Imagine that!

Recently Hope at Nanny Shecando sent me a tweet requesting some thoughts about imaginative play in a school setting. Sadly I would say that imaginative play has been just about pushed out in the ever-increasing content-driven and assessment focused curriculum. Seeing children as young as five spending much of their day sitting at desks filling in worksheets and parroting back isolated bits of information flashed at them in meaningless drill and practice sessions is about as far away from my thoughts about education as you could get. If it is difficult for early childhood teachers to squeeze time for imaginative play into their programs, imagine (there’s that word) how difficult it is for teachers of older children.

However, whenever I hear the above quote by Thomas Edison, I am reminded of how an early childhood classroom should be: a place for imagination, exploration and discovery.  Parents may tire of the cardboard box creations that children regularly bring home, wondering where each one can be stored (or discreetly disposed of!), but the value to be had from the opportunity to create, imagine and play must not be understated.

For imagination to flourish in an early childhood classroom, I suggest the following ingredients are essential:

A recognition of the importance of play and imagination in the healthy development of children and the prioritisation of opportunities for imaginative play every day by providing:

  • Time – lengthy and uninterrupted, with the opportunity for created play areas to be left intact over a number of days or weeks
  • Space – both indoor and outdoor with a variety of larger and smaller spaces
  • Opportunities for self-selection of activity and self-direction
  • Books for story reading and play acting
  • Variety of props: things such as dress-up items including lengths of fabric that can be a kings robe, a princess’s dress, a magic carpet, an apron, a bed; hats and scarves; toys like cars, dolls, animal toys; building blocks and cardboard boxes; paper, cardboard scissors and pens for creating signs, posters and crowns; areas for quiet play with cushions; open spaces for creating larger ‘worlds’ . . . the items that can be used to inspire imagination are limitless.

When children are showing interest in a particular topic, an observant teacher may gather up a variety of props and leave then in a box for children to discover and use as they decide.

 

In an earlier post, Learning at its best: A classroom of magic, Hope herself described a school with an open space ‘where magic happens’. She described a friendship tree where ‘friendship and freedom of speech are fostered’; an area with a ‘magic carpet . . . plush beaded cushions and Middle Eastern style blankets . . . a place for imagination to prosper. Anything is possible when dreamed, imagined or conjured whilst on the magic carpet.’

magic carpet

She described an area for drama and the opportunity of being and expressing yourself. She described a creativity corner where young inventors could create anything they could imagine; and spaces to read, explore, share and dream. One could think this school was in Hope’s dreams, her imagination of what is possible. But it is a real school educating real children in very positive ways that will have a very different effect that the scenario I described above. However it is not a typical school. There is not one like it in every suburb. In Hope’s words, it is a ‘very select private school’. But don’t all children deserve learning opportunities such as these?

After re-reading Hope’s post, I’m not entirely certain why she invited me to share my thoughts about imaginative play in a school setting. I think she has described a wonderful example of imagination in practice. The design of the school and the aspects of the program described above, show the value of imagination, not only of the students but of the school designers, administrators and teachers.

In a recent post Just imagine . . . the power of imagination I talked about the power of imagination to drive creativity and innovation, and suggested that much of what we now accept as commonplace was once only in someone’s imagination. Einstein said that,

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’

Maria Montessori is attributed with the idea that Play is child’s work’. In this article Thinking about Children’s Play David Elkind, refutes that idea citing works by both Freud and Piaget, a psychologist whose work greatly influenced thinking about child development and learning. Elkind, himself a professor of child development and of author of books such as The Hurried Child, The Power of Play  and Miseducation, says that ‘Although Montessori has made many important and lasting contributions to early childhood education, her identification of work and play in young children was unfortunate.’ He says that, in play, children are not preparing for life, they are living life.

Early-instruction - David Elkind

Elkind does not favour the imposition of formal learning situations upon children of increasingly younger ages.  The following excerpt from Miseducation, shared in Commentary: The ‘Miseducation’ of Young Children Elkind says, ‘When we instruct children in academic subjects, or in swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm.’

He continues, saying that ‘The most important thing is an excitement about and enthusiasm for learning. Skills are easily learned when the motivation is there.’ I agree wholeheartedly and have joined in with a discussion of motivation in a number of posts, most recently in Motivation – why we do the things we do.

