I enjoy learning about and teaching child development. Recently I read that “in play a child becomes a ‘head taller than himself.'” Most people probably do not use the phrase “a head taller than himself.” I had to think about what that meant; and, as I read the example, I realized it means a child is “beyond his years” or “mature for his age.” Play enables a child to go beyond his years in maturity, to engage in mature behavior expected of someone older than him. I don’t know about you, but I want my child to become “a head taller than himself” (well, herself in my case because I have daughters). Although play enables a child to grow “beyond his years,” not just any play will do. Video games won’t do it. No, the play that helps a child to become “a head taller than himself” is imaginative, dramatic play…the kind of play in which a child takes on and acts out an imaginary role. Preschoolers do it when playing house, teacher, princess, or cops and robbers. This kind of play becomes the first activity in which children must control their impulses and resist the urge to instantly gratify their own desires. It becomes an activity in which children follow the rules of the character in a story line they first had to develop. A study completed in the 1940’s supported play’s role in helping children grow beyond their years. In this study, researchers asked 3-, 5-, and 7-year-olds to stand still. Not surprisingly, the 3-year-olds had difficulty standing still for any length of time. The 5-year-olds stood still about four minutes and the 7-year-olds could stand still for over 10 minutes. However, when 5-year-olds were asked to play the role of a “lookout” by remaining at their posts and not moving, they were able to stand still for as long as 12-minutes! Their ability to control their impulses and self-regulate their behaviors during this role playing activity had become “a head taller than themselves,” making them look more like 7-year-olds.
Interestingly, this study was repeated in 2004 and the children in the 2004 study were actually “a head below” the children of the 1940 study. The 7-year-olds of 2004 exhibited self-regulation and impulse control skills that looked more like the 5-year-olds of the 1940’s…and the 5-year-olds of 2004 appeared more like the 3-year-olds of the 1940’s in impulse control and self-regulation. Sadly, the children of 2004 did not engage in the same level of imaginative, dramatic play of the children from the 1940’s. They spent their time in adult organized activities and video games, limiting the time they had to engage in dramatic, imaginative play and the skills we learn in that play. They missed out on the creative planning and role playing that would put them “a head taller than themselves.”
Perhaps we need to take a lesson from the comparison of these two studies. Our children need time to engage in dramatic play. Dramatic play gives them the opportunity to plan out an activity, develop roles, and then act within the boundaries of that role. It provides them the opportunity to practice self-regulation and impulse skills as part of their mutually agreed upon story line. This translates into less “blurting out answers” in the classroom, less “striking out at others” in anger, more “thinking” before acting, and a greater ability to problem-solve with others, among other things. In other words, dramatic, make-believe play helps our children become “a head taller than themselves.” So I say, “Let the children play!”