Imagination, Play and Art

8 Oct

I am totally nuts about children’s play. When children play, they display thinking, planning, social skills and creative problem solving. If we allow children to play without interfering, and sit down to observe them unobtrusively, we see the real child, and what an amazing little person this is! We often tell children what to play. We buy toys that involve the child’s ability to push buttons and develop spatial skills (about the only positive thing I can say about most electronic toys).

The most important aspect of play is that the child is in control.  Dunn & Kontos (1997) claim that preschool programmes that are based on developmentally appropriate activities – and where the child’s initiation of activities enjoys preference – showed more long-term benefits in the form of better language control, a better self-image and more self-confidence.  Play is therefore more than what it appears on the surface.  Play is an essential aspect of brain development.

During the annual congress of NAEYC – the American association for preschool education – in 2004 in Anaheim, California, particular attention was given to the importance of …self-initiated, sustained imaginary play…  Consideration was given to the reason why children who have the opportunity to plan fantasy play themselves and are allowed to play for long enough, did generally better in reading, writing and arithmetic in the Foundation Phase.  They paid attention mainly to the development of creativity, problem solving and social skills.

It is not only at this congress where the importance of play was studied.  In England, where a new curriculum was implemented in 1999, objections are raised from various regions about the tendency to limit children’s play opportunities. 

Stephanie Northern (May 2003) emphasises what has also been mentioned by other researchers, namely that the preference for early ‘academic’ play at the expense of imaginative play will give the child only a temporary lead in the Foundation Phase.  Sufficient unrestrained play offers long-term benefits that stretch much further that the preschool phase.

All play, except for play ‘organised’ by adults, should develop in fantasy play.  In turn fantasy play has a predictable developmental pattern by which we can measure the ‘health’ of children’s play.  Does this sound far-fetched?  Let’s look at the development of construction play:

The two-year-old stacks a number of blocks on top of each other and then knocks them over, just to start from the beginning again.  However, two-year-old children also do other things with blocks.  They take the long blocks and carry them around.  These blocks are then not building blocks, but guns, swords or even ski’s, depending on the world of experience of the toddler.  The two-year-old often plays alone and the development of fantasy play has a predictable pattern of solitary play, twosome play to group play in the older toddler.

Between 3 and four-and-a-half years of age young children increasingly arrange blocks vertically on the ground in shapes.  These ‘rooms’ become animal cages, houses, ships or whatever is important to them at that stage. Between the ages of 4 and 6 and a half there is an explosion in the imaginary play with regard to large building blocks.  The constructions now become recognisable structures that are used in a specific way in play. 

During this period play is extended and excessive.  Socio-dramatic play, or fantasy play, as we know it, is especially meaningful.  The fantasy corner offers specific opportunity for discovering social rules and roles that children observe in emotionally important adults.  Often the observant preschool teacher hears how her own words and actions are played out in the fantasy corner.  In the role-play children also explore the actions – of parents or other adults – that are not understandable to them or that cause conflict.  By imitating situations in fantasy play children get an idea of the type of decisions that need to be taken.

The highest level of development is when toddlers and even older children become involved in imaginary play without any aids.  In other words, they ‘write’ the script, create the décor and act it out as it develops.  Often 2 or 3 children are involved in the development of the story.  They are simultaneously writer, director and actor in a play about life.  In this game they learn to solve problems, make deals, cooperate with others (without the ‘others’ meaningful imaginary play is not possible).  The child between the age of 4 and 6 is involved in play in her or his totality.

After this long praise song about imaginary play you may get the impression that only play that takes place in the doll corner or with block play can be classified as imaginary play.  Unfortunately it is more complicated than that.  Everything children do that leads to successful learning must be play.  Let’s take a look at something like art.  Do art activities meet the requirements for imaginary play?

It is April.  I have just started in the Grade R group.  It is early morning and after the theme discussion and the explanation of the different free play activities that are available, I allow the children to choose where they want to sit.  One little boy goes to sit at the drawing table, turns to me and asks, ‘May I draw anything, whatever I want?’  His voice sounds unbelieving.  This question is asked of me by more than one child during the following month.  As if they can’t believe that I want them to decide for themselves.

I know that the current method in art is to ask the children to create something relating to the theme.  The approach of allowing the children to create whatever they wanted, however, brought unbelievable results.  Initially the group scribbled (!) for two weeks, then they started drawing, painting and pasting.  The growth in creativity, ability to express themselves and skill was phenomenal.  There were still times when we placed out actual examples such as sunflowers, insects, dinosaur’s models, etc for them to draw or create.  The themes and theme table was still there and very interesting.  However, it was always the children’s choice where and how they wanted to participate.

The more I thought about this, the more I realised that creative art, just like fantasy play, is much more than just art.  The element of imagination in art is often missed.  However, it is exactly this ability to visually portray an idea or image you have in mind on paper, that is very similar to verbalising ideas, almost an internal dialogue.  Planning the use of space and the placement of objects is not haphazard, although it looks like that to an adult. 

Imagination must be part of everything we do with children.  If we want to help our children to develop into creative, problem-solving thinkers, who will be ready for the challenges of the future, we will have to support them with ample opportunities for imaginative play and art.

Photo credit: Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimmiehomeschoolmom/3783982459/

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