Monday, December 01, 2014

Fake It 'Til You Make It

In preschool, the term "dramatic play" can to some degree be applied to the vast majority of what children do. From a very young age children pretend; that their stuffed animals are alive, that a toilet paper tube is a telescope, that daddy is a silly monster, all of which are thought experiments intended to explore some aspect of our wider world and to practice skills or attitudes or habits that we somehow perceive will be useful in our futures even if our futures don't specifically include animals, telescopes or silly monsters. When a child shows me his firefighter raincoat, he is "trying on" the traits of selflessness and courage. When she twirls for me in her ballet tights, she is beginning to explore what it means to move her body with power, lightness, and grace. When he tells me the block building he has constructed is a parking garage, he is working on making his creative visions come to life. We call it "pretend," sometimes dismissively, but the learning that happens in dramatic play is quite real and profound.

Adults do it to, of course, although we are usually too embarrassed to label it "pretend," even to ourselves. We wear certain aspirational clothing items, things that express who we wish to be. It tends to be quite straight-forward for young children, be it crowns, capes, tutus, or t-shirts emblazoned with this year's movie superhero. The adult version of "costumes" would be things like designer labels, celebrity endorsed products, cowboy hats, 6-inch heels, and sports team jerseys. When left to choose our own attire, most of us, at least sometimes, wear clothing that is an experiment, an exploration of being someone else, some other "type" of person, one who does or says or knows things we wouldn't normally do or say or know. Some costumes we wear for just a night, and others we wear day after day for a really long time, until it is no longer a costume, but rather who we are.

When I was a junior businessman in the 1980's the expression "Fake it 'til you make it" was in vogue, at least among us twentysomethings. We joked about it, but the idea behind it was quite serious: if we were going to thrive, if we were going to mix it up with the big boys, if we were going to be taken seriously, we were going to have to pretend like we had been there before. It meant we both had to dress and act the part. Some of it was to deceive others, but most of it was intentional self-deception, the idea that if you tell yourself something is true over and over again, you eventually begin to behave as if it's true, and if you do that long enough, it becomes true.

Of course, on a day-to-day basis, most of us are not that conscious about how we use the skills we acquired through dramatic play, but the point is that dramatic play doesn't disappear as we get older. Every time we engage in a session of "What if . . ." we are immersing ourselves in the same world occupied by princesses and superheroes. Being adults, we usually call it "thinking," but the kids know it's "just pretend."

One of the defining characteristics of high level dramatic play is conversation. Even during the wildest outdoor games of chase, if you listen to the children, they are engaged in an ongoing dialog about the game they are playing, shaping it with sentences that begin with "Let's pretend . . ." Developing the ability to engage cooperatively in dramatic play is one of the most important things we do during our first decade or so of life. Indeed, if you observe children playing "the 100 acre woods" or pretending to be construction workers, you'll notice that most of what they do is talk, continually molding and shaping their mutual game like a giant ball of play dough, making agreements, suggesting ideas, stacking their shared knowledge together like building blocks. 

Ultimately, this is the magnificence and vitality of dramatic play: through it we learn to create with others, perhaps the most important life "success" skills there is. Traditional schools, especially those that emphasize academics, tend to ignore the importance of dramatic play, thinking that an annual student play or pageant is the same thing. It is not. One of the great truths about cooperative dramatic play is that it must emerge from the children themselves, it only works when it is self-directed, and there must be both time and space to perform the full exploration, the entire thought experiment.

Most days at Woodland Park, that's all we do, faking it until we make it, together.

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