October 4, 2012
In my work as a developmentalist, I am an advocate of, doer of, and studier of play. I grapple with both implementing and understanding what Lev Vygotsky said: “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself” —and its practical applications and implications for people of all ages.
Having begun a three-session East Side Institute Revolutionary Conversation last night (where we touched on play quite a bit) and preparing today for a keynote address on play, performance and pretense that I’ll give in a few weeks at the Association for Experiential Education international conference, I’ve been playing with play today. Here’s some thoughts to ponder and comment on—and aid me in my thinking/speaking!
Vygotsky tells us that it’s the interplay of imagination—which frees us, and rules—which constrain us, that makes play potentially developmental. The action created in the “imaginative sphere” frees the players from situational constraints and, at the same time, imposes constraints of its own. In this way, “play creates a zone of proximal development of the child… Action in the imaginative sphere, in an imaginary situation, the creation of voluntary intentions, and the formation of real-life plans and volitional motives – all appear in play and make it the highest level of preschool development.”
This freedom from environmental constraints (“reality”) in free play has similarities with theatrical play, or performance, especially the unscripted, improvisational kind. In both free and theatrical play, the players are more directly the producers of their activity, in charge of generating and coordinating the perceptual, cognitive and emotional elements of the play. When I look at children’s free play with this performance lens, I see the value of play in a new light.
For most psychologists and educators the value of play is that it facilitates the learning of social-cultural roles. Through acting out roles (play-acting), children “try out” the roles they will soon take on in “real life.”
I get this, but I think it skips over the paradox of pretend play—when children are pretending, they are least like what they are pretending to be! When they play school they are least like teachers and students because teachers and students in school are not playing at being teachers and students, but rather acting out their societally determined roles. Children playing school, or Mommy and Daddy, or Harry Potter and Dumbledore, are not acting out predetermined roles. They are creating new performances of themselves—at once the playwrights, directors and performers. They are creating culture. This is how I make sense of Vygotsky’s understanding that in play the child acts as though a head taller —that the developmental potential of play is as performed activity and not as behavioral acting. Not only for chidren but for us all.