Elena Bodrova, PhD: The Real Importance of Make Believe for Children - Early Learning Nation

Elena Bodrova, PhD: The Real Importance of Make Believe for Children

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

In preschool and kindergarten, play – including “make believe” play – helps lay the foundation for many competences children will need for the rest of their lives. So how can we get adults out of the way? Elena Bodrova, PhD, co-founder and Tools Knowledge Advisor at Tools of the Mind, explains.


Chris Riback:                 Elena, welcome to the studio.

Elena Bodrova:              Thanks for having me.

Chris Riback:                 Can we talk about play?

Elena Bodrova:              Oh sure.

Chris Riback:                 Excellent. Most specifically, make-believe play.

Elena Bodrova:              Right.

Chris Riback:                 Why is it important and why as you have written, in some cultural contexts, it is increasingly hard to find preschool and school-aged children creating fantasy worlds together, and enacting the self-generated elaborate scenarios without adult participation. What gets in the way of that?

Elena Bodrova:              There are so many factors. It’s actually the whole culture of childhood has changed. For example, in the past, children used to play with children of different ages and they will learn to play from their older peers. Now it’s very hard to find multi-age groups of children either in the centers or in the schools or outside. Children that are all age-segregated, so they don’t have any play mentors anymore. Plus the toys become so much more realistic. they don’t leave much for imagination either. Finally, of course, all the gadgets that children spend more time with electronic toys. One of, actually at this conference somebody said that today’s children are being brought up by appliances. So it’s very sad.

Chris Riback:                 Yes, that is sad. What is a culture of play and why is make-believe play in particular so important?

Elena Bodrova:              Well, the culture of play involves children actually playing with each other without much of, or maybe without any adult intervention or adult support, which is again, hard to find now. Make-believe play is very important for specific age, for preschool and kindergarten age, because it actually lays the foundation for so many different competences that children will need for the rest of their life. Missing on play makes other competencies not fully developed, so children would miss on a lot of things that they would have learned through play. One of these things is self-regulation, for playing by the rules. The other one is imagination, imagining things for not what they are but where they can be in play, and finally social interactions.

Chris Riback:                 Playing by the rules. Is it important for children to learn about that and understand that in their own environments, in their own context, as opposed to being told by a parent, by a teacher, do this, don’t do that.

Elena Bodrova:              It’s very important, because it’s meaningful for the child. So to play with friends is one of the most exciting, most motivating things. If somebody is not playing by the rules, next time nobody will play with this person. So, and for adults, children don’t always understand what the rules are, and they are not very consistent and they are not that meaningful. A of times they are very arbitrary. So for children it’s not the best way to practice rules.

Chris Riback:                 Does the level of play evolve as a child ages or are there other factors?

Elena Bodrova:              There are. Growing older means the child potentially can learn to play at a higher level. But whether or not she or he will play at this higher level depends on other factors. One of them is this culture of childhood, where the other play mentors are available around, whether somebody plays with this child. Also adults, how adults treat play, where the adults see value in play, whether adults help children when they get stuck in play. Adults are very important factor in children learning how to play.

Chris Riback:                 The culture of play also has built into it the word culture, obviously. I understand that you’ve been doing some work in another culture, in Russia, in an early childhood. What is your work there, and what are you learning?

Elena Bodrova:              I’m working with a non-profit foundation that focuses on education in general, and has a division that focuses on early childhood. I consult with them, but also we developed a curriculum for early childhood that has play as one of the focus areas. What we are finding is that for many decades of extremely authoritarian approach to everything, children were also part of that. Teachers has very teacher-directed ways of doing most things in the preschool and kindergarten. So play was not an exception. Children were playing but more in the child-initiated way. A lot of times adults will direct their play, so learning how to play in a different way, it’s a big mentality shift for those teachers.

Chris Riback:                 It’s hard for us adults to lay back, to stay away.

Elena Bodrova:              Exactly.

Chris Riback:                 It’s almost like the adults need to be taught as much as-

Elena Bodrova:              We’re working with teachers and professional development people and center directors, and we’re teaching them how to step back.

Chris Riback:                 To close out, are there insights, lessons that you see there in Russia that can cross over and be applied here, or are cultures in general, so different that everything needs to be customized for the environment where you’re at?

Elena Bodrova:              Well, one thing that Russian system of early childhood has that other systems don’t, is a focus on health. So there are a lot of elements that actually I designed to help children stay healthy. It includes my more focus on environment, on physical exercises, on actually playing outside in any kind of weather. Those kinds of things probably would be a nice addition to American system.

Chris Riback:                 Excellent. Well, certainly the playing outside part, even, I wouldn’t mind getting to do some of that myself. Elena, thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio.

Elena Bodrova:              You’re welcome.





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