The Importance of “Play”

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Research News You Can Use: Pretend Play Is Important but Its Role in Learning is Complex

A recent paper by Angeline Lillard and her colleagues at the University of Virginia about the role of pretend play in young children’s development questions the importance of play for young children. The release of the study and the headlines it has sparked suggest that play is not important in early childhood, that the field’s passion for play may be real, but its power in driving child development may not be. Looking at the report, however, reveals that the relationship is more complex. They report that while the weight of evidence does not suggest that pretend play is the sole or largest contributor to many early childhood outcomes, it does appear to play a role.

As is often the case, it is important to go beyond the headlines and look more closely at the paper itself. That is challenging with this particular paper, because it is extensive, demanding, and provocative. But it offers an important opportunity to really delve into the complexities that surround play and the research trying to define its role in the lives of young children.

What Did This Paper Do?

Lillard and colleagues set out to review all the research they could find that looks at the relationship between pretend play and a range of early childhood outcomes (including cognitive and academic, as well as social outcomes; they did not find a sufficient number of studies in some areas, like emotion regulation). They find that the research to date is filled with potential weaknesses, which they present in a thorough way. But looking across a number of studies, even with weaknesses, does allow them to consider the pattern of findings, from which they can draw conclusions.

What is the Research Review Really Asking About Play?

The researchers offer three potential hypotheses. First, they consider the view that pretend play is the fundamental force in early childhood—pretend play carries the greatest power to support development. They recognize this as the “ethos of play.” Second, pretend play contributes to outcomes, but it is neither the only nor the strongest factor (they call this equifinality; see here for a technical description of this idea, or here for a very basic one). The third possibility is that pretend play is not really responsible for development in other areas. Instead, pretend play arises because of development in other areas—either directly due to that development or because the same factors that support development in one area also happen to support pretend play (this is called the epiphenomenal argument). In other words, is pretend play the essential force in development; is it one of many forces that affect development; or is it merely a by-product of development in other areas? Examining a range of studies, most of which did not directly test cause-effect relationships, the paper explores whether it is possible to find evidence that clearly rejects or supports any of these arguments.

The Conclusion: Play Has a Complex Role in Early Childhood Development

Lillard and colleagues conclude that the pattern of findings does not support a claim that pretend play is the primary driver of children’s development across a range of other areas of interest. As they point out, this argument may represent an extreme view, one that suggests that if children were allowed only to play, they would develop the range of skills, abilities, and competencies important for school and life success. Such an argument represents one side of what we previously called a false dichotomy, a false either/or, and so it is not so surprising that the existing research cannot support it. Instead, the existing research supports two alternatives: (1) pretend play works in concert with other factors to support children’s development, or (2) pretend play arises out of the relationships between certain experiences and other areas of development. In either case, pretend play is related to a number of early childhood learning and development outcomes; it simply cannot be argued that pretend play is the sole source of development in those areas.

What Does This Mean for Early Education?

At the end of their extensive review, Lillard and her colleagues argue that there is a role of pretend play in early childhood education, even if it is not central. It is perhaps significant that we perceive the need for play to predict other outcomes, presumably justifying its presence in the lives of children. However, this paper underscores the importance of play, even if it is not the strongest predictor of other outcomes. The authors point to the importance of playful learning and child-centered classrooms (for example, here and here) in supporting young children’s development. They also note the importance of joyfulness—not typically assessed as an outcome in studies of play but surely present.

Their discussion of early education echoes the NAEYC position statement on developmentally appropriate practice, and elsewhere, which includes play as one of several instructional strategies, including more teacher-directed approaches, that combine to provide children with experiences that support development. This can be called the “play as action” approach (see here, for example). The authors also note that play can be a context for learning (“play as place,” for example, here); children like to play, it brings joy, and it is within this context that learning can occur. Children can learn while at play through their own experience, through their interaction with peers, and through their interactions with adults. The idea that play provides a context for learning and development in education is similar to the use of play therapy for children coping with traumatic experiences; in both cases, play as place provides a natural, comfortable setting for young children to develop. Froebel, Montessori, Paley, all the giants in our field, have said that play is children’s work, but it is also adult work. We in early education must work to better understand the role of play in the lives of young children, and how to nurture and utilize play in our work with children.

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