Professionals who work with young children have always recognized the importance of play. When watching children interact in an unstructured, open-ended setting they are directing, one can see development in action. You hear their vocabulary growing and you see their interactions becoming more cooperative. Magically, you witness them discovering their own potential. As I’ve witnessed these interactions with children over the years, I felt they were just right somehow. It was what they should be doing; it all made sense. Recent advances in brain research have helped professionals like myself understand why academic play makes sense.
Skills Sets That Support Academic Play
The research I find most relevant to my work focuses on two skill sets: executive functioning and self-regulation. These skills account for the ability to follow directions, focus, communicate, think critically, make connections, regulate impulses, solve problems, take turns and exhibit self-control. Young children need to explore, use their senses, interact, touch and manipulate objects to help make sense of the world around them. Frequent opportunities to engage in open-ended play scenarios help to foster and grow all of the above-mentioned abilities. While soccer and ballet certainly have their own importance in providing fun and physical activity, dramatic and imaginative play offer an important role in the growth of a child’s mind.
Consider a simple game of playing family or doctor, two very popular themes with young children. Decisions must be made and roles must be assigned and assumed. Certain expectations and rules lead the play. Children must communicate in order for the play to move forward. Here’s how using the game of doctor as an example:
When playing doctor, it is somehow known that whoever pretends to be the M.D. must be gentle and caring (children rarely give aggressive shots to each other). The sick child must appear somewhat scared or nervous, and the doting parent must soothe. If the child pretending to be the doctor were to act nervous or scared, the play would come to a screeching halt. It just wouldn’t make sense to those involved. Many complex ideas must be kept in mind for the play to continue; the children must inhibit impulses that don’t fit the role.
The Teachers Role in Academic Play
While dramatic play is child-directed, this does not mean the teacher is not involved; It’s quite the opposite. The teacher’s role is to be right on the edge of the play – listening to the language being used and helping children move in and out of various play scenarios. Only then can you move them along. In the before mentioned game of doctor, body parts can be named, as well as the tools used by the doctor. The idea of a veterinarian can be introduced, suddenly everyone is running to get a stuffed animal to take care of!
Children love repetition; they will play the same idea day after day. To make the play more productive, it is the teacher’s job to make subtle suggestions that extend the idea. Persistence is a wonderful thing to instill in children. If the teacher can lead the children towards a deeper understanding of the world they are trying to figure out, a simple ten-minute game becomes a twenty or thirty-minute interaction.
The teacher’s role is to scaffold the play: ask questions, narrate what is being observed (vocabulary!), and take them to the next level until they are able to do it on their own. There is a place for everyone to join in. We want to grow thinking people who can develop plot and dialogue, and we want to help children bring ideas and characters to life.
How Academic Play Builds Vocabulary and Working Memory
Blocks are another great open-ended, child-directed activity. Zoos are often a favorite since they are easy to make. Enclose some animals in blocks, and there you have it. All it takes is one simple question from the teacher, “When do the people show up to see the animals?” Suddenly sidewalks are being built around the enclosures. As the people figures are added, the block structures are slowly reconfigured to include windows for viewing places. Signage may be added. Parking lots are built because the people must have driven to get there. The ideas deepen, different perspectives are taken, and their vocabulary grows.
Executive functioning requires working memory (the ability to retain information), cognitive flexibility (the ability to determine what is relevant), and inhibitory control (the ability to resist distractions). Play is the perfect vehicle to develop and grow all of these in an organic manner. Pretend play helps to promote the development of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that houses the executive functioning and self-regulation skills. Young children are not equipped to learn through a didactic approach, they learn best through play.
In sum, keeping play at the forefront of early childhood programs is paramount. What better way to set the stage for academic success than by giving a growing brain the opportunities it needs to develop naturally? Open-ended toys and games at home reinforce imagination and creativity. Remember how many hours you spent in your pillow fort on a rainy day, or chasing dragons through the woods? Powerful stuff!