Early education and childhood would benefit from focusing more on play, books, and visual media that are based on real life. Young children—especially those aged over three years—usually prefer these things to pretend play that involves fictional characters, cartoons, and fantasy. Play that’s based on what adults do can enhance early child development.
West Emphasises Fictional, Pretend Play
In many traditional societies, parents do not believe that pretend play based on fiction and fantasy helps development, so they don’t encourage it. As a result, children in these cultures typically engage in this type of play less often.
Although Western children might be discouraged from playing with sharp knives, in other cultures it is not unusual for young children to do so. This is because they learn through imitation and rehearsal of activities that their parents and community members do. Fantasy play is not as common in these cultures, but children still develop normally and successfully without it.
In recent decades, industrialized countries have increasingly been promoting play as being better for young children’s development and learning than teacher-centered instructional approaches. We should avoid using didactic methods where young children have to sit at desks and listen to teachers lecture them, as this is counterproductive.
The main point of children’s play is that it is free and voluntary, and often involves social interaction with others, especially other children. Fiction is not central to this. A common form of play is trying out real-life adult activities. This is typically what young children choose to do in their free time, and it is usually done with other children.
In other words, imagination and make-believe are something that every culture practices. It is not something that is exclusive to any one place or group of people. It is something that should be respected because it is a natural occurrence. However, we should not assume that this is all children are capable of or that this is all they should be doing. We can also help children to do things that are actually beneficial and meaningful to their families and their communities.
Many Western countries continue to have this issue where teenagers are not given many useful things to do. Every day, they spend eight hours in school listening and doing things that are not considered “real.” If they do well on tests, they are promised that they’ll be able to do what they want. Joe and Claudia Allen asked in their book Escaping the Endless Adolescence if it’s any wonder that many teens are attracted to delinquent behaviors. Adolescents excel when they undertake internships, where they learn to do real things.
Young Children Prefer Play Based on Real Life
We explored children’s activity preferences by questioning preschoolers, aged between three and six years, in the United States. The majority of them preferred real activities to their pretend alternatives.
In one study, each child was shown nine pairs of photographs depicting activities such as feeding a baby, cutting vegetables, washing dishes, talking on the phone, riding a tractor, and baking cookies. In one photo, the action was real, and in the other, it was a pretend version. Children said they would rather do the real activity almost two-thirds of the time. The preference for reality over fiction increased with age; three-year-olds were equally interested in pretend play and real activities, but by age four, children strongly preferred the real activities.
A separate group of three- to six-year-olds was given the chance to play with either real objects or toy versions in a follow-up study. The children played about twice as long with the real objects on average. Also, the children’s expressed preferences when shown a set of photographs later aligned with their actual behavior during the free play. In other words, the children who played longer with real objects also preferred more real activities in photographs.
Unreal Media Can Negatively Affect Self Control
The researchers found that children’s capacity for executive functions, such as planning, thinking, and remembering, was lower after watching an unreal TV show than when watching a TV show based on real life.
In a study conducted by the University of Cincinnati, it was found that children’s brains react differently when watching an animated cartoon with unrealistic events, as opposed to a realistic e-book. The MRI scan showed that while watching the cartoon, isolated brain areas became more active; however, the electrical connections between different parts of the brain decreased. This raises questions about the effects of exposing children to unrealistic content, and suggests that parents should be careful about the TV shows they allow their children to watch.
Other studies have found that children prefer stories with a realistic ending, rather than a fantasy ending. Children also learn new words better from photographs, than from cartoon drawings. Thus, all the fantasies to which we expose children might not be good for them. It is worth remembering that the human brain has evolved for the real world, and when we give children cartoons and images about worlds that don’t exist, we are not developing their sensory capacities to process the real world around them.
The argument that children should play around real things rather than pretend is supported by two different approaches: Montessori education and childrearing in more traditional societies.
In Defense of Play
Why not just aim to be smarter or more focused or more empathic directly? Why go through the elaborate detour of play?
