Facebook is awash with fantastic memes about the necessity of play in early childhood. I adore seeing them. I also feel some anxiousness because I have noticed that, in a play-based program, five- year old children aren't playing like five-year old children anymore. More of them are playing like three's and four's than I used to see. This has made me anxious and uncomfortable, and grasping for explanations.
While I was looking for an article about Vygotsky for the Infant and Toddler course I teach for my community college, I found this article about play and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the fancy, early childhood development term for self-control. Self-regulation skills are developmental. You wouldn't expect to see a two-year old play by planning the role she would take with another two, then verbalizing what she wanted to do, consulting with her friend. You laugh, if you know two's! They just go in there and do what they do. Self-regulation is a complex of skills that children develop. An infant develops the skill of self-soothing. She is managing her feelings--something she couldn't do at birth. A two can be taught about feelings and how to identify them so that they gradually (some teachers might say hopefully) learn to identify them on their own and, as their verbal skills mature, express them. Adults facilitate this process and work to give the child choices that validate her feelings and problem-solving abilities. This is partly how self-regulation develops.
The authors that sparked my thinking articulate that Vygotsky and his students noticed fours and fives maturing through imaginary play. That play developed increasingly complex interactions, and that these interactions motivated children to inhibit impulsiveness in order to continue to play with their friends. They validated my observations by writing that today's play studies show children are playing at a less mature level than they once did. Imaginary play does not develop. It becomes repetitive, stereotyped, and stunted. The authors speculate briefly that perhaps academic preschool and kindergarten, with their narrowly focused curricula, have created this phenomenon, but their focus is on assessing play, not coming up with theories about how it has degenerated into more primitive skills.
Years ago, there were justifiable concerns that videos of movies reduced children's play to verbatim retellings, with no variation. Many of my colleagues have noticed this. Ninja Turtles can only do what Ninja Turtles do. Ad nauseum. Disney "princesses" can only do what they do in movies. Frozen--Oy!--Frozen characters are cast in the stone of their plot. A girl asked me to be Elsa, recently. I playfully asked her, "Who's Elsa?" She walked away. I didn't know the plot. Could media be the culprit?
I don't know why preschool pretend play has lost its maturity. I don't know why children often don't plan scenarios, talk about their roles, or come up with alternative story arcs. I do know that what the authors ultimately conclude is that adult involvement--setting up dramatic play areas that aren't always the same, involving themselves in the play, skillfully developing children's ideas and adding what will help them progress--has been lost. Teachers think that "providing materials", or "setting up play spaces" is enough. "Look at what they are doing! They are playing!" For children who are on iPads at home, who watch Star Wars, and play scenes from the movies, more is needed. My bent leads me to conclude that the Reggio way of observing children, documenting their learning, providing "provocations" for more discoveries, and validating their trains of thought makes actual mature play and thererfore learning through play possible.
Children learn through play when adults involve themselves as both actors and behind-the-scenes facilitators. Teachers take note!