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Child Caring

The value of pretend play

Hi Barbara,
I was at a recent meeting of preschool directors and in the course of discussion about parents and parenting, a colleague recalled a wonderful article by "that columnist who used to write for Globe." I said, do you mean Barbara Meltz? "YES!"

The article was, "When a box is not a box." Everyone wants to read it again. Everyone misses your articles.

From: Carol Mersky, director, Temple Emanuel Preschool, Newton, MA

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Dear Carol,

Happy to oblige and thanks for the kind words.

Here's the article, it's from January 28, 1999. I know it's a bunch of years ago, but I don't think it's lost any of its value.

[By way of updates, psychologist Jerome Singer, who I quoted in this column, has since died. Mary Mindess, a mentor to many, including me, retired last year from Lesley University where a scholarship has been established in her name. Edgar Klugman founded Playing for Keeps which is now an initiative of the Association of Children's Museums.]


PRETEND PLAY ENRICHES DEVELOPMENT
By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff

In years gone by, children in Cheryl Silveira's family daycare in Windham, N.H., would get very excited if she found a refrigerator box. They could play for hours pretending it was a boat or a house or maybe a space ship.
This year, when she proudly plunked a refrigerator box into the play area, the children's response was far different.
``They didn't do anything,'' says Silveira. ``When I said, `Wow! Isn't this a great box, we can pretend all kinds of things with this!' they said, `But it's just a box.' ''
Silveira crawled inside and pretended it was a school bus. The six children, ages 1 1/2 to 5, were happy to crawl in and out with her but, says a disappointed Silveira, ``They never got carried away with it. It never was more than a box to them.''
When a box is only a box, preschoolers may be in trouble.
The ability to create make-believe worlds lays the foundation for academic learning and healthy development, according to researchers. ``Being able to pretend is not a luxury, it's a necessity,'' says Yale University psychologist Jerome Singer. One of the nation's leading authorities on children's play and coauthor of a classic on the subject, ``House of Make Believe'' (Harvard University Press), Singer is sad but not surprised to hear what's happening in Silveira's Bugle Bear Day Care. Unfortunately, he hears it from teachers all over the country.
Martha Smith, who runs a three-day-a-week laboratory preschool at Ipswich High School as part of the child development curriculum, sees the lack of imagination most in children's artwork. ``It used to be that kids would prefer a blank piece of paper for coloring and they'd create elaborate stories to go with the drawing. Now,'' she says, ``they either want a coloring book or they want us to tell them what to draw.'' Smith, who has worked with preschoolers for seven years, laments, ``They look to the adults for how things should be rather than pretend how they'd like them to be.''
There's no single, overarching reason why teachers are seeing less pretend play.
Silveira attributes it to too much TV and computer time. Singer says it's that, plus too many programmed activities at too young an age, and overworked parents with too little time to play. Early childhood educator Mary Mindess of Lesley College has another theory.
``Society in general doesn't value play as a learning process,'' she says. ``We want results, as in test results, so we push academics too early, letters and words at age 3. The message kids get is that pretending isn't valuable.''
Perhaps the best way for adults to understand pretend play is to think of it as a filter that enables young children to view the complicated pieces of their world up close and transform them into pieces they can manage. Because it is every-day experiences that loom largest, these are what children most need to examine and own.
Consider how the preschooler watches several times a day as mom stops what she's doing and gets very busy in the kitchen with her noisy, shiny objects. What is she doing? Why can't she play anymore? This must be very important.
By playing kitchen herself, a preschooler not only imitates the role of mom, she becomes mom, says early childhood educator Edgar Klugman. ``First, she studies the person. Then she imitates the actions, even the speech and movements. The more mom engages with her -- `To scramble an egg, I crack it against a bowl' -- the more a child learns rules of the role,'' he says.
The more imagination a child brings to the play, the richer the experience. Indeed, research shows that elaborate imaginary play leads to increased language comprehension, vocabulary, problem-solving skills, attention span, cooperation, empathy, and social skills, according to Klugman, a professor at Wheelock College who is known for his research on children's imaginary play.
On the other side of the coin, research shows that children who have little or poor experience with imaginary play are more aggressive in later years, have less self-control and less success with learning.
