Friday, February 24, 2012

Imaginative Play in Early Childhood: An Overview

Imaginative Play in Early Childhood: An Overview


Whether she is play-acting familiar family scenes, such as driving the car like daddy, or imitating her
mother’s actions, the young child is using her imagination, actions and language to think things through
and to remember what happened in familiar situations. Because this activity is fun, she will become so
engrossed that she is able to think and act it through from beginning to end. She will enjoy pretend play
on her own, making animal noises when she plays with her farmyard animals, and also participating in
“let’s pretend” games with other children, thus developing her social skills. Pretend play will help her
to learn eye-hand coordination, spatial skills, counting, pre-math and pre-reading skills, while allowing
her to safely express her emotions and feelings.


A child’s first ‘make believe’ games will re-create familiar activities such as going to a restaurant,
driving to the supermarket or feeding and bathing her dolls. Play can help her understand her gender
identity and, as she acts out family activities, she will begin to see her role in the family. Older children
enjoy playing pretend games together, sharing similar experiences. Their play will also involve the
retelling of fictional stories they have heard or seen.


The young child is not able to organize complex thoughts, so when he dresses up and
acts as a doctor he is organizing his thoughts and coming to understand the doctor’s role.
Through such play roles he is slowly beginning to think about what it would be like to
be someone else, so that by the time he’s about four-and-a-half he has some
understanding and awareness that other people have their own thoughts and feelings.
This is the beginning of empathy.


The young child will use toy people, animals, cars and trains to create “little worlds,”
replaying family events, acting out familiar stories, or making up new situations.    
This is a way of claiming a safe arena where he can safely exercise control and make
(and break) the rules.


Pretending is one of the ways that the child can try to come to terms with something he’s afraid of.    
He may be afraid of monsters or ghosts and ask for the light to be left on at bedtime, but then play
monsters the next day, or run around with a sheet over his head pretending to be a ghost! For young
children, role-play is their way of coming to terms with their fears.


Play, including imaginative play, is the child's work. Play prepares the child for adulthood, play teaches
him his place in the world, and play teaches him how to interact with the world. It is play that, in the
child’s early years, lays a strong foundation for the physical, academic, social and emotional wellbeing
that will last a lifetime. A child NEEDS to play to grow.

Imagination and the Pre-School Child
Unlike the simple quality of the younger child’s pretend play, the pre-school child’s
imaginative play is complex and takes many forms. From about the age of about
three-and-a-half/ four to about six-and-a half, the pre-school child's imagination      
is in full play. The ability to imagine and pretend is a crucial part of a child’s
development and to be denied ample opportunity and time to develop these skills    
is to also deny the opportunity to develop the creativity and empathy that form the
best foundation for intellectual and emotional growth.  


By the time a child has reached her fourth birthday she has acquired a vast store of knowledge –                
enough that she can take what she knows about her world, stretch her imagination and transform            
the ordinary into the extraordinary. During the summer of her fourth birthday my sister – who had
watched our father clear out a nest of rats from a compost pile, and had also heard her soccer-playing
uncle rhapsodizing about his winning goals – insisted that our garden was inhabited by a team of rats          
who wore yellow soccer shirts and played soccer with her when no-one else was around! Fortunately            
our wise parents allowed and enjoyed her fantasy with her, and eventually the soccer-playing rats
disappeared from our lives and garden. This ability to create a world of her own where she can make  
rules, and control what happens there, is an important part of social and emotional development.


Closely related to the imaginary world is the imaginary friend, an important stage of social development
for many preschoolers. At this age, when the child is testing the world and testing the adults in his life,            
an imaginary friend can offer a safe opportunity to feel in charge, perhaps break the rules, and feel        
a measure of control over his own life. For my grandson, his friend first appeared a few months before
his fourth birthday. After a trying day that left both him and his mother exhausted we took an evening
walk together. He suddenly announced that he had a babysitter named Ella, and Ella was a cricket!      
He also told us that Ella had been taking care of him since he was a baby, she allowed him to ride his
big wheels in the street without an adult and with no helmet, let him eat ice-cream whenever he wanted
it, and never sent him to his room when he threw his dinner on the floor!


Magical thinking is that thinking that allows the child to believe she can direct
the elements around  her – capture the moon and toss it like a balloon, hold back
the night (and bedtime), or control the tides so the waves won’t wash away the
sand castle on the beach. Magical thinking allows the child to be king or queen      
of an imaginary world, where the laws of nature are suspended and where
wonderful things can happen.                

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