Kids use play to learn about life and to explore the behavior of others. Play also helps children develop logical behavior and understand how to use cause-and-effect reasoning. Socio-dramatic play allows children to imitate life, although the actions may be different from what parents interpret as typical life. The play activities allow kids to be creative and use the imagination in make-believe scenarios. The critical value of play is so important to healthy development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights classifies it as "a right of every child."
Vygotsky and Elkonin
Educational theorists believe play teaches children intellectual thought and culture. Russian education psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky outlined a theory that included the idea that children learn to develop thought, language and behavior by interacting with others to form a view of life. The psychologist took the theory one step further to suggest play and interaction also transfer culture. Vygotsky's student and colleague Daniel Elkonin later used the theory in practical applications with children in a classroom setting to show support for his mentor's ideas.
Dramatic or symbolic play assists kids in learning language. Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called dramatic play one of the "purest forms of symbolic thought" for children, and the researcher believed dramatic exploration contributed directly to intellectual development. Dramatic and fantasy play doesn't require help from other children, but kids can play roles, perform puppetry, and use make-believe and pretend skits combined with other children. While some teachers attempt to create socio-dramatic and make-believe play through scripted skits, the learning experience typically takes place during impromptu and spontaneous play.
Language and Modeling
Vygotsky tied the language used by children during make-believe and dramatic play to intellectual growth. He also linked language development directly to all types of cognitive growth in early childhood, including the ability to plan, pay attention and memorize information. Children begin to learn by speaking aloud during imaginative play. As the child ages, however, the discussion becomes internal and automatic. Studies done by Vygotsky and other researchers show children involved in socio-dramatic and make-believe play with others make greater intellectual improvement after the play sessions if those others are kids with greater cognitive skills or adults.
The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families describes the brain development during the child's first three years as an "incredible" network of billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of synapses making connections between the brain cells. Multiple daily play sessions during the first few years of life give children important advantages in cognitive development. Play, including pretend play, provides the learning foundation to sort new information about how the world works and teaches children how to solve problems, according to the center's website "Zero to Three."
- National Association for the Education of Young Children: Assessing and Scaffolding -- Make-Believe Play
- Psychology Today: Beautiful Minds -- The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development
- University of Delaware: Make Believe Play -- Wellspring for Development of Self-Regulation
- Early Childhood Research and Practice: The Role of Pretend Play in Children's Cognitive Development
- Journal of Play: The Role of Make-Believe Play in the Development of Executive Function -- Status of Research and Future Directions
- Muskingum College Department of Psychology: Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky
- Pediatrics: The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds
- Western Illinois University: Dramatic Play
- Kansas University Department of Psychology: Cognitive Development in Early Childhood
- Zero to Three: Brain Development
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