Why Pretend Play?

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”  Mr. Rogers said it and nobody I know would argue that Mr. Rogers didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to children.  However, if the word of a lifelong student of child development and an expert in play isn’t authoritative enough for you, he’s backed by some pretty heavy hitters in the field, including the American Academy of Pediatrics 2006 Report on the Importance of Play (hereafter referred to as the AAP Report) and no less than the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, which considers play to be so important to optimal child development that it has recognized it as a right of every child.

But why is play so important?  Where to begin?  Play is fundamental to the development of the whole child; play affects growth in cognitive development, language acquisition, physical motor skills, and social and emotional development.   There is not a developmental facet of the child that is not beneficially impacted by regular opportunities for play.  But, is all play equal?

Let’s start with that question:  is all play equal?  The answer is no; all play is not equal.  There are very distinctive differences in adult directed vs. child directed play, in structured, achievement oriented vs. spontaneous, open-ended play and in passive entertainment (television, computers, video games) vs. active engagement (with what the AAP Report refers to as ‘true toys’, such as blocks or dolls that require use of imagination).  It should be said that all play has value, but the benefits of certain kinds of play over others is supported by a Mt. Everest magnitude of evidence.

Let’s begin by evaluating the difference between adult directed and child directed play.  When the adult leads, the child is the follower.  The adult is the decision maker and the child is the follower.  The adult is flexing his/her creative mind and imagination and the child is the follower.  I’m sure you pick up the thread here.  While children no doubt enjoy the attention from and interaction with the adults in their  lives, they learn most about themselves and the world they inhabit through self-created experiences. When play is child-driven, they learn to negotiate roles with other children: who will play the teacher and who will play the student.  They learn how to take the initiative; to exercise critical thinking skills and their imaginations to make decisions that lead the play constructs. The AAP Report emphasizes that “all children need free, undirected play for creative growth, self-reflection and decompression.”

Structured, achievement oriented play likewise does not present children with the same opportunities for growth as spontaneous, open-ended play does.  Cognitive skills are expanded as a child’s brain constructs a storyline out of an open-ended environment.  Without a pre-determined outcome, spontaneous play offers infinite possibilities for exploring multiple storylines with an ever changing cast of characters; there are no expectations or already established set of rules, reducing the pressure to conform to an expected outcome and making room for exploration and discovery.  Becoming a master of their own environments produces feelings of enhanced competency and a corresponding boost in confidence that leads to independence.

So what’s the big deal about hours of couch surfing while brain cell deep in Spongebob Squarepants  anyway?  Well, for one thing, active play builds active, healthy bodies, whereas couch surfing may lead to a sedentary lifestyle that opens the door to health issues including obesity.  Active play also requires a level of engagement that offers opportunities for the brain to act on the environment.  Conversely, staring slack-jawed and drooling at flickering dots of light configured to appear on screen as your heart’s fondest desire requires the barest minimum of cognitive function and offers little opportunity for creating new neural pathways.  The bad news is that in early childhood, watching television constantly at the expense of play has been proven numerous times over to have a serious effect on neuroplasticity, or the way the child’s brain develops.  I’m sure you can guess that the effect is a detrimental one.  In analyzing childrens’ EEGs, a research team publishing their study in Science Daily in 2008 found that “those with higher language and cognitive abilities had correspondingly higher gamma power than those with poorer language and cognitive scores. Similarly, children with better attention and inhibitory control, the ability to moderate or refrain from behavior when instructed, also had higher gamma power.”  And what does television do?  Lower, significantly, gamma wave activity in the brain.

“It has been noted for some time that television can be mesmerizing for young children and that even children with attention deficit disorder, who can pay attention to little else for meaningful periods of time, can stay focused on television.  One of the central ways that television succeeds in maintaining the attention of children is through the ‘orienting response’ [also known as involuntary attention: high alert, low focus, negligible gamma wave activity]. First described by Pavlov in 1927, the orienting response can be thought of as the “what’s that?” reflex. Simply put, it’s our brains keen interest in something that is new or unexpected.”  Dimitri Christakis, MD MPH,Pediatrics For Parents .  In simplest terms, it’s the ‘formal features’ of the programming: the camera cuts, pans, zooms and the constantly changing visual images that have engaged the child’s brain to a greater degree than the programming content itself.

In her paper The Role of Pretend Play in Childrens’ Cognitive Development, Doris Bergen of Miami University notes that “pretend play requires the ability to transform objects and actions symbolically; it is furthered by interactive social dialogue and negotiation; and it involves role taking, script knowledge, and improvisation. Many cognitive strategies are exhibited during pretense, such as joint planning, negotiation, problem solving, and goal seeking.”  Further, Occupational Therapist, Karen Stagnitti, Ph.D., BOccThy, GCHE, reinforces that “pretend play is strongly linked to language, narrative language, abstract thought, problem solving, logical sequential thought, creation of stories, social competence with peers, understanding a social situation, integration of emotional, social and cognitive skills, and the ability to play with others in the role of a ‘player’.”   It boils down to this:  slower brainwaves, lower cognition, lower ability to focus, social isolation and fewer neural pathways for future use versus faster brainwaves, higher cognition, better ability to focus, social competence and infinite possibilities for new neural pathways for future use.  I know what sounds better to me.

