“I’m the astronaut. Let’s pretend the blocks are the space shuttle.”
“I’m the mommy; you’re the big sister.”
Children mature as they play. Children grow as they stretch their minds. Major developmental milestones are achieved through fantasy play. You will hear this referred to in our classrooms and by your teachers as “dramatic play.” Children use these play contexts to explore the culture they find themselves a part of, and more so, to grow into it. How, and why, does this happen?
The psychological tools of culture are readily apparent to children as they peer out from their young eyes at the big world. They see grown-ups having discussions and negotiating, empathizing and turn-taking, giving and receiving directions, using materials to alter their environment, and so much more. The young child eagerly observes and tried to understand. But the child does not passively receive these cultural tools; they are not flawlessly transmitted from adult to child. He sees adults negotiating difference of opinion, and needs to engage in this with peers; he sees adults use materials to create the environment they plan for, and needs to engage in this with peers. He needs to try these behaviors in a play setting before he learns how to do them in a practical setting.
Think of when you tell your child that it’s time for dinner, and he watches as you set the table. He is realizing that words, actions, and artifacts are all synthesized by the adult in a swift pattern of behavior. He needs a chance to replicate this in a play scenario; the next morning you might see him setting up dolls and figures, “playing” dinner. Often we hear from you that your children “play school” at home; they are exploring the behaviors they see their teachers and classmates enact in the classroom, and finding safe ways to approximate them for themselves.
Children use play to explore, replicate, extend, and modify these cultural behaviors in a low-pressure context. Maturation from toddlerhood to childhood, from childhood to adolescence, and on (one day they are even adults!) does not take place at a magically predetermined biological age. A host of highly regarded and interdisciplinary scholars agree that dramatic play is the critical context in which this maturation takes place. Fantasy play can be appropriately labeled as the lubrication that allows for smooth and healthy growth. Children emerge from extended play experiences (extended for us means lengthy periods of time each day and returning to the same topics routinely throughout the year) with a more mature sense of themselves and their culture.
What tools do children need in order to engage in this learning through play? You! Us! Our role in this is to regularly provide our children with prompts: “I’m pretending to be ___; who will you be?” “Let’s pretend the couch is an airplane, and take a trip!” Our children need us to provide them with materials: open-ended fabrics, blocks, and odds and ends that can easily be transformed: “This paper-towel roll is a magic wand,” “I’m pretending my dish towel is a picnic blanket!”
What do your children play at home? What cultural behaviors and tools are they exploring?