An-ounce-of-motivation David Elkind

In another article Can we play? shared on The Greater Good in 2008, Elkind explains that imaginative play is important to academic as well as social and emotional development. Unbelievably, he said that ‘More than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess to make more time for academics.’ It is difficult to imagine how unwelcoming and uninspiring a school without recess would be. I wonder how much lunch time those who made these rules allow themselves.

He says ‘Play is motivated by pleasure. It is instinctive and part of the maturational process. We cannot prevent children from self-initiated play; they will engage in it whenever they can. The problem is that we have curtailed the time and opportunities for such play.

In the words of Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), ‘Where do the children play?’  I add ‘and when?’

 

If you wish to read further, here are some links to get you started. I don’t agree with all the content. Some suggest a more structured approach than I would favour. However, as with everything, a broader knowledge helps one more clearly formulate one’s own position.

Assessing and Scaffolding Make-Believe Play by Deborah J. Leong and Elena Bodrova

Teachosaur thoughts ‘Play is the work of children’ … J. Piaget

Tools of the Mind Supporting Make-Believe Play

Psychology today The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development

 

 

I value your feedback. Please join in the discussion by sharing your thoughts about any aspect of this post.

28 thoughts on “Imagine that!

  1. Bec

    Hi Nor, I really enjoyed this article, though it is alarming to hear about what seems to be a drift toward less play and more ‘academics’ in schools. Gosh. It makes my heart ache for kids. The quotes about work and play reminded me of a quote from Dr Seuss in the Womankind magazine (which I love and would recommend to anyone who enjoys thinking – from any gender or gender identification: http://www.womankindmag.com) which was:

    Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.

    It’s also, like you say, funny that Hope asked for your insights. I understand, as I always like to know what you think as you are such a unique, inventive, and kindhearted thinker, but from following Hope’s blog I see that she is too. We all are fortunate that there are people like you and Hope thinking about how to do things right for the next generations, and how to give them the best start to life. A shame that you and Hope are, in the context of much of society (though of course excluding the readership of your blog!), rare gems among the rough.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec, Thank you very much for your very generous (and unbiased) comment. I appreciate your thoughts and support.
      Needless to say, I love the quote by Dr Seuss, and am surprised I hadn’t heard it before. I like to think I’m still a six year old at heart and not obsolete yet!
      There are many people working hard to give children the best start in life. Unfortunately, they are often not the ones making decisions that impact how that start is enacted.

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  2. Charli Mills

    Great post, Norah with lots of ensuing discussions. I’m so glad I followed instinct when my children were young. There’s so much pressure to get them enrolled earlier and earlier in school with pre-school being mainstream here in the US. It didn’t feel right to me. The only thing we did at home was read (lots!) and of course, the kids played (lots!). The three were so imaginative, they were never bored or needing entertainment. And turns out that the things we did together, like fishing rocky streams, led to an interest in rocks and now I have two geologists in the family. What was once play became a passion and now a profession. As a parent I was criticized when enrolling my children in public school because they had no pre-schooling and I didn’t “bother” to “teach” them the alphabet or numbers. I thought that was what kindergarten was for. They declined my son because when asked to “name” five animals he answered with five names (like Bobbie). He’s a grad scholar today so I doubt it hurt him having an extra year at home to play!

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    1. Norah Post author

      🙂 How gorgeous that your son gave the names of five animals (farm or pet animals I assume). How unimaginative that they could not see he had answered their question appropriately! Their loss, obviously. The early days sound amazing – reading, playing, exploring. Amazing that those early days influenced their choice of career. I love how you say it was an interest, a passion, and a profession. They are fortunate! I agree with you that there is too much pressure on kids to do too much too soon! With a lifetime ahead, why do they have to do so much before they are 5? They have done most of their learning by then anyway (important stuff) so why try to cram their heads with other non-important stuff! Oops! There I go again!

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  3. Dee Dee Chainey

    Great post on such an important topic! I worked in a forest school a few years ago, and I’ve never seen children have so much fun! Each day the trees, rocks and mud would be their toys, and they could do more or less what they wanted in a free-range environment within safe boundaries. As a ‘play pedagogue’ (a bit of a mouthful meaning someone who asks helpful questions and makes sure no-one falls in a ravine!) it was great to see what children would choose to investigate when given the chance. Attended some great workshops on fabulous projects like ‘Words in the Woods’ – placing props in the forest landscape and allowing children to create their own stories and lines of thought from them, and also ‘Suitcase Full of Stories’ run by the same people. Well worth having a look at these projects for inspiration. Imaginative play is a must for well-rounded independent adults!

