Preschoolers at play

Preschoolers at play are busy on many levels, most of which are incredibly valuable for their development. Miriam McCaleb explains. 

There’s a weird thing that happens when we examine the world of childhood play. It’s a bit like admiring the beautiful tail feathers of a peacock so much that we pluck them all out to study them up close. The problem - now the very thing that gave us pause and filled us with admiration has been examined into non-existence. The peacock looks much less beautiful now that we’ve sought to understand him. Ouch! This is what they call the law of unintended consequences. So, we ought to proceed with caution as we enter our exploration into the playful world of the four-year-old. It’s fun and admirable to seek a greater appreciation of this world, but we must be mindful that we don’t ruin what’s so special about it when we use our giant adult lenses to view it. For example, adults will often describe children’s play as their work, because adults value work, and it seems that lending the same weight and importance to play will make other adults appreciate it more. But here’s the thing: play is not work! Play is PLAY, and it’s valuable for its own sake.

In his book Play, Stuart Brown, MD, challenges the notion that the opposite of play is work, instead demonstrating that the opposite of play is depression. Double ouch. So I’ll stay playful if you will – let’s have a crack at honouring preschooler play, without breaking it. Instead, this article will endeavour to describe and explain what’s so important about some typical types of play. It will offer some ideas of how adults might support this vital life force, and we’ll bring it on home with a look at how to use the playful power of your little one to keep a forward motion to the flow of your home.

Typical preschooler play
A group of four-year-olds at play are supremely busy. They make plans, negotiate roles, and routinely attempt things they’ve never tried before. Research shows they even use more complex language than they do when conversing with adults. They tend to think and express themselves with their whole bodies, and there’s never a dull moment. Four-year-olds are play experts. They have usually dabbled in all of the flavours of fun and games, as described by California’s National Institute of Play. I’ve adapted the descriptors slightly. These are:

1.  Attunement play; which establishes a connection, such as between newborn and mother.

2.  Body play; in which an infant explores the ways in which his or her body works and interacts with the world, such as making funny sounds or discovering what happens in a fall.

3.  Object play; such as playing with toys, banging pots and pans, handling physical things in ways that feed curiosity.

4.  Social play; play which involves others in activities such as tumbling, making faces, and building connections with another child or group of children.

5.  Imaginative or pretend play; in which a child invents scenarios from his or her imagination and acts within them as a form of play, such as superhero or family role play.

6.  Storytelling play; the play of learning and language that develops intellect, such as a parent reading aloud to a child, or a child retelling the story in his or her own words.

7.  Creative play; by which one plays with imagination to transcend what is known in the current state, to create a higher state. For example, a person might experiment to find a new way to use a musical instrument, thereby taking that form of music to a higher plane; or, as Einstein was known to do, a person might wonder about things which are not yet known and play with unproven ideas as a bridge to the discovery of new knowledge.

Let’s look more closely at number 5, pretend play. This is something that most healthy four-year-olds will enjoy, and spontaneously participate in - together or alone. It is described in varying ways, and each offers a peep into the profound benefits of pretending for little kids.

Sometimes it’s called symbolic play, and this speaks to the fact that it’s teaching us to use symbols in the way we think. When we play, the wooden spoon might be a pretend microphone, or a young friend making mewling noises is pretending he’s a cat. A spoon is still a spoon and a child is not really a cat, but as children pretend otherwise they practise the idea that one thing can represent another.

This is an exceptionally important skill to master before attempting reading and writing. When we read, we transform the squiggles on a page into the sounds of our language. Further, the squiggles become things: B I R D is suddenly a feathery, tweeting creature. This is much easier to accept if your brain has already had plenty of experience with imagining something could pretend to be something else too. Practising symbolic thinking prepares us for a lifetime of realising that one thing can represent another. The numerals you create in your maths book represent actual numbers, in adulthood they may be symbols for real amounts of money. Those pictures on a screen represent the new car mum bought on TradeMe. The brushstrokes on a canvas represent a picture, a story, another scene. All of this complex thinking has its foundation laid in pretend play. There is incredible value in pretending that the doll is an actual baby. Pretending to feed the plastic infant is rehearsing for more than just parenthood.

