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