While attending the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Early Childhood International Conference in Portland, I attended session after session on play. Why it is important, how to teach it, what to teach, and how to support families in playing with their children. One of the most fascinating sessions I attended was on Project Play, a research study out of Northeastern University.
In this project the researchers have been studying the different developmental stages of play with objects. They have found that how children manipulate objects during play develops in a series of stages, and that this development is clear whether or not a child has a disability. It is important, then, to support children in play where they are, and help them move to the next developmental play stage, without skipping over play stages, as children need to experience all the stages to move on. This work resonates with Stanley Greenspan’s work on DIR/Floortime, and I was fascinated to seem the similarities in the research findings.
The work also had me thinking about how we look at childhood and elementary school itself. This was my second early childhood conference of the year, and in each conference play has been honored as an essence of childhood. The field of early childhood understands the importance of play in a child’s development. But how are the rest of us doing when children move from early childhood to the middle years? We no longer honor play as an essence to healthy development, but see it as something that will give children a break from a hard day of work. Yet for many children, the play in itself may be exhausting, because play is where their real developmental work takes place.
The findings of Project Play stuck me as well, because once children enter elementary school we start talking about age appropriate play, and age appropriate toys. Yet a child with developmental delays, who is following the developmental play trajectory, is going to miss out on steps in his development if he is forced to experience age appropriate toys and experiences. Instead, he needs developmentally appropriate play opportunities, with an adult who can carefully guide him up the developmental chain. Forcing a child to play with an age appropriate toy, or play an age appropriate game at recess, may make the child look like he is typically developing, but in fact is denying the child an opportunity to develop the missing skills. Of course, we don't want the child to stick out as different and subject them to bullying either, so we need to be mindful in how we choose to create developmental play opportunities for older children.
Object play is where children learn much of their visual-spatial processing skills, which prove to be essential when a child needs to be able to determine the beginning and ending of a word when reading, or to be able to manipulate numbers within a written math problem. Symbolic play, where items represent real-world items, like when a set of blocks becomes a fort, or a plastic doll becomes an animated person, supports children’s development of symbolic reasoning and ideas. In symbolic, dramatic joint play, we learn to accept another’s idea and add on to it in our play. We experience cognitive flexibility, and coping strategies. These are all skills that we need for healthy executive functioning skills, as well as being able to understand scientific reasoning, complex math problems, and comprehend literature.
But if we are forcing children to skip these play stages, or not giving them time to experience these play stages at all, what are we doing to their development? We can teach something that looks like dramatic play, but is it a full understanding of dramatic play that is also helping the child develop cognitive flexibility? Or is it simply that the child is following the set of play rules we put out for them, because this is how to make them look like their peers?