Monday, July 25, 2016

Other ways to play - Imaginative Play in the Classroom

Welcome to a new week!

This week we will discuss imaginative play.  This post is part of the series about parents supporting their children, like an A.R.C.H., as they enter into school.

A - Advocate for Play
R - Read Aloud
C - Coach academic skills
H - Habit formation

Our focus last week was on outdoor play for children.  This week we move towards imaginative play. If you've played with young children it can be hard to follow their "logic" as they tell a story.  They are a baby, now a superhero, now a dog.  Are you ever told that you aren't playing right?  How do they even know?

Today we'll look at two ways that teachers have incorporated play into their classroom.

Paley, A Child's Work 

Earlier this year, I read Vivian Paley's book A Child's Work.  I love her heart, passion and long experience with young children. Most of her books focus on one class year and illustrate how books, stories, social learning and play weave together in the life of a young child.  These short books paint vivid pictures of what we all wish our children experience in a classroom.  A Child's Work is a bit different, it explains the philosophy of this approach and why it is dying out in classrooms around the nation.

Paley makes the case for allowing kindergartners, at least,  time for imaginative play.  When three and four year olds tell stories they often change characters and are generally more scattered as they jump from topic to topic.  But as children internalize the flow of stories, get a better idea of characters and tell more complete stories these are actually the basis of composition and good writing.  At times the story will closely resemble something they have heard and other times it is a combination of elements - characters, plot twists and the like. Although not written, this is creative storytelling and an important step towards composition. In the rush to get children reading we are hampering their storytelling abilities.  Children are learning to organize their ideas and doing it in community when they participate in dramatic play.

Imaginative play is powerful for young children because it allow them to take on roles and try out different lives. This is one reason superhero play is so prevalent.  So often we stop it (especially in school) because it involves violence and rough and tumble play. However, children act out their fears, hopes and what they have seen. Their play is a window into their world as they deal with power, force and physicality.  If you were little wouldn't you want to pretend to be strong and powerful?  They need a chance to win, to overcome - even if it is just in play.  Have you ever wondered why no one wants to be the baby?

Vygotsky, Play as a "leading idea" 

Vygotsky is a key theorists for early childhood educators.  The most current incarnation of his philosophy is the Tools of the Mind curriculum.  A key aspect, as explained by its developers Bodrova and Leong, is the unique role that dramatic play holds in these classrooms (the following ideas are taken from this long overview).  The key parts of good play are:

 imaginary situation

Most of us understand the first two but the third might seem a bit odd.  Rules for free play - where? Vygotsky believes that there are implicit rules embedded in the way children take on their roles. For example, when the baby cries in imaginative play there are certain ways a mom should and should not respond.  These implicit rules help children learn more and construct the social world around them in a way that they understand.  This is also how you can "play wrong" according to the rules the child has created.
Vygotsky and his colleagues argue that play is not the most unrestricted, ‘free’ activity, but rather that it presents the context in which children face more constraints than in any other context. Although it is constraining, play is also one of the most desirable activities of childhood because children are extremely motivated to abide by these limits
It is through this role playing that they learn more about self regulation, emotions and appropriate social interaction.  Not because they were reminded to be kind to friends; rather, if you are mean during play, people won't invite you to the party.

Tools of the Mind intentionally supports this imaginative play in a few ways:

-  Providing themes for pretend play.   This is done though stories, field trips, movies and visitors.
-  Props.  Teachers in these classrooms try to introduce more general props (blocks, clothes, clipboards and paper, etc.) and encourage children to use them creatively.
-  Extending play.  Often when children begin playing they may only think of the doctor and patient - but what about the assistant, nurse, mother, and other roles.  Teachers try to expand the characters involved in play.
-  Play planning.  Before children begin their dramatic play they are asked to share what role they will play and how they will do it.  They write down their plan with pictures and words to the best of their ability.  This helps them to think about what they are doing.  Students do not have to stick only with this plan but it gives them more "tools" to work with.  If disagreements occur often teachers will ask children if that was part of their play plan.

Bodrova and Leong explain the many advantages of play planning:
In creating, discussing and revising their plans, children learn to control their behaviors in play and beyond, thus acquiring self-regulatory skills. Finally, teachers use play planning to influence dramatic play without intervening in and disrupting the play as it is occurring. The teacher suggests to children ahead of time how they can try out new roles, add new twists to the play scenario, or think of a way to substitute for missing props. 
This blog post provides a concise overview of what Vygotsky says about imaginative play.

Imaginative play can take many forms in the classroom.  Paley prefers to introduce stories and characters and watch what the children enjoy.  She then follows their lead in discussion and exploration.  Tools of the Mind is more directed, in part because they are trying to lead children toward certain demonstrable results.  Much of the dramatic play in Tools of the Mind closely resembles adult roles they may some day play. I am not sure that there is much room for Superman in their approach. They also have a clear strategy for how they are developing language skills that can be quantified.  It is an effort to justify play in the classroom and trace the ways that it supports child development - social emotional and language acquisition.

Although both of these theorists seem to think that by 6 or 7 children should be moving on from such play I think children can benefit from continuing with imaginative play.  Now, whether it should take place in an academic setting is a fair question.  Interestingly, Tools of the Mind is adapted from a Russian model and as they tried to bring it into the American context they discovered
Many of the Russian activities were designed for children who were developmentally much older than their American counterparts, although the learning tasks were similar. Thus, even the level of directions required to complete the task had to be changed to meet the developmental level of American children since younger children’s memory skills are not as advanced. 
Basically, as Americans we are trying to push skills much earlier than other cultures do - even when play is the basis of that system!  Is earlier better?

I remember our 4th grade teacher giving into our love of Dr. Seuss books and creating an assignment where we worked in teams to create plays for his picture books (I was assigned to the "Butter Battle Book" Team).  All of us were able to read on grade level and above but she realized our love of a good story and play and used it to extend our learning in other ways.

I am not sure if I would qualify Tools of the Mind as "free play" - adult intervention is involved. However, it is dramatic play.  There are ways that play can and should legitimately be allowed in at least the kindergarten and possibly the first grade classroom.

Tomorrow we will discuss encouraging imaginative play at home.

Food for Thought: 

Do you think that imaginative play should have a role in the kindergarten and maybe even 1st grade classroom?  What should that looks like?

Does the school your child attend create space for this type of play?

Have you watched your kids re-tell a story?  What have you noticed about the way they tell a story? What characters do they like?  How do they interact with others?

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