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    1. Norah Post author

      This sounds amazing, Dee Dee. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your experiences. I will indeed see what I can find out about those projects you have mentioned. The children (and adults) would definitely not suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder!

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    1. Norah Post author

      I was talking to the mother of a ‘preppie’ last night. He’s only five and already failing. It’s not only sad, in my opinion it is criminal what they are doing to these kids.

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      1. Annecdotist

        Oh that’s dreadful. Similarly, a friend’s little boy was attending remedial reading classes at the age of five. I was able to tell her that were he Spanish he’d be ahead rather than behind as they don’t start reading there until six.
        It’s hard to think of a better way to put children off reading than by presenting it to them before they are ready to master the skill.

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  4. Annecdotist

    I haven’t delved into all your links as I’ll leave that for the educationalists, but one thought sparked by your post is that, in some ways, imaginative play is one area in which children from wealthy families could be considered disadvantaged. All those expensive toys that children are enticed to play with when they could do so much more with a scrap of cloth and a cardboard box. And I’m thinking how dressing up these days means a trip to the supermarket for an off-the-shelf outfit rather than cobbling something together from the dressing up box. And those little children sitting at desks sends a shiver down my spine – it’s too much like my own school days!

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    1. Hope (@NannyShecando)

      I completely agree with you Anne. As a nanny I tend to work with more affluent families, and I do notice a difference in the style of toys that many of the kids have. The fact that children get whatever they ask for, whenever they ask for it is worrying to say the least. And it sets a dangerous precedence in terms of behavioural tendencies. But I do observe time and time again, that they’ll always cast aside the toy in favour of the cardboard box it came in – if only the parents can remember this.

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    2. TanGental

      Coming as I do from a situation where we could afford many toys for our kids I learnt a lesson at the second Christmas. I can’t remember what it was we bought but it came in a large box. The Lawyer sat while I opened it and promptly climbed into the box. He couldn’t give a stuff about the toy and that box became his favourite thing for a while. We painted it and he embroidered it with hand prints. Making a den in the sitting room with every cushion, or a space rocket down the stairs with duvets was as much fun as any plastic truck and trailer. So yes, I’m with you Norah. Allowing the imagination to run riot, letting it take you where it will as a child – setting sail in the paddling pool for Narnia I remember vividly – were joys for everyone. Such a lovely post, Norah, one that has brought back so many memories of both my childhood and that of my children. The critical piece, of course, is giving it enough time to let them find their own way into their imaginations.

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      1. Norah Post author

        Thanks for engaging in and extending the conversation, Geoff. Cardboard boxes – what a treasure for an imaginative mind! I love the description of the imaginative things you and your children did. Setting sail for Narnia in a paddling pool sounds amazing. Did you get there?
        If only we all had more time for imagining, imagine the imaginings we could do! 🙂

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        1. TanGental

          I know. I credit the Textiliste who is a firm believer in making your own. Both entertainment and stuff. I think in part reading to children helps create those other worlds they want t o inhabit. We went on a weeks holiday with friends once where everyone played a member of the famous five. That was fun. I was the baddy!

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          1. Norah Post author

            I love the sound of playing out the characters of the Famous Five, though it is so long ago now since I read those books I can’t think who I might be! I can’t imagine you as the baddy – though it is always fun to try out those roles that one wouldn’t in real life! 🙂

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    3. Norah Post author

      Thanks Anne. I agree there is so much more to be created from ‘a scrap of cloth and a cardboard box’ than a store-bought toy. (Reminds me a bit of Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen
      That’s not to say there aren’t good store-bought toys too.
      I’m in total agreement about the desks – and these children are probably younger than you were!
      It’s fine for you to leave the links to educationalists. I am honoured that you always come back for a read and a comment anyway. 🙂

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    4. Sarah Brentyn

      Anne – This is so true: “…imaginative play is one area in which children from wealthy families could be considered disadvantaged.” I had never thought about it in exactly that way but, if a child gets the latest, greatest, most expensive toy out there, what’s left? More to the point, most of those toys are so technologically advanced that there is little room for children to imagine. In fact, there is no NEED for them to imagine because everything is provided for them in these gadgets. I grew up with toys and books but I still loved cardboard boxes, scraps of fabrics…whatever. I made capes and caves and castles. It was wonderful.

      Great post, Norah!

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