By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
This week’s reflection centers on play. It doesn’t take very long following a structured activity for play to take over. By definition, play is unstructured (although there are definitely patterns in a child’s play), so it makes sense for a child to revert to play as a break from more school-like activities. Experts explain that play is necessary for a child to make sense of the structure of the world. Play is also defined as self-directed, implying that a child controls its course. This is another reason that our homeschool time is often balanced between planned and unplanned activities as we trade off control between the adult and the child, as well as back and forth between the two children. When children play together, which is the best way to learn social skills, the structure must be agreed upon, and the control must be shared.
Play and Sensemaking
Observe children at pretend play. This could be taking on a role to make believe one is a parent, a princess, a business proprietor, or a seafaring pirate. When a child is in a pretend role it is a chance to operate on principles that have been collected from experience about specific roles and behaviors. For example, a business proprietor collects a fee for goods or services. Whether a child is playing the role of seller or buyer, real world experiences have an influence on the transaction. The behavior of a princess or pirate is more likely to come from media experience – a book or movie – that induces a child to imitate the grandeur and adventurousness of these roles. A child’s imagination gets added to the known principles about what pirates or princesses do, with good guesses as to how the story should unfold. Even fantasy needs to make sense.
Play is also at play when a child is experimenting with science principles. Our fifth grader has “energy and motion” including “potential kinetic energy” on the list of science topics. Thus my suggestion to make a domino run. Of course there’s no wrong way to make a domino run, so long as the upright blocks are positioned close enough, and at a proper angle, to knock each other down. Isaac Newton made sense of this principle by stating, “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by another force.” Both the second grader and the fifth grader tried their hands at setting up a run, with disappointing results. That wasn’t much fun. So we moved on. Maybe we’ll try again another day.
Play and Problem Solving
Making a puppet show was the second grader’s idea. As often happens at Bubbie’s homeschool, what started as an activity by one student soon became a shared activity. And as is often the case with play, the players proceeded to create problems that needed to be solved. What materials to use? What characters to create? What plotlines to follow? What new characters to be added? What twists to keep the story going? How to set up seating for the audience? How to resolve the story and end the show?
I enjoyed my supporting role in all this – mostly staying out of the way, but especially getting to be the audience. This activity was definitely controlled by the children.
Play and Social Animals
Often the students will play together. Since the pandemic has severely limited their ability to interact with other children, it’s nice to see how well they get along. Among social animals, particularly mammals, play is important for bonding as well as teaching and practicing skills for survival. In studies on humans, it has been observed that brain activity “syncs up” between two people interacting with each other. The Princeton Baby Lab used neuroimaging to record synchronous neural activity in the brains of parent-child pairs as they played together. The strongest syncing up occurred in the part of the brain that takes care of learning and planning. Being in sync not only supports instruction, as when one student is sharing a new technique for puppet-making, but also supports cooperation in achieving a mutually satisfying goal.
Of course there are opportunities to learn and practice conflict negotiation when two puppeteers craft and put on a show together. They were eager to quickly settle each conflict by taking turns, finding an item to trade, merging ideas, or other civil means in order to move ahead with the project at hand.
I can’t think of any skills more important to master in childhood.
Dr. Wood will be Keynote Speaker and one of the workshop facilitators for parents and early childhood professionals at a one-day conference, Come Outside – Where Learning is Great! at Chesapeake Children’s Museum on Saturday, October 23.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.