Child’s Play

My first book was about children’s pretend play, and was called Pretend Play as Improvisation. It was based on my Ph.D. research at the University of Chicago, where I spent one year in a preschool classroom with 3, 4, and 5-year-olds. I was studying how unstructured social pretend play helped children learn conversational skills and social skills. At the same time, I was playing piano with an improv theater group, and I couldn’t help but notice that the children’s play was strikingly similar to my theater troupe’s performances. The children collaboratively created a fantasy play scenario, and it emerged improvisationally from their conversations.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine* (Sep 27, 2009) has an article about a new preschool program called “Tools of the Mind”. The exciting thing about this program is that it coaches children to help them create more elaborate and sophisticated play scenarios: complex, extended scenarios that involve multiple children and last for hours. And the surprising thing about this program is that the researchers who created it, Deborah Leong and Elena Bodrova, argue that this kind of play leads to better self-regulation. And there’s a ton of research showing that increased self regulation is associated with better learning and stronger academic outcomes in primary school.

There are some pressures in some preschools to play less and to focus on academic content more. Tools of the Mind rejects that approach, and says that if you want better academic outcomes the best thing for children to do is engage in play. Why? Here’s where the creative improvisational nature of play is important: it’s simply not the case that “anything goes,” that children just do whatever they want. When a child pretends to be a daddy, he has to follow all of the rules associated with what “being a daddy” means. Of course, the children are still learning things like “how to enact a spaceman” and “how to enact a fireman,” and they often have different ideas about how to do it. So they end up negotiating with each other about how to play. And this negotiation gets them thinking about how to act and why.

Ultimately, group improvisation is an incredibly valuable learning experience for children.

*The Make-Believe Solution. By Paul Tough, pp. 31-35

4 thoughts on “Child’s Play

  1. This is super interesting, and makes a ton of sense. I know that in teaching improvisation to young adults, I find that a big part of learning to “play” is learning to focus so that the playing makes sense and is more enjoyable. I imagine the extended play scenarios require an increased level of focus, and it’s a much more enjoyable way to practice the skill of focus than having a teacher berate you at your desk for not working hard/fast/quiet enough.

    I know several people that came to improv as young adults having grown up with attention disorders, only to learn a level of focus through improv that they had never known before.

  2. There’s a small tradition of research that explores how preschool teachers can help to make preschoolers’ play more involved and more effective. This goes back to the 1980s, at least. And it’s inspired by research showing that the amount and complexity of play is related to, for example, more rapid acquisition of literacy skills in first grade and beyond. But this new study is impressive in claiming to enable the play to go on for HOURS.

  3. […] are lots of commentators who talk about the benefits of play and of having fun, yes, even at work!: Keith Sawyer, Alex Kjerulf. And it’s not a new theme for me either. I’ve written about it before […]

  4. I’m so glad that these new (old) ideas are gaining more strength now that I have a baby… Because the idea of having her grow up in an environment where fellow moms send their 18 months old kids to Chinese lessons (I met that mom recently) to give them a competitive edge is scary. And even though one of our favorite imaginative play themes as kids was “Inkas performing human sacrifice on our living room table”, I do think that I learned more by pretend-playing than by sitting down and doing my homework. šŸ™‚

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