Although this is our intuition, the amount of time children have to play is decreasing, especially when parents and policymakers put pressure on children to do well academically, even in preschool. There is not much evidence that playing makes children do better on IQ measures or academic tests.
Play is a common behavior in young animals, including humans, chimps, wolves, dolphins, rats, crows, and octopuses. Play is prevalent in social animals with long childhoods, lots of parental investment, and large brains. Animals that spend a lot of their childhood playing include those with long childhoods.
So if play doesn’t work and appears to serve no purpose, what is it? While biologists have a difficult time defining play, they point to five key characteristics: 1) Play is voluntary; 2) Play is pleasurable and often provides enjoyment for both players and spectators; 3) In most cases, play is immature or “childish” behavior; 4) Play is often repetitive and ritualistic; and 5) Play often occurs in bursts of energy followed by periods of rest.
If they were really pouring tea, they would move the teapot more economically. But play also has special characteristics that let you distinguish it from real work. For example, when rats play fight, they nuzzle each other’s necks instead of biting each other’s flanks. When children pretend to pour tea, they make big, exaggerated sloshing movements. If they were really pouring tea, they would move the teapot more economically.
Even animals enjoy playing around – babies giggle when they play peek-a-boo, and rats make a distinctive sound when they play-fight.
Play is something that animals do because they want to, not because they’re being told to or because they’ll be rewarded for it. Young rats will work hard to get the chance to play. But play is different from other things that animals need. Animals can only play when they’re not hungry or stressed. When an animal is in one of those states, play becomes less important.
Both rats and infants are trying to find out what works The play has a special structure, with a pattern of repetition and variation. When rats play fight, they try different patterns of offense and defense against each other. When a six-month-old plays with a rattle, she tries shaking it louder or softer, banging it against the table with more or less vigor. Both rats and infants are trying to find out what works.
One possibility is to give your robot sensors that can detect various features of the environment, such as color, shape, and movement. Then, you could program the robot to respond in different ways to different combinations of these features. This would be similar to the way that animals’ brains are hardwired to process certain features of their environment and respond accordingly. This activity allows animals to process their environment and respond to it in different ways. Robotics may have a similar answer to create robots that are able to adjust to an ever-changing world.
Creating a robot that is only able to complete one task, such as walking, is not difficult. It is much more challenging to design a robot that is able to adapt to new situations. For example, what would happen if you turned a walking robot on its side or removed one of its limbs? Living beings are able to make these types of changes effortlessly. Consider how a wounded soldier is able to walk and even run with a prosthetic leg. Robots, on the other hand, would have more difficulty making these same adjustments.
The computer scientist Hod Lipson at Cornell believes in giving his robots a chance to play–to randomly try out different movements and work out the consequences. A Lipson robot started by dancing around in a silly, random way before it tried to do anything useful. However, afterward, it could use the information about its own body that it collected in the playful dancing phase to decide how to act when unexpected things happened. Even when the engineers removed one of its robotic limbs, it could still walk because of that first useful playful dance.
Studies on rat brains show that rats who did not get a chance to play when they were pups could not react as quickly or fluidly as those who did play. In addition, the brains of the rats who did not play were less plastic, meaning they could not adapt to new experiences as easily.
The robots and rats may give us a clue about child’s play, too. Play lets the young learn by randomly trying out a range of actions and ideas, and then working out the consequences. It might be a young rat trying different modes of attack and defense, or a fledgling crow turning the stick upside down and right-side up. The positive consequence is that animals who play are better at generating new possibilities.
While engage in activities such as make-believe and acting, humans are internally experimenting with different outcomes that could result from a change in the world. This was found by Daphna Buchsbaum, a former student who is now at the University of Toronto, and her colleagues. Their research showed that preschoolers who pretended more often were better at reasoning about hypothetical situations. They found that these children were not overall smarter or better at executive functioning tasks, but they were more likely to imagine other ways that the world could be.
It seems that playing helps us learn and it is also enjoyable for both parents and children. It may not have an official purpose, but the pure happiness that comes from playing is good enough reason to keep doing it.