It has been so interesting to observe some of the developmental benefits of pretend play with our own eyes since opening BusyKidz.  One child in particular has been a constant visitor during our first several months, so we’ve had the opportunity to observe the changes over time.  She is a four year old girl.  She goes to school three half days a week and is an only child, so, understandably, with fewer options for social engagement with peers, she had challenges in the area of social competence.  She had a lot of difficulty with waiting for a turn, sharing, joint planning, saying please and thank you, and asking for turns before grabbing things from other children.   During her first visit, she played alone, became angry when other children entered ‘her’ territory and played with ‘her’ toys, and several times yelled at or made faces at them when they did.  In subsequent visits, she learned to tolerate the presence of other kids in a shared space, primarily through interaction with the children themselves who ignored her (or said, “I can play here too” and then just did), but also with some scaffolding from her parents, the other childrens’ parents and in one or two more intense confrontations, from us.  She still didn’t want to engage with anyone who was interested in taking the lead and directing play, but over time, she began to ask questions about what the other kids were doing, tell them about what she was doing,  make comments on their activities, offer suggestions, follow them as they moved from room to room playing ‘near’ them.

After a few more weeks elapsed, she was greeting new arrivals, introducing herself, and asking them if they wanted to play, but still not offering them many opportunities to plan or direct the play and still saying unkind things or making faces if unhappy with her partner’s performance.  During that time, I observed an interaction that I think demonstrates the power of young peers in increasing social skills…our little friend (we’ll call her OLF) wanted a turn on the cash register in the market that an older girl (we’ll call her OG) was using.  The discussion went like this:

OLF: “I want to use that.  Give it to me.”
OG:  “I’m using it right now; you have to wait your turn.”
OLF: “I want to use it now.”
OG:  “you didn’t say please.  If you want someone to listen to you, you have to be nice.”
OLF (predictably):  “I want to use it now, please.”
OG: “I will let you know when I am finished with my turn and then you can have it.”
OLF stuck her tongue out at OG.
OG: “that is not nice.  Do you want me to tell you when I’m finished or not?”
OLF: “yes.”
OG:  “yes, what?”
OLF: “yes, please.”
OG:  “ok.  I will.  I’m almost finished.”
OLF:  “ok.”
OLF turned around and started to walk away, then stopped and turned around:  “thank you.”

This peer interaction quickly accomplished what a parent or teacher can go blue in the face trying to explain.  Over the space of two months, we have observed a marked increase in OLF’s social competence.  While not quite at 100% consistency (what four year old is?), overall OLF has learned to be kinder and more polite in interactions with her peers, to offer a little more give in social negotiations, to be more patient in group play, and to engage with the group far more often than playing alone.

The AAP Report’s advice to pediatricians is that they promote free play as a “healthy, essential part of childhood” and that “all children [be] afforded ample, unscheduled, independent, non-screen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress.”

The AAP Report also notes that “time for free play has been markedly reduced” to the detriment of many children in today’s hustle and bustle of over-scheduling madness.  They go on to propose that this de-emphasis of play is due to a number of societal forces including changes in the traditional family structure, a hurried lifestyle, competition from passive forms of entertainment such as television, mobile internet access and video gaming systems, and increased attention to academic enrichment.  These are some of the challenges facing some of the more economically fortunate children, but there are children facing even bigger issues of limited family resources, neighborhood violence, and in other parts of the world, war, child labor and exploitation.

And yet, play is so essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children that it remains a critical challenge for parents to find the time and opportunities to engage in the kind of unstructured free play that fosters growth.

So, then, why pretend play you ask?  In her book Playing to Get Smart, Betty Jones, Ph.D. says that it’s because “children and adults who are skilled at play with both things and ideas, have the power, influence and capacity to create meaningful lives.”  Or perhaps it’s because of all of the serious implications to a child’s development as espoused herein by pediatricians, child educators, experts in child development and U.N. Commissions.

But if all that is just so much gobbeldy gook to you, then how about this, boiled down to absolute simplicity…because it’s just plain, good old fashioned fun.

All facts, figures, science, and analysis aside, playing pretend is one of the most beloved and enduring engagements of childhood.  Children watch and absorb the adult world their parents inhabit and love nothing more than to emulate what it is that they think is happening it that world.  Their interpretations are endearing and sometimes both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious to watch unfold.  This is serious and meaningful work they are accomplishing here, but the work is so much fun, they’ll  hardly know it.

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