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Imaginative Play

'Mary was bigger than Laura and she had a rag doll named Nettie. Laura had only a corncob wrapped in a handkerchief, but it was a good doll. It was named Susan. It wasn't Susan's fault that she was only a corncob. Sometimes Mary let Laura hold Nettie, but she did it only when Susan couldn't see.'  - Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Little House in the Big Woods

The kind of imaginative play that Laura Ingalls Wilder describes from her 19th century childhood was once familiar to everyone. When I was a boy, I had a tommy gun made of a block of wood and part of a broomstick (the Second World War wasn't long finished) and a cart made of old pram wheels and scrap lumber. It didn't look like one, but it was a racing car to me. Children could play for hours with no props at all, weaving characters into complex stories to keep themselves endlessly amused. When they were bored, that very boredom was the vacuum that created a space for their creative imagination.

Imaginative play is a vital part of a child's development. By inventing scenarios and characters, children develop their ability to think and to maintain mental patterns and images. In the longer term this leads to a capacity for holding abstract ideas in their minds and allowing new and creative ideas to arise. Imaginative play is a valuable experience in its own right and an essential preparation for a creative adulthood. It opens the way directly to creativity and resourcefulness. As Laura Ingalls found, having a corncob as a doll works perfectly well with only a little imagination.

Imaginative play also fosters cooperation between children. They learn to interact constructively to create a game or scenario that can grow into a complex and absorbing entertainment. Such interactions help children to regulate their own behavior, since a cooperative game cannot progress if every participant insists on his or her point of view. In playing these kinds of games, children learn to give and take, and to entertain the possibility that theirs is not the only useful point of view. In step with this comes the development of communication skills, both in speaking and listening. Among other things, imaginative play helps children learn the invaluable life-skill of putting oneself in another person's position. Above all, however, such play comes from the child’s own imagination, often using stories and fairy tales that the child has absorbed and is able to draw on subconsciously as a source of ideas and storylines.

Now however, imaginative play is under threat from two sources: prescriptive toys, with back-stories and detailed instructions, and the tendency to fill children's lives with adult-initiated activities that leave no time for downtime as a reserve of creativity.

As an example of the former, look at Lego. This wonderfully creative toy used to consist of a few basic bricks, a number of special components such as wheels and window-frames and no instructions about what to make. In the past twenty years, however, Lego has evolved into a series of kits – often related to films and books - and instructions that children follow to make various specific models. My own children rapidly got bored with making Lego kits. Once the models were completed there was little they could do with them, and yet the separated components no longer had the simplicity that made the children's own imagination the key ingredient of their play. On the other hand, the fairly basic collection of Lego bricks we have in our classroom at The Village School is a regular favorite, and is assembled into anything from gardens to spaceships.

Another example is the series of beautiful dolls manufactured by American Girl. As simple dolls they are very attractive, but they also come with names and histories ready made. Girls use the factory-prepared name rather than make up one of their own, and they read factory-supplied books that give them the doll's life story, instead of imagining their own story and developing and changing it as they grow up. Contrast that with my sister who, in the early 1960s, named her rag-doll 'Elsan' because she thought the word sounded pretty. She didn’t care that it was the brand name of the chemical toilet we used in our holiday cottage.

Nowadays 'Webkins' are simply following the American Girl trend, but with more sophistication and a further step away from the child’s own internal world. The added allure of the internet promotes a virtual community of Webkin owners that is just that – virtual. For adults the motives of the Webkins manufacturer are transparently obvious – sell more Webkins. Children unwittingly and enthusiastically absorb the company's skillfully marketed agenda; part of the Webkin experience is buying ever more Webkins, and then equipping each cuddly toy with a dazzling array of consumer goods. Just what are our children being trained for here?

Which brings us to the subject of computer games in general. Leave aside any link between computer games and lack of attention – for which there is clear anecdotal evidence among teachers but insufficient formal research – and just look at the content. Here the problem is not just the pervasive violence in many popular games for children, it's the fact that the whole game, however complex and multi-leveled, is devised by someone else. Children playing computer games spend hours inhabiting someone else's imagination, and inhibiting their own. Listen to children who play computer games regularly and you hear endless discussion of the details of the game, and the level each child has reached; there's no additional imaginative input. This is in marked contrast with conversations children have about books, where they often take the book as a point of departure, and imagine motives and scenarios of their own, based on the fictional characters they have engaged with.

A second major impediment to the development of children's creativity and resourcefulness is the growing involvement of adults in their leisure time. From the best of motives, and with considerable sacrifice of time and energy, we parents connect the dots of our children's social life, and organize the entertainments and activities that they once arranged mostly for themselves. In some cases this is an unfortunate corollary of living in the country, where children are likely to be separated by distances they cannot surmount unaided, but it is equally true of children in the city. When my family lived in London in the 1990s, most of the interactions of the children we knew were instigated by their parents. For fear of traffic and predators, children were simply not allowed to walk a block or two to see a friend. City school playgrounds are now full of parents at dismissal time where, only a few decades ago, children walked home safely and unescorted. Has the threat increased, or only our perception of it?

Moreover, because many 'play-dates' are arranged one-on-one, children rarely get the opportunity for unsupervised play in a group. They thus miss the chance for pooling their creative ideas, and they also lose the opportunity of solving their social problems within their own group, and of learning from their own experience how groups work together.

If we accept even a part of this analysis of curbs on our children's imaginative and creative development, what can we do about it? Is it possible to resist the march of 'progress' and the pressure children feel (and exert) to own the latest toys and games? The remedy is not wholly, or even partly, beyond our control. For a start, we could avoid buying prescriptive toys, including computer games. We could help our children see how much more interesting their own ideas are, compared with the pre-packaged themes of a toy company's marketing department. Even at the age of six it didn’t take long for my own son to see that the slogan promoted by the maker of Pokemon cards – 'gotta get 'em all' – worked only to the company’s advantage.

And what of our detailed involvement in our children's play? While we cannot, or will not, allow ourselves to be as loose in the supervision of our own children as our parents were, we can allow them to have time and space in their lives to initiate their own activities. And, finally, we can be brave enough to invite more than one friend over at a time to play with our children, and then let them get on with it.

George Bennett  Village School  3-07

Imaginative Play 

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