The other morning, I heard a discussion on Public Radio about a NIH study of a preschool curriculum called Tools of the Mind. This curriculum included using pretend play as a means for teaching young children self-regulation skills and executive function skills. The results of the study were impressive with youngsters showing more pro-social behaviors of the kind and quality that, coincidently, we are constantly targeting as we teach children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. I was convinced (re-convinced) that social pretend play is a near perfect system of social learning and children who have autism need more support so that they, too can engage in pretend play learning.
Pretend play is highly rule bound. When a child is pretending to be the mother of a sick infant, for example, the rules of being a mother are demanding. One has to act like a mother and not like a puppy or even get distracted by something that is mother-like but socially off task. Whatever the child knows about being a mother, the child must call to mind and portray these characteristics as appropriate in an evolving social situation. The combination of restricted role and dynamic social play are what hones mental skills that we call executive function skills. The child playing opposite our pretend mother, a youngster playing the mother's sick baby, may first pretend to cry and then fall asleep and then to crawl away and the pretend mother must decide how a mother would react to each of these situations. Other children are likely to lobby for their ideas about being mother and refine or expand the general knowledge about what a mother can or can't do. You get the baby some milk the sick baby actor may instruct. No, no, the mother has to stay with the baby all the time! another child may scold as she grabs a stethoscope and prepares to be the baby's doctor. There is planning and analyzing and choosing from among all the options that the group of players have experienced or witnessed. Learning could not be any more focused or intense than it is during extended pretend play. Pretend play is potent learning magic.
In a Tools of the Mind based curriculum, many hours a week are devoted to pretend play. Time for pretend play is what I hear preschool and kindergarten teachers lament giving up in favor of a more drill based curriculum prescribed to insure that children learn reading and math skills early. The practice of throwing out pretend play for a more adult directed education of preschoolers is like when we decided to throw out breast feeding babies in favor of baby formula. The Tools of the Mind study indicate we should re-think throwing out pretend play in school. Likewise, many serious programs for children with autism are drill heavy and pretend play lite. Many programs devote no serious effort toward teaching young children with autism to engage in pretend play--certainly not the hours a week it would require. If we believe that a typical child will need to have hundreds of hours of pretend play to master self-regulation and executive function skills "or cognitive control skills, including the ability to hold information in your mind; to resist habits, temptations or distractions; and to adjust to change" then how much more so do children with autism need the opportunity to do so and then the opportunity to get those hundreds of hour of play in. All this is sounding like a Floortime promotion, isn't it? I've gotta go back and re-read those Floortime books.