“Play is the work of the child.” -Maria Montessori(1)
A child’s play, from the earliest days of interaction with their parent or caregiver, is supporting the child’s brain development and function. Play is the fundamental manner by which children gather and process information, learn new skills, and practice old skills(2). Imaginative play has free rein to create scenarios, imitate others or made-up characters, and transform a stick into a magic wand.
Perhaps even more importantly, play allows a child to express taboo emotions, release tension, and explore anxieties, all in the guise of pretending it isn’t the child doing any of it. Only in play may a child legitimately discover his or her capabilities in certain spheres: jumping from a tall building (off the bed); screaming at full tilt (calling for help); defending the home (from marauders).
Lev Vygotsky was one of the most influential child educators of the 20th century. Regarding the pretending (above), Vygotsky believed that in play, “The child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behavior; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself. Play contains in a concentrated form, as in the focus of a magnifying glass, all developmental tendencies; it is as if the child tries to jump above his usual level.”(4)
He wrote at length about how teachers must support the next step for a child learning a skill, especially when playing(3). He said, “The teacher must adopt the role of facilitator, not content maker.”(4)
Let’s do just that; allowing the child’s natural desire to play — and thus to explore, to create, to develop — be his way to grow into all he can be.
Gotta go to work, Ma!
(2) Kostelnick, Soderman, & Whiren. (2011). Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum, 5th ed. New Jersey: Pearson.