Friday, August 17, 2012

Dramatic Play: The Perfect Play or a Poor Substitute for Reality?

There's been a lot of information going around lately about giving kids "dramatic play" opportunities. One article that has been circulating through my facebook feed tells about a correlation between the lack of dramatic play and the increase in preschool expulsions. While I can understand how they drew that conclusion, I think there are better ways to let children experience the same benefits.
Dramatic play is almost always a reenactment of something children have seen others do, so if we can give them real things instead of play things, that is better. Who needs to pretend when you can do it for real? Montessori discovered this through observation a hundred years ago - many of the same misconceptions were popular then as now, and she tried all of the common "wisdom" as well as her own ideas. She found that once children had reasonably developed abilities of concentration, they consistently chose real objects and real work over pretend objects and pretend work. Only after observing this repeatedly did she remove the toys from the environment.
One early childhood education website states, "Dramatic play permits children to fit the reality of the world into their own interests and knowledge." This supports the benefits of offering real materials as much as possible, as long as there is an appropriate use for them in the child's life. The same site also says, "Opportunities for dramatic play that are spontaneous, child-initiated, and open-ended are important for all young children." And again, this is something that real tools can provide just as readily.
Of course, sometimes they will have read a book, or seen a picture, or watched a television program including something that just isn't, realistically, a part of their life. This is where imagination can come in most effectively. If they want to pretend to be a prince or princess (for example) and they want a crown, we can let them explore different ways to make one. Then they are using their idea of what a crown is, and imagining how to create it with materials that are accessible. If we simply give them a crown, we deprive them of the opportunity to be creative , and we limit their imagination. Montessori did speak highly of imagination, but only as far as it can help someone achieve their goals. If it doesn't help achieve a goal - if it can't be used in the real world - then for all intents and purposes imagination is an escape from reality. I think we need to be careful about promoting that.
This also brings fantasy play into question. While fantasy is often included in dramatic play, it is only because adults have introduced children to it initially - a child who has never heard of unicorns won't use them in pretend play. Therefore, the element of fantasy used in pretend play are based on what adults think children are interested in, instead of what we observe that children are interested in... and children are interested in almost everything! We don't need to manufacture a false reality to hold their attention. In fact, it does them a disservice, because when children are young, they are still learning about reality. Introducing fantasy before they can comprehend the difference just makes sorting things out more difficult later.
When people speak about the importance of dramatic play, what they really mean is that children need outlets to help process what they have observed and experiment with it. They also mean that children need to be able to direct their own activity at least part of the time, which is really what allows them to process and experiment. These statements I agree with wholeheartedly - what I disagree with is the need for fantasy or for dramatic play objects.
The benefits are more apparent with real materials, which respond to their use in an accurate way. For example, a child using a plastic drill won't actually drill anything, and won't have any opportunities to learn about the function, proper use, or control of a drill. A child who is shown how to use a real drill and given freedom (with supervision) to drill into real wood gets a much richer experience without losing the benefits. Real activities that don't require such close supervision, such as vacuuming, are even better because the child doesn't need an adult to be available in order to do the activity.
Of course, we shouldn't discourage child-initiated dramatic play based on media, but we also shouldn't provide props that are designed to be used a specific way. Instead, we should encourage the child to come up with his own ways of making them out of what is available to him, and let him decide what props he needs to complete his play.
Unfortunately, there's one big problem with the idealistic concept I just presented: children see those kinds of toys at other people's houses, on television, in the stores, and so on. Almost every time he sees them they are portrayed as the most awesome, amazing toy that he has to have or miss out on everything worth living for. And, since I can't advocate for creating a family of shut-ins, I know you're going to encounter them. So what do you do? I guess you just have to use your best judgment on what to let in and what to keep out, based on your family's value system. If you have any ideas about how to do this, please share with other readers in the comment section!
Now, don't get me wrong - there are definitely worse things out there than fantasy and dramatic play. I do think, however, that it is important to let it be child initiated and child directed every time.

Welcome to Montessori Moments, a blog written for Dynamite Montessori School in Cave Creek, Arizona. If you'd like to check out our school, please visit Dynamite's website.