This type of play is also referred to as imaginative play, and this label gives us a real clue to another benefit of this type of activity. When we make-believe, we flex the neural pathways that will later serve us should we need to think on the fly. Which would be something I’ll bet you do ... every day! What’s more, all this quick thinking and trying on of different scenarios leads to greater skills of problem solving, and increases creative thinking. “Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties” writes Stuart Brown. The problems of our time will only be solved if they’re thought about by people who contemplate them in ways that nobody has thought about them before. Creative thinking is a must. And childhood play helps us get there.

Playing with emotions
As a problem-solving support mechanism, there are vital skills being practised as young children negotiate the serve-and-return world of socialising, and experience the limitless possibility of their own imaginations - a free and wholesome activity with profound benefits.

That’s not all. As children assign roles and play at being Dad, big sister, or baby, they get to practise walking in another’s shoes. When children imagine the world from another’s point of view, they take vital steps toward developing empathy. This is crucial. Without a solid sense of compassion toward what it might feel like from somebody else’s perspective, a person doesn’t care whether another is being hurt. It’s from about age three that kids seem wired to seek opportunities to socialise with peers. It’s also around this age that there is intense wiring going on in the more complex areas of a person’s brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex, where empathy lives – or doesn’t live, depending upon a variety of influences in a person’s early years. Nothing is more important than a secure relationship with a loving adult. The natural, beautiful chaos of sibling relationships can be a powerful force. And then there are the mates, the intense friendships that three- and four-year-olds share that teach them so much. Young children’s brains work really hard wiring up connections, as they discuss, jostle and laugh together. As they play, children are laying down the brain circuitry that will inform their relationships for the rest of their lives.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that play doesn’t only benefit children, it also benefits their communities. A lack of playful experiences will do the opposite. Sorry to be grim (see how we wind up plucking the peacock?) but consider these chilling words from Stuart Brown, in the aforementioned book Play:
“I studied murderers in Texan prisons and found that an absence of play in their childhood was as important as any other single factor in predicting their crimes”.

Perhaps one factor in this is the evidence that play gives children opportunities to work things out in a safe way. Pretend play is sometimes called dramatic play: it allows children to act out their dramas, to process the stories from their lives. Children will act out life’s tiny conundrums - “We’re out of milk!” - right through to the big stuff - “The baby’s on his way!” I’m a Cantabrian: I’ve seen a lot of earthquake play in recent times. Children instinctively use play as a tool to make sense of their lives. Adults could learn a thing or two here!

There we have it. A variety of reasons to indulge your child’s pretend play. It will help them to develop better language, better social skills, and greater problem-solving abilities. But, most importantly, it’s fun. 

Ways to support play:
Tiny HeartMake time to play with your kids. Let them lead. Practise unbusying your mind from your own adult stuff and this will make it easier to ‘drop in’ to a playful place.
Tiny HeartAdopt all roles given. Making suggestions is okay, but don’t push. Vocal and assertive (aka ‘bossy’!) kids will dictate the play to the word: be prepared to just deliver. (“Pretend I’m the mum and you didn’t know it was your birthday and pretend I woke you up with a birthday cake and pretend you said ‘What’s going on?’ and pretend I laughed!”) There is still value in this. Even if you can only tolerate 10 minutes, go for it for those ten.
Tiny HeartEmbrace the spontaneous. Unclutter your mind, get on the floor, and play along. Back to Stuart Brown: “If we are not completely full of ourselves or too serious, we can see that we can do a better job of helping our children be more joyful if we help ourselves remember how to play. If we are open to some self-evaluation, and do so with a lightness about our life opportunities, we will actually find a way to play”.

Tiny HeartWeave play into daily tasks. As my friend, popular parenting educator Nathan Wallis says: “Don’t do jobs, then have fun. Instead: make jobs fun!” Play your way through tasks by assigning pretend roles, using silly voices, and music - song and dance.

Tiny HeartUse children’s play to bring them along with your agenda. Weave your request into whatever your kids are playing. When my girls are being mermaids, I might ask them to swim over to the enchanted bathtub and wash the seaweed off their tails before being tucked into their waterbeds.
Tiny HeartMost importantly, make room for play in our own lives. In The Gift of Play: Why Adult Women Stop Playing and How to Start Again, author Barbara Brannen writes “We will get old. Our bodies will age. But we have the option of making old as playful as young”. I believe this to be a more noble goal than driving a swanky car or having six-pack abs. A playful spirit makes everything else okay. 

Miriam McCaleb works and plays at her home in rural North Canterbury. She blogs at and closes with a holla to dance teacher Stephanie De May, and the Friday morning Nia Class. Y’all are a gift from the gods of play!


Under 5