)

    •      Listen and observe before jumping in. Get the lay of the land, feel the tempo.

    •      Respect each child’s point of view; no one has to be the bad guy, and, yes, there can definitely be two mommies or kitties . . . just as there are in life.

    •      Offer in situ guides for the ones who are less expert and facile. I see this baby is hungry. Can someone give her a bottle? Can this daddy make dinner for everyone? Oh no, we need to call a doctor!

    •      Stay in the background; we’re the voiceovers, linking one interaction to another, threading the storyline. Give players the prompts they need then recede when exchanges pick up. 

    •      Help preschoolers examine stereotypes when they sneak into their play. When Max said, “I’m the Jedi warrior, and, Mia, you’re the Jedi secretary.” I HAD to jump in and open conversation, even briefly, to perceived vs. actual gender roles.

    •      Help shyer children join in when it looks like they’d like to. Invent an intro that fits into the action.  Avoid, “Can I play?” (so often the kiss of death)!

    •      Help players find creative solutions to conflicts, and/or help them to transition out when feelings chafe and play hits a standstill.

    We all know that a teacher’s role in supporting dramatic play is more an art than a science. It requires finely tuned observational skills, sensitivity, empathy, emotional intelligence, and an active social radar.  Is there a better description of the preschool teacher? You tell me.

     

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