Try This … honouring the true value of play

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All the keys in Try This …  draw on the vital and highly sophisticated human behaviour known as play. Socio-dramatic play is at the heart of Dramatic Inquiry. Sounds like fun, but what is it, and what’s the value for children’s learning?

First, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way. While people might sometimes use the word ‘play’ to talk about lighthearted meaningless activity, or see it as the opposite of ‘work’, this deficit use of the language says more about our society’s attitudes to children than it does about the value of play itself. In fact, play is crucially important to human development. We can’t thrive without it. I remember some years ago talking to a biologist who gave me an evolutionary perspective. He said that the fact human beings engage in play for the first 10 -14 years of our lives shows we really need it for our development. It takes a lot of energy and time, thus if play wasn’t vitally important for humans, we would have evolved away from doing it. If only more people saw it that way!

There are lots of forms of play, but socio-dramatic play is the most sophisticated as it combines all the others. Socio dramatic play is where children imagine they are other people; mums and dads, firefights, shopkeepers, superheroes, characters from stories and popular culture, and so on. Closely related to this is projective play, where children create miniature worlds to control through dolls, puppets, action figures, toy cars, animals and so on. In both forms of play, children use their imaginations to represent the people, stories, and events they see and hear around them and to create new, imagined ones.

This kind of play is highly social: it’s how young children learn to emotionally regulate, take turns, make offers and build on each others’ ideas. Through play, children get to try on a range of exciting social and power roles in a safe ‘no penalty’ zone. They also develop the crucial skill of empathy. In socio-dramatic play, children do this by ‘being’ the other people. In projective play, they get to experience ‘overseeing’ the imagined world in a position of control; creating settings and objects and playing and replaying interactions and adventures at arms length. 

Socio-dramatic play and projective play are foundational for academic learning. They encourage gross and fine motor movement skills and give children the opportunities to build skills and knowledge in manipulating materials. They also involve symbolic substitution: a wooden block to represent a phone; a plastic figure for a person; some pebbles for money, and so on. In this way children are laying the foundations for literacy – where written words are symbolic substitutions for sounds – which are in turn symbolic substitutions for things or experiences. 

And dramatic play is all about inquiry. Through their play, children can explore and wonder about complex concepts from the real world: power, gender, settings, events, tensions, consequences, archetypes, and perspectives. By playing out and exploring multiple perspectives, children can make sense of the world and their own place in it. They do all this while also having deep, fulfilling, memorable fun.

As adults, we grow out of the need for socio-dramatic and projective play (or do we? Cosplay anyone?) However, we’ve all been children, and so as teachers we can choose to rediscover and reconnect with this play-full side of ourselves. Especially if we remember that by doing so we are tapping into a sophisticated human activity which has evolved within us for the purpose of learning. The keys in Try This … will help you and your students draw on the benefits of play as you negotiate, explore and make meaning together in imagined worlds.