Imaginative play

28 Jul

Observing young children is certainly one of the most interesting and revealing activities that parents and teachers can do. Recently, we acquired new climbing equipment for our baby class at school. We bought a climbing gym with a small, low slide and a car made from a drum, tyres and a steering wheel.

Three of our babies turned one year old in the last few weeks and all three these little boys are walking. As soon as the boys saw the car, they made a beeline for it. One of them, Amman, climbed into the car (with the help of his teacher) and assumed the driver’s position, hands on the steering wheel and body leaning forward. I stood about 15 meters away from him. He looked up and made eye contact, and  while still driving with his one hand, he lifted his other hand and waved at me. When I returned the wave, he got very excited and let go of the steering wheel for a moment and waved with both his hands. He then resumed driving.

This little boy turned one year old the previous week. The ability to imagine the drum-and-tyre car as a real car, to make the appropriate noises and to involve someone else in this imaginary game, is the start of a process of development with far reaching implications. At this very young age he is starting to develop symbolic thinking. The moment a young child uses a piece of equipment and changes it into something real by his or her play, we can talk about symbolic thinking.

We often see 18 month old toddlers picking up small blocks and using them as cell phones.  They will even use their hands to do something else, clenching the “cell phone” between their shoulder and ear while pacing up and down, imitating a parent. Playing imaginary games is different from kicking a ball, climbing a tree or sliding down a slide. Imagination involves an internal language and internal visualisation of the imaginary scene. As the child gets older these imaginary games become more intricate, the games involve “props” and other players that must be initiated in the game planned in the child’s imagination. These games have rules and take place in a certain space, while incorporating a continuous process of symbolic thinking. These games also create opportunities for language development and mathematical understanding that have long-term implications for life.

We often think of the value of imaginary games as mainly social and emotional. According to Stuart Brown, games that develop and strengthen spatial skills, an awareness of rules and the use of language, have implications for adult functioning in diverse situations like engineering, being a parent and starting a business.

Symbolic thinking is for example, critical in learning and appreciating poetry, as well as understanding and seeing relationships in literature. All of these things are important for doing well at school. According to research, preschool block builders and players do better in grade 10 Algebra, than those young children that did not participate in this essential preschool imaginary game.

Play is continuously under pressure. It is not waste of time, nor childish and worthless, but a human activity of great value. May we never forget how to play!

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