Somewhere in the history of human civilization play and learning got separated. Until recently, this was unfortunate but not devastating. Now, it is, because play is rapidly being removed from our culture. Many children have no recess, physical education or free play time in school. Most well-to-do and middle class teens have lessons after school (which can turn playing at something into working at it). Most poor teens have none and no places to play. Adults work, or look for work. Play has become a luxury that, in hard times, we can’t afford. The decline of play in our daily lives is happening in spite of all the research that shows play is vital to healthy human functioning.
Psychologists have long known that babies and pre-school children learn and develop through their social, imaginative and improvisational play. Adults encourage them to play and play “at”—to try new things, to stretch, to do what they do not yet “know” how to do. We praise them for playing grown up by creatively imitating what those around them do without regard to correctness. We delight in them performing as characters other than and beyond who they are. We relate to them not just as what they are capable of at the moment but simultaneously as who and what they are becoming.
For most psychologists and educators the value of play is that it facilitates the learning of social-cultural roles. Through acting out roles (play-acting), children “try out” the roles they will soon take on in “real life.” I agree 100%. But I believe that there’s more developmental mileage we get from playing than that. And it has to do with what Lev Vygotsky identified as the paradox of play, specifically, pretend play. Here’s the paradox: when children are pretending, they are least like what they are pretending to be! When they play school they are least like teachers and students because teachers and students in school are not playing at being teachers and students, but rather acting out their societally determined roles. Children playing school, or Mommy and Daddy, or Harry Potter and Dumbledore, are not acting out predetermined roles. They’re creating new performances of themselves—at once the playwrights, directors and performers. They’re creating their development and learning (with our help and support, of course).
Even more, they’re playing and performing and pretending pretty much full time all day long, not only when they’re doing what adults call pretend play. They babble and we respond as if they’re speaking our language. We relate to them as speakers when they’re not (yet). We perform conversation with them. They scribble on paper or books (or walls) and we smile in delight and tell them how beautiful their picture of a tree or of Mommy is.
The linking of play with theatrical performance, and then linking that with development is an exciting and very promising new area of research and practice. Hundreds in the US and around the globe are working to understand the developmental potential of play in this new way, as performed activity. One thing that’s especially exciting about this is how the interest goes beyond early childhood in recognizing the varieties and value of developmental play throughout the life span. From organizations of play researchers and play advocates, to community organizations offering play and creative activities, to scholars, educators, youth development workers and life coaches, people are playing with play. You can find them through a Google search or contact me for some of my favorite sites, programs and people.