While play is important at all levels of development, it takes on particular significance in the sixth and seventh years of life when the balance of competence and helplessness is determined. During this critical period, the child’s budding sense of competence is frequently under attack, not only from inappropriate instructional practices that hinder the structural imperative, but also from the hundred and one feelings of hurt, frustration, and rejection that mark a child’s entrance into the world of schooling, competition, and peer-group involvement.
Young children, however, have none of the adult ego defenses (such as rationalization, reaction formation, and projection) which we attain when we are older and with which we defend ourselves against attacks upon our competence and self-esteem. That is why play is so important: it is young children’s only defense against the many real or imagined attacks and slights they encounter. In play, children can assert their competence as “superheroes” more powerful and competent than the most powerful and competent adult. And through their play with peers they assert their social competence, their ability to make and keep friends. Play is always a transformation of reality in the service of the self.
This function of play in early childhood, as a means of reasserting the child’s sense of competence, is often misunderstood. It is either rationalized as the “child’s work,” by which is meant another way in which children learn reading, writing, and science. Or it is explained as the avenue through which children express their creative powers, with the suggestion that they need some formal instruction in expressing themselves more adequately. To be sure, young children do learn something from their play, and it does reflect some of their creative potentials, but neither of these is its prime function.
The misunderstanding regarding the function of play for young children often results in miseducation. If play is thought of as the child’s “work,” then it may be translated into a lesson plan. A child playing store may be asked to put prices on his wares and total up the sales. And if play is thought of as the expression of the child’s creative impulse, she may be asked to say what her drawing or painting is and to make the sky and grass more conventional colors. Unfortunately, such treatments of the child’s play do not encourage the sense of competence, but rather the reverse: they contribute to a sense of helplessness.
We have to respect children’s play productions as their efforts to protect, defend, and enhance their sense of competence. With such productions, the old adage “If you can’t say anything good, then don’t say anything at all” is the rule to follow. If we make ample provisions for children to engage in a variety of play activities without evaluating the children’s productions, we contribute to their sense of competence. Otherwise, we rob the children of their major defense against the feeling of helplessness.
When we recognize the young child’s unique modes of learning and adapt educational practices to them, we engage in healthy education. When we ignore what we know about how young children learn, and expose them to teaching practices appropriate to children at older age levels, we miseducate them and put them at risk for a sense of inferiority and helplessness. We need to overcome our wrong ideas about super-kids and child competence, and to provide young children with the experiences that will allow them to emerge from kindergarten and first grade with a robust sense of industry and competence, and an eagerness and enthusiasm for further schooling.
Adapted from “Miseducation: Preschoolers at risk” by D. Elkind. Published by Knopf. 1987.
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