Alice sat next to Lauren at the craft table. Hannah and Sara sat across from them. They were happily, busily drawing, beelike hums filling the air. Suddenly, seemingly apropos of nothing, Alice worriedly said to Lauren, “Are you still playing with me?” So great is a four-year-old’s need to play and to play with other children that any perceived threat to the intimacy that play brings (the presence of the other two girls) can be very disturbing for a young child.
In play a child uses the stored sensory memories in the frontal lobe of her brain to create, recreate, and cut-and-paste scripts that make meaning of her experiences. She removes herself from immediate stimuli long enough to enter roles. She develops impulse control if she wants to play because the script has strict rules. After knocking over a row of chairs on her way back to a game of School, four-year-old Lola, focused on the game to which she was returning, didn’t hear her real teacher’s voice calling “Lola, you’ll need to pick up the chairs before you return to the game.” But she picked up every last chair when her three-year-old friend Sophie, who was the teacher in their school game, said. “Lola, we’re starting our next lesson, but first you’ll need to pick up your chairs!”
In play a child is the creator of his own learning. He needs other children to fulfill roles, introduce new ones, and to collaborate on a repertoire of narratives. Friendship is based on these social narratives. Scott plays with Kurt because Kurt is the one who will play “Golden Ninjas” and “Treehouse” with him. He finds Dan and Kitty when he wants to play “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” The children with whom he has the most and most creative play are his dearest friends.
By the same token, a child will seek new friends when he feels his play is stifled. Charlie and Steven are beginning to bicker and seek out new play partners because they are increasingly dissatisfied with the direction their play takes. Charlie wants to linger on the shark-fighting ship and build more lasers and torpedos. Steven has to burn off energy more frequently and wants Charlie go with him to roughhouse and run. Charlie usually gives in, and he resents it more and more, much as he loves Steven. These chafing times in friendships are painful, but they resolve in a wider circle of friends and more challenging and satisfying play experiences.