Tag Archives: fantasy play

A river filled with crocodiles

5 Nov

Children are truly amazing. I am, once again, teaching a 4 to 5 year old group. It is a learning situation for me as well as for the children. I spend a long time every night preparing for the next day and yet their interest is often caught by the unprepared things that happen in the class. The unprepared, spontaneous discussion on what should we do to be a good friend. These children very seriously declared that you should not hurt someone, you should always speak kindly and share your toys. Profound wisdom that they can take into adulthood with them.

I also started with a programme to help them focus and increase their self-control. Every morning we start by sitting with crossed legs and breathing slowly in and out. We greet each other with a morning song and talk about what happened at home. In the three weeks that we have been together, I have learned that laughing and playing are powerful tools to get children to focus. We sing and dance every day. We listen to stories and do art, and they play. Playing is so precious at this age. They are willing to do all the things I ask of them but in the end their question is, “May we go and play?”

When we were small, we did not need to ask. In fact, we were chased out of the house to go and play. When we were in primary school, no one ever asked where we were going after school. You only had to be back when the sun went down. I know the world has changed. I also know that I had an incredible childhood. It was filled, not with possessions, but with experience. I can remember one day discovering  a shallow pool filled with enormous bullfrogs. We went back there to observe and watch the bullfrogs until they mysteriously disappeared. Today there is a huge hospital built on this site.

I know we cannot bring back the carefree days of our childhood. However, we can make it easier for young children to be children. When I hear that children as young as three have to do ballet, formal music classes, mathematics and learn to read and write, it fills me with sadness. They should, like the troop in my class, go out and play. The other day they built a river, filled it with water and swung over the river with the rope swing in the tree. I do not think that anyone of them has ever done that in real life, but their imagination enabled them to live that experience. And who are we to say they do not learn?

We should allow our children to create memories for the day that will surely come when they are sad and alone. Then they can remember making a wide, dangerous river, filled with crocodiles and swinging over this river with the help of their friends. Is that a waste of time? No. As long as we know that we need friends; and that you must not hurt your friends; and share your time and resources; we know that we learn for the future.


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!

What makes us human?

24 May

In the NewScientist of 21 April 2012, there is a very interesting article on what makes us human and why we are different from most animals. This article pinpoints 5 characteristics that make us human in a unique way. Three of these are present in young children and remind us of Alison Gopnik’s words that young children are the research and development phase of humanity.

The first characteristic is being playful. This is my personal favourite. Although many animals play, no species pursue such a wide variety of play over such a long period. Although the nature of play changes as we get older, humans still play into old age. What makes human play different, is the great degree of imagination that is generated in play. If we look at the pinnacle of play in the preschool phase, it is imaginative play that provides children with the opportunity to socialise, compromise and learn from mistakes. Play isn’t simply for fun (Marc Bekoff). Through play, young children develop muscle strength, rhythm, coordination, balance and spatial skills. Even more important is the ability to develop a theory of mind as well as a social instinct. To me one of the most important benefits of play, is the ability to develop creative thinking and problem solving skills. Children playing without interference of adults learn to trust their instincts, and they learn from the mistakes they make. The article comes to the conclusion that play is a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. One of the benefits of imaginative playing is the development of symbolic thought. The young baby, holding a wooden block to his ear, pretending to talk on a cell phone, is replacing a real object with a symbol of that object. The development of symbolic thinking underlies the development of reading, writing and math.

The second characteristic is one that parents of young children are very familiar with. It is the ability to sort the surrounding environment and experiences into categories. Children are natural scientists looking for meaning in the world around them. The much loved, often repeated question of young children: “But why ..?”, epitomizes this scientific quest. This question eventually links up with the symbolic thinking with the purpose to understand the world better and to be in control of the world. The question “why” is fundamental to the young child taking apart a toy to see why and how it is working; a much more enduring reward than putting batteries in a toy!

The next characteristic is the tendency to make rules. Anyone observing imaginative play in a group of 4 to 6 year old children will notice that making rules is a major part of the play. In fact, this is one of the benefits of play. If we look at this benefit longitudinally we can assume that to play by the rules is a building block of morality. Although rules differ from society to society, and whether we agree with the rules or not, rules are an inherent part of every society. Children playing are thus, without knowing, preparing themselves to function within a particular society.

We often think of children as being in a process of becoming a human being. But by their nature, children are already finely tuned humans.

Developing strong, resilient children (and saving the earth)

13 Nov

The world is a wonderful and interesting, but demanding place. For someone with insatiable curiosity the world is truly a place for learning about yourself, the ecology, and other people. In a recent publication of the New Scientist magazine there is a spellbinding article on the effect of weather patterns on the earth and all its inhabitants. This article divides the “facts” about weather changes in two categories; those that we know, based on research and observation and those that we do not know. The latter mostly has to do about the effect of the first category on life on earth as we know it. The overall impression of this article is that changes will come and we will have to adjust to these changes.

Why is this article mentioned in the same breath as interest and curiosity? I can add some other social skills to these two, like empathy, respect for all living things, to be able to consider the long-term effect of a choice you make, and more. All of these things are important, not only to save the world, but absolutely essential for school readiness, functioning as an employee and employer in the future and being a caring, loving partner, parent and person. Need I say more?

There are two questions we need to ask: why is it important to develop these skills and how do we develop these skills.

Let us tackle the more difficult question first. To be able to develop empathy, it is important that we develop the ability to be aware of other people and their needs. This is a very interesting field of research. The official name for this process is “Theory of Mind” or ToM. Alison Gopnik describes in her book Philosophical Baby very young toddlers already showing signs of being aware that other people have different needs than their own. She describes the amusing experiment of presenting a toddler with a bowl of crackers and a bowl of broccoli. Of course the child reached for the crackers. The researcher then took the broccoli and with great relish and lip smacking ate the green stuff. The toddler obviously thought this person is out of her mind, but very kindly reached for the broccoli and presented it to the researcher.

