How and what the child plays will depend largely upon his age and level of development. The favorite types of play during the childhood years are discussed in the following section.
The child's earliest play is free and spontaneous. It has no rules and regulations and is, for the most part, solitary. The child plays as he wishes to play and stops when he is no longer interested. Play of this type loses popularity late in childhood, when competitive games are more favored.
Free, spontaneous play is mostly exploratory. The baby derives keen enjoyment from stimulating the sense organs and experiencing different sensations. By the time he is three months old, he explores his toys by sucking, banging, and pulling at them and investigates any object within his reach.
Owing to poor motor coordination, the little child is apt to be very destructive. He breaks his toys because they are not strong enough to withstand the strain of his exploratory behavior. By the end of the second year, the child turns his attention to more advanced and complicated forms of play that tax his developing mentality.
In dramatic, or make-believe, play, the child, through language or overt behavior, deals with materials or situations as if they had attributes other than those they actually have; it is a "game of illusion" for the child. Dramatic play is a common and popular form of play during the preschool years but loses much of its appeal after children enter school. The school-age child begins to view life more realistically, and his ability to attribute living qualities to things decreases as his ability to reason increases.
Dramatic impersonations usually begin between the ages of 1.5 and 2 years and reach their peak during the kindergarten age. Very bright children, particularly, enjoy dramatic play of a creative and constructive type. They usually lose interest in this play quite early, however, because they become realistic relatively early.
Young children learn much of their make-believe play from older children, especially siblings. Older children, in turn, add to their acquired repertoire of dramatic play episodes by using ideas they get from television, movies, personal experiences, and talks with their parents and older siblings. Books and stories provide little basis for dramatic play because young children understand what they see better than what they hear and because so many of the stories written for children today do not lend themselves well to dramatization.
Boys, for two reasons, have more ideas for dramatic themes than girls; first, the themes of movies and television stories are more suitable for boys than for girls, and second, parents talk to their sons about cow-boys, guns, fighting, and other topics that can be used in dramatizations more than they talk to their daughters about topics that are considered sex-appropriate for girls.
*Functions of Dramatic Play.
Dramatic play adds to the child's ability to transcend his actual limitations and go beyond the restrictions imposed by reality; it enables him to realize his wishes vicariously; and it provides opportunities for him to rid himself of irritations, to remove or overcome conditions which annoy or thwart him in real life. The more strongly the child is frustrated, the more make-believe play he will engage in.
The poorly adjusted child engages in more make-believe play than the well-adjusted child. Observations of nursery-school children at play revealed that those who spent the most time in manipulative play had the lowest anxiety scores, while those with higher anxiety scores devoted more time to make-believe play.
In dramatic play, a child pretends to be someone he loves and admires and whom he would like to resemble. By assigning a role to a doll, a toy animal, or some other toy, he changes his own status; this gives him a feeling of self-importance and compensates for his dissatisfaction with his real self.
One of the important advantages of dramatic play is that it encourages the young child to speak. To be able to play dramatically with others, the child not only must make suggestions for the roles to be played but also must speak in the role he is playing. This helps him to increase his vocabulary. Even more important, it acts as a socializing force, encouraging him to make contacts with other children. The mean frequencies of use of dramatic play suggestions by boys and girls.
*Pattern of Dramatic Play.
Children under three years of age show a predominant interest in
(1) personification—talking to dolls or inanimate objects or playing games involving imagined creatures, such as a "bogeyman”;
(2) make-believe use of materials, including the imaginative naming of objects—calling a slide a train or simple, overt, imaginative behavior, such as drinking from an empty cup; and
(3) make-believe situations involving the complicated use of materials, such as playing house.
In most instances, their play is related to the materials before them. After three years of age, make-believe use of materials proves to be the most typical imaginative activity. As children grow older, the materials are used in increasingly more complicated ways, such as using sand to build a tunnel instead of merely digging into it with a shovel. In addition to this, children after three years of age engage in play involving make-believe situations, constructive activities with raw materials, and dramatic play of a more or less complicated type.
Stone and Church, describing the typical pattern of children's dramatizations, have shown that definite stages are reflected in play:
For a three-year-old, a block can be a doll, a train, a building, a cow. For the five-year old, a block is a building material, and he wants some approximation of a real train to run in and out of the railroad station he makes with his blocks. The three-year-old can people a universe with sticks and stones and paper and rags—which, however, he does not try to shape in representational images. The four-year-old, to be a successful cowboy, wants some outstanding prop-a broad brimmed hat, a cap pistol, or a neckerchief. For him, one element can stand for the whole configuration "cowboy." The five-year-old, though, is likely to feel dissatisfied in his role-playing unless he can wear the full regalia of his part.
*Themes of Dramatic Play.
The dramatic play of children is a mirror of the culture which surrounds them; it dramatizes events of their everyday lives. Everything the child hears or sees is repeated in imitative form. Dramatic play also reflects the spirit of the particular period in which the child is growing up. For example, during the Second World War, both boys and girls played war games in which they were soldiers and their toys were tanks, guns, and airplanes. With the advent of the "air age," children's dramatizations have been concentrating more on reaching the moon than on fighting an enemy.
The usual themes of imaginative play of young children are
(1) domestic patterns, including playing house, furnishing a house, cooking, eating, taking care of babies, and being fathers and mothers;
(2) imitating animals that crawl and growl;
(3) taking care of the sick by imitating a doctor or nurse;
(4) playing store;
(5) traveling and other activities connected with transportation, such as riding in automobiles, trains, or buses; putting gas or air in a car; riding in an airplane; and sailing a boat;
(6) punishing, playing policeman, and gun play in general;
(7) burning and playing fireman;
(8) killing and dying;
(9) giving parties and having weddings; and
(10) playing the part of legendary characters such as Santa Claus, Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf, or George Washington.
Playing house is a universal favorite with children of the preschool years. The younger children passively allow themselves to be led around, while the older ones assume the roles of "mommy" or "daddy.” Older children, instead of making believe that they are people of everyday life, pretend that they are fairies, Indians, "G" men, or bandits. Western scenes resemble television westerns, in which people, not animals, are shot.
Dramatizations are reproduced with astonishing fidelity; even the tone of voice of the person imitated is copied so well that one could almost believe the real person was speaking. Few stage properties as such are needed. A hat, a cane, a long skirt, or some article usually associated with the person imitated is all the child needs to imagine that he is that person. A rug placed across two overturned chairs serves as a tent, a den, or a cave.