Why is imaginative play important in early childhood?

Why is imaginative play important in early childhood? #youclevermonkey
'There is no activity for which young children are better prepared than fantasy play.  Nothing is more dependable and risk-free, and the dangers are only pretend' (Paley, 2004, p.6).
Piaget and Vygotsky place great importance in imaginative play in early childhood.  Piaget saw through play, an opportunity for children to exercise representational schemes but now this view is considered too limited with further studies highlighting the different stages of imaginative play during a child’s early years (Berk, 2009).  These three advances in the development of make-believe play 'reflect the preschool child’s growing symbolic mastery:

·         Play increasingly detaches from the real-life conditions associated with it.
·         Play becomes less self-centred.
·         Play includes more complex combinations of schemes' (Berk, 2009, pp.236-7).
Imaginative play is also considered important for the development of children’s cognitive and social skills with sociodramatic play (the make-believe play with others) allowing for ideas to be passed around, built onto and understood by many.  Many studies show that 'make-believe strengthens a wide variety of mental abilities, including sustained attention, memory, logical reasoning, language and literacy skills, imagination, creativity, understanding emotions, and the ability to reflect on one’s thinking, inhibit impulses, control one’s own behaviour, and take another’s perspective' (Berk, 2009, p.237).

Vygotsky once said in play a child stands taller than himself.  He regarded imaginative play as a 'unique, broadly influential zone of proximal development in which children advance themselves' (Berk, 2009, p.267).  According to Vygotsky, the relationship between child’s intentions and their actions changes in the preschool years.  While younger preschoolers act spontaneously with little thought given to possible consequences, children by the end of preschool acquire the ability to plan their actions before executing them (Kozulin, Gindis, Ageyev, & Miller, 2003). 

The concept of self-regulation plays an essential role in Vygotsky’s view of child development in the preschool years.  Vygotsky wrote about the development of self-regulation in two contexts – private speech and make-believe play (Kozulin et al., 2003).  He found private speech is used increasingly by preschool children to regulate a variety of their mental processes and their practical actions for the purposes of self-regulation while Vygotsky believed make-believe play provides a unique context that strengthens the use of self-regulation through a system of roles and corresponding rules.  Through the creation of imagined situations, children separate mental representations from the objects and events for which they stand during pretend play – a broom might become a horse for instance.  As a result, children gradually come to 'realise that thinking (or the meaning of words) is separate from objects and that ideas can be used to guide behaviour' (Berk, 2009, p.267) thereby strengthen their internal capacity to become self-regulating.

Make-believe play is also rule-based.  Through pretend play, young children are learning to control their impulses and follow the rules of play; moreover, drawing on their own experiences, children develop an understanding of social norms and strive to act in socially desirable ways.

How can this be supported in classrooms?

Berk (2009) suggests make-believe play in early childhood can be enhanced by –
·         Providing sufficient space and play materials.
·         Supervising and encouraging children’s play without controlling it.
·         Offering a variety of both realistic materials and materials without clear functions.
·         Ensuring that children have many rich real-world experiences to inspire positive fantasy play.
·         Helping children solve social conflicts constructively (Berk, 2009, p.238).

Berk, L. (2009). Child Development (8th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Kozulin, A., Gindis, B., Ageyev, V., & Miller, S. M. (2003). Vygotsky's educational theory in cultural context. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Paley, V. (2004). A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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