A few years ago I got a master's degree in human development. My first thesis, before my epic hard drive crash where I lost all of my data and changed topics altogether, was on the power of pretend play. Specifically, it was a discussion of animal pretend play, and how when children take on animal personas, they get to explore these parts of themselves that they don't feel safe exploring in their own personal reality.
I had a child who never participated in circle time - until he discovered that he could be a kangaroo. Slowly, he began participating at circle time, first with small movements of his kangaroo paws, then with verbal participation as if from a kangaroo, and eventually, the child opened up as himself in front of the group. Another child witnessed domestic abuse, and for the next several days, she pretended she was a cat, narrating her story from the cats perspective in the context of pretend play rather than from her own very real, human, traumatic experience.
I read a snippet from a book this morning about how children discover their ethical prosocial selves in play.
I've been thinking about this all day.
In the context of play, I see children acting out important themes that come up often in their lives - themes of conflict, empowerment, misbehavior, disobedience, cooperation, helping, not helping, including others, being included, intimacy, separation, enemies and friendship, death and rebirth, having superpowers beyond measure, and being stripped of those superpowers. It's a bold thing to, in the context of make believe play, tell your pretend mom that you're not going to come home that day. Or to realize that one of your pretend family members have died and you must now avenge their death (although 99% of the time, the dead family member "wakes up" within a couple of minutes). Now imagine - just imagine - that you're a younger kid in the group, admiring the older kids from afar because you can't quite keep up with their games and dialogues and unspoken rules - and then suddenly, they let you be "the baby" in your game, and you now have access to this group of kids you have been longing to play with for weeks or months. Gaining entry into a coveted social group is a priceless experience afforded often in pretend play scenarios. Almost every game needs a one of the more submissive characters, and the younger kids are almost always willing to take on those roles - the baby sister, the baby brother, the pet dog, the bunny (doesn't every game have a bunny?).
By experiencing all of these themes in real life (because their play IS their real life, in that moment), they experience, the safest way, the consequences of various parts of themselves - including their ethical and moral selves. They witness responses from the other children, and learn about behavior and taking others' perspectives and thinking for and as a group, rather than for their isolated selves.
And we see children taking breaks from the group play, to play alone and process and assimilate all of this. And to spend time in solitude, to nurture another part of their selves.
And in this way, children create their own learning environment in a profound, meaningful way. The teachers? We just set the stage. The kids are taking on the lead roles here.