The positive payoffs begin to accrue as early as kindergarten and first grade and continue through adulthood, says Klugman. ``Without the rich experience of imaginary play as a child, an adult is very limited. Leaders tend to have had very good play experiences,'' he says.
Here's how make-believe play fosters development in three areas:
** Emotionally. ``Because a child plays out feelings as well as roles, it has a cathartic effect: The things he's worried about will play out,'' says Mindess, who is coordinator and founder of the New England Kindergarten Conference.
Perhaps he was in a car accident with daddy. In his play, he'll re-create the accident over and over, she says, until he has control of the events and the feelings are less scary. Parents typically don't even realize this is happening, partly because we're too literal and don't recognize the play for what it is, says Mindess, and partly because children don't need realistic props. ``They're very good at using objects as symbols, a block for a car, for instance,'' she says.
** Intellectually. As he observes something and acts it out, he learns about it. Every week, the 4-year-old goes to the grocery store. At first, he is intrigued by the cashier, then watchful of him. One day in his imaginary play, he is the cashier. The next trip to the store, he watches more carefully because his play has made him more aware of nuances. He sees something he didn't see before, perhaps the numbers on the register. Next time in his play, he says to the make-believe customer, ``You owe me 10-teen dollars.''
``Even though there's a misunderstanding in the learning, it doesn't matter, because it's a self-correcting process,'' says Mindess. ``He'll learn correct numbers another time. What's more important is that the pretending gives the brain the opportunity to make more and more links.'' The more links there are, the more information the brain can take in, and that makes a child more open to more experiences. In other words, Mindess says, the concrete provides the basis for pretend play, but the pretending helps a child make it her own and learn.
** Morally. Because children use play to work through their own issues, pretending may start off as imitation but quickly branch out to reflect a child's perceptions. It's in this way that values get absorbed, says Mindess. She gives an example of a preschooler with a new-born brother who is caring for her doll, much like mommy cares for the baby, except that suddenly she hits the doll and says, ``You're a bad baby!'' It's through that process, she says, that a child's conscience develops: She's working out for herself the moral value of knowing it's wrong to hit the baby at the same time she's coping with feelings of jealousy. ``Without the opportunity to hit the doll, the feelings are pent up and the child won't be as free to incorporate the positive values,'' or to keep from acting on the negative ones, says Mindess.
The more parents or caregivers can engage in pretend play with a child, the more likely it is a child will make believe on her own, and the more learning will occur. ``Sometimes you just need to provide objects and show an interest,'' says Klugman. Other times, as with the children in Silveira's care, ``You have to literally show them,'' says Singer.
It takes energy, interest, and know-how and some parents are either clueless or uncomfortable with pretending. It's so important, though, that Singer has a new project in New Haven to teach low-income parents how to encourage imaginary play. Most popular is the restaurant game:
``You imagine you're in a restaurant and you sit at the table and you take turns being the waiter and the customer: `Oh, I have two friends with me, so I need three seats.' Suddenly your child's not just having fun playing with you, he's learning numbers and words, like appetizer, and he's learning social amenities,'' says Singer. ``We pitch that it helps with school readiness, which it does,'' he says.
But it's even more basic than that. Pretend play is practice of real-life skills. ``It's a rehearsal,'' says Mindess.

TIPS: GAMES CHILDREN PLAY
1. As important as it is for parents to be encouraging and involved in pretend play, it's also important to back off once her imagination is ignited. There's no bigger damper to creativity than a parent who takes over the play.
2. Children don't need store-bought toys for pretend play. Improvising with whatever is around the house is often better.
3. Observing a child's pretend play can give you a window into the issues she's working on, but even if you don't like what you see, don't scold her for the content of her play. If it's troublesome to you, talk to a professional about it.
4. There's nothing wrong with a 3-year-old who only piles blocks up and knocks them down, but you can try to engage his imagination with a story around his play: ``Once there was a big tall tower that was the biggest building in the city, but one day there was a giant who had such a powerful sneeze he could make buildings fall down. One day he had a terrible cold. . .''
5. By age 4, children typically engage peers in elaborate pretend play where they use props. Interacting with each other -- ``Don't you know waiters don't say that?!'' -- they learn from each other ways to interpret various roles.
6. Reading daily to your child or telling her stories is the best way to encourage pretend play.