Our Guinea-pig at school died from a virus infection. In spite of careful nurturing we could not save him. All the children were interested in this whole process and it provided a wonderful opportunity to let them experience care, grief and thinking about death. One 2½ year old little girl was inconsolable. She kept on asking why did we not put a blanket over him in the night? Coming to terms with the loss of the school pet showed me her well-developed empathy. Quite a remarkable reaction for a child this young. How does this answer our question? Children learn the skills of empathy and respect for all living things from our daily example. The implication of this is that we need to be a consistent role model for our children from a very young age if we want them to develop these skills. We need to plan for opportunities to develop these skills. This also means that the choice of a care centre and preschool is important. When we do market research in order to place our children in care, or even when we employ an au pair, the norms and values of the caregiver should be paramount in our choice. There is no sense in placing your child with an au pair or a preschool where winning, being better than other people and conditional love and attention is the way of helping children to develop. Placing your child in an institution like this, will contribute to the very real danger of rearing egocentric, selfish children; children that are able to read and do math, but are unable to relate to others in a caring way.

Of course, once again, the magic way to learn about the ToM of other children and other people is to play imaginative games in groups. Apart from social skills like empathy, children also learn to develop and share rules, to find creative solutions to problems and accommodate other people’s needs. One of the things we forget when exposing our children to early formal reading and math is that these skills are based on the foundation of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking develops when children play imaginative or fantasy games. Symbolic thought is the impetus for the development of abstract thinking as it is for “reading” other people and being aware of their feelings and needs. All of the other skills, like thinking before you do something (impulse control), or taking responsibility for you choices and your mistakes will be developed in the imaginative play arena.

Does this mean that children can play what they want? The answer must be a conditional yes. A trained professional teacher with an interest in brain development and effective learning will of course plan play opportunities. However, the full benefit is when children take the given opportunity and develop it into something that answer to their needs. (Do a Google search on Facilitated Imaginative Play and see what a host of other people has to say on this topic!)

Let us return to the first question: why is it important for the world view of the future adult to have these skills? Why is it important to have interested, curious people? Well, in the first place that is a natural state of mind of humans if it is allowed to develop. It is one of the ways we survive — now, in future and in the past. If our ancestors in the wild were not wide awake, interested and curious, we would probably still be carrying our little bundles on our backs, living in caves. Inventions happen because humans are curious, interested people, able to see problems and solve problems in creative, innovative ways. However, if we do not provide children (of all ages) with opportunities to explore, discover and develop creative thinking, we will find it very hard to survive.

I believe in the future of the earth because I believe in the immense potential in each child and in every human being, to be lively, interested, curious, caring and innovative. If we awaken this potential, what can stop us?

Photo: H.Koppdelaney at Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/2554927006/



Playing to succeed

8 Oct

When you are a teacher you often think about the longterm outcome of your teaching. I agonise over questions like: Am I teaching children longterm values and skills that will still be applicable 20 years on? Am I really preparing children for an uncertain, demanding, ever-changing future? I do not know. With millions of teachers and parents all over the world I realise that educating and preparing children for the future is at best a guessing game.

It is, however, easier nowadays to determine what children want from their teachers and parents. Contrary to popular belief, children do not want to do nothing. They want to play, yes that is true, but playing is officially recognised as absolutely necessary for learning so that does not count as wanting to do nothing. The problem is though, that many teachers and parents still do not realise that playing is the only way of learning. The problem with play is that we cannot test what the children learned from playing. There is often not an immediate input  – output process like in a factory. Children also play in atypical ways. Boys run around and make growling noises when they are four years old. Girls play tea parties and very civilised dress-up games. Do they learn the same thing? Do they learn anything?

If we look at brain development and the information about how brains work and how young children learn, we know today that children learn in the first place by exploring their lifeworld with their taste, touch,smell and kinesthetic senses. Yesterday I passed a car 06:20 in the morning and I saw a small little face pearing out of the window at the world rushing past. The driver was a father, taking his young child to a care facility. Many care facilities provide young children with real lifeworld experiences but it also unfortunately true that many places provide them with care but very little real lifeworld environments where they can explore with all their senses and learn about the world around them.

These children might get to know the world as a strange and distant place. The characters on TV are probably more real to them than the real world. Speculating about the longterm effect of this distance between the real world and the knowledge of young children can create a quite scary scenario in our minds. In one of the “Visions of the Future” series of the BBC, the presenter is talking to people for whom the virtual digital world is infinitely preferable to the real world.

When children are playing they take responsibility for their own learning. Professor Sugata Mitra (Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK) says that children have this amazing ability to learn what they need to learn. He also says that learning is something that takes place without the intervention of adults. A very sobering thought  for caring, dedicated parents!

The pinnacle of play is imagination play or fantasy play. Playing and planning imaginative play with someone else is certainly one of the best ways to learn that other people also have needs and rights. Learning to judge a situation by realising when to take the lead and when to be a follower is also important. Even more important is the aspect of knowing when to make your needs subservient to the needs of the group.

Many of the skills children explore in playing are skills that stay with them for the rest of their life. These are the skills that greatly influence success in life. Through play children learn how to communicate and negotiate; they learn how to solve social and emotional conflicts by talking about differences;  they learn that compromising is an important way to ensure a win-win situation.

I conclude with this quote from Vygotsky (in Berk & Winsler, 1995:52): … Play creates a zone of proximal development in the child. In play, the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development …

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/233228813/

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/