Who says our kids need pretend playtime? It’s really a lot less demanding on us as adults to read them books or let them look at books (thought this is obviously important as well), let them watch TV, or play those educational games with iPads. Why should we go to all the hassle of providing props, setting up the environment, sometimes teaching our kids how to go about pretending and even occasionally engage in this play with them?
In an article posted in Psychology Today on line, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman writes, “The research reviewed by Berk, Mann & Ogan, (2006) and Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, & Singer (2009) suggest that make-believe games are forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy. When children use toys to introduce possible scenarios or friends, the representation of multiple perspectives occurs naturally. Taking on different roles allows children the unique opportunity to learn social skills such as communication, problem solving, and empathy (Hughes, 1999).”
When our group of 5 and 6 year olds act out the Three Little Pigs, the social and life skills practice is evident. After reading The Three Little Pigs, the acting out came naturally to our 4 boys. They first chose roles and built their own homes. They chose to play this game repeatedly even during free playtime. Once they practiced a few times, they were completely independent in their negotiating roles, setting up the environment, and cueing each other. The play changed over time as the boys began to build homes together to make them more elaborate. They created different endings as they problem solved various ways to keep the wolf out of the house.
So, let’s examine how this one play scenario can help kids develop self-regulation as described by Dr. Kaufman.
Reduced aggression – What happens when a child doesn’t get the role he wants? Does he lash out? Refuse to play? Some of our 3 little piggy players did just that at the beginning of this activity. It took lots of explanation, opportunities to sit out and watch initially, and practice for them to learn that they may not get the role they thought they wanted but they could have fun all the same.
Delayed gratification – Once kids learned that we would act out the story over and over and over again, they relaxed about the roles and houses they were assigned. They knew that at some point, they would be able to have the role they wanted.
Civility – Learning to enjoy and even compliment each other is a really hard but important lesson for children, young and old. As kids acted out their parts in their own unique ways, rather than saying, “No, that’s not how you do it”, they learned to appreciate the uniqueness of their peers and support one another in their differences.
Empathy – The actual story of the three little pigs exemplifies empathy. When one piggy’s house is blown down, the others don’t laugh, they say, “Come to my house. I’ll help you stay safe!” Sometimes the kids even showed empathy toward the wolf and ended up inviting him in for cookies if he promised not to eat them!
Understanding multiple perspectives – Why does the wolf want to blow the houses down? Why does he talk in a mean way to the pigs? Why are the pigs afraid? These questions can lead to some pretty sophisticated discussions about our preconceived ideas about people and how we can listen to one another and try to understand.
Communication – Initially, kids wanted to jump into the story. Over time they learn that some talking time is necessary to plan. They become much better and more efficient and almost formulaic about planning. For example, the kids now say, “Who wants to be the wolf? Who wants to be the first pig?” Next they ask, “Where will you build your house? Mine will be here.” etc.
Problem Solving – This one is obvious but I must add that in the beginning, kids are so anxious about making sure things so “their way” that very little problem solving occurs without adult intervention. We’ve written about this before but the value of acting out the same story over and over again is that anxiety goes down and problem solving emerges.
Enjoy make believe play. It’s fun to join in as an adult to throw the kids some unexpected changes and see how they manage. This is also a fun activity with finger or hand puppets. Please check out Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman’s article as it is refreshing and informative.
Image by: Will Sawney