Comment: The importance of imaginative playJanuary 9, 2017, 9:05 am GMT
Looking back, many of us would probably be hard pressed to remember more than a handful of toys given to us as presents on special occasions.
However, is that true of the memories we may have of the hours of fun spent playing with the cardboard boxes these presents came in; whether it was climbing into that makeshift race car, building a fort, or asking for the front to be cut out so you could pretend to be on the television. The fun that was had as a child with what we,as an adult, would perceive as everyday household items was infinite. Many people may remember hopping into their sailing ship (laundry basket) and setting out on an adventure in the wide ocean (the living room carpet) while trying to fend off deadly sharks (Katie and Saffie, the family dogs). Or maybe that's just me!
However, as adults we tend to look at objects literally a saucepan is very handy when it comes to cooking dinner, a mobile phone is used to call family and friends, and a cardboard box is either a nuisance after you have moved house or a great storage box for the garage. Gone are the days where we need to wear a metal helmet to protect us from the falling ash of a volcano, use an intergalactic phone to make an emergency call to other life forms on Jupiter, or simply to sit in our cardboard racing car.
More often than not, children do not stop playing because there are no toys around. They will actively seek out other objects to use we have all met the child in the park who is not carrying a stick but a knight's sword. If suitable objects are not available, they simply become imaginary. Similarly, children will not be confined to an area in the house or the role play corner at nursery or school when engaging in imaginative play the child in the swimming pool is in fact a mermaid and when they go upstairs at bedtime, they do not climb into their bed but a tepee with the Lost Boys and wait silently for Captain Hook to sail by.
The value of children pretending in play spreads much further than children just being able to use their imaginations. Studies have shown that imaginative play is important in many other areas of child development too. Children begin to symbolically represent objects between the ages of 12 and 24 months. Hard to believe I know but this could be as simple as a child sucking on a plastic baby bottle instead of one filled with real milk the act of recognising similar objects is one of the first steps in symbolic play.
When children are acting in their fantasy world be it in space or under the sea they are able to look at the world from the safe confines of their imagination. Quite often and this applies to boys and girls imaginative play in a small group of children ends in someone unfortunately getting injured (or even worse) from a ray gun or Elsa's magic ice powers. This is a great opportunity to engage with children and to model the emotions and moral repercussions this may have in the real world. The children do not get upset as their friend bounces back a few seconds later, ready to continue the epic battle. However, they are able to experience these sorts of complex emotions within the safe environment of their pretend play.
Similarly, children playing in a small group will develop the skills of negotiation and improvisation - they will have to agree to take either the spaceship or the hoverboard, who is going to be the 'goodie' or the 'baddie' and who will defeat the evil Emperor Zorg.
Whilst not the same challenges we face in adult life (although I have to admit I would often prefer to fly my spaceship to work), our everyday lives depend on these sorts of skills.
Problem solving abilities are also often found in imaginative play, whether it is in singular or group play. How are we going to rescue the princess in the tower? How are we going to capture the treasure from Captain Blackbeard and his crew of dastardly pirates?
Interwoven into all of the skills mentioned is arguably the most important skill language. Children, whether they are playing on their own, with their parents or with peers, are constantly engaged in a dialogue. This may be with themselves or others but the result is very similar. Children learn to verbalise their thoughts the alien to the left of you is not going to know you are friendly if you do not tell him. They also acquire new vocabulary within the context of their imaginative environment instead of playing the trumpet in your underwater rock band you may decide to pick up the bassoon. It is these skills that, when practised, form the foundations of creative writing when children get older.
So how can we help children enhance and practise these skills? Quite simply, forget our inhibitions, think back to when we were five and put on that pirate's hat in the corner. Join in! At Kings' we have a strong ethos of harnessing children's imagination through play. We ensure that new experiences are explored in a fun and engaging manner. Skills are modelled and scaffolded and teachers are seen as play partners. This can be replicated in the home just remember not to throw out your cardboard boxes!
So next time you are embarking upon a family day out, instead of taking the car like you usually do, how about taking the 'spaceship' or the 'submarine' and see where your journey takes you!
Rebecca Balshaw, Assistant Headteacher, Foundation Stage, Kings' School Nad Al Sheba.
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