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Observe and Imagine, part 1

March 13, 2012

One of the qualities of good teaching is solid and honest observational skills. When we suspend judgment and simply watch children, they reveal so much to us. Their emotions and ideas are revealed in raw and authentic ways, particularly when the established environment and relationships lend themselves to a sense of belonging and significance within the group. With this back drop in place, young children are freed to deepen relationships, explore, and grow.

A quick peek into a classroom may look like simple play, but there is a complex infrastructure set up to foster that sense of belonging and significance and to beckon children to explore materials and ideas. Such provocations arise from listening to and observing children. As this work unfolds, both adults and children are poised to gain new knowledge and closer relationships within their community.

Recently, a pattern in imaginative play became apparent as observed a group of children and reflected on a series of notes. Much like other groups of three- and four-year olds, I noticed a growing interest in and propensity for super hero play. At first, it was simple dialogues- short queries that kept me up to date on Buzz Lightyear and Transformer trivia. It was apparent that this group shares a certain history in watching these videos, and a collective depth of knowledge. Little by little, the conversations with me expanded to peer-to-peer dialogue. And then were disagreements over seminal facts that often stumped me (Is Bumblebee a vehicle from Cars or part of Transformers? Depends on who you ask.). In the tradition of oral story telling, these stories were exaggerated, dramatized or expanded upon by the narrator, and seemed to change slightly with each iteration. While this was intriguing to me, it sparked passionate discourse among preschoolers. In an effort to quell the debate, I suggested some illustrations might let everyone share their ideas of this particular storyline.  (Photos to follow in a subsequent post…limited Internet service is causing some technical difficulties.)

sketching Batman

Research tells us this imitative imaginative play is one of the early stages in play scenarios and social play. By age 3-4, children have experience using materials in ways that represent what they have experienced – feeding a doll, push a fire truck, roaring like a lion. Using these external themes, Children can act out short themes by themselves or alongside a peer. There may be a clear, concrete plan, but as children get deeply engaged, they also become hyper-focused. Their ideas are their own and it’s hard to see the point of view of others. (e.g. The debate prior to sketching Buzz Lightyear). Nancy Carlsson Paige and Diane Levin, in their book, Who’s Calling the Shots describe this play as “more like static slides than a movie.”  Children are engaged in their play and not the real world. Things are black and white, Good guys and bad guys exist and it’s just that cut-and-dry.

By observing the content and progression of this type of play, it was clear that a critical mass of children were exploring those typical aspects of play – good versus evil, power, and social interaction. This play is rich with learning  opportunities. While it’s important for children to learn to navigate play together, it is still essential to keep a close eye and ear to what was going on behind the scenes. And the more I did that, the clearer it was that we had a dilemma brewing: how can we explore these seminal issues of power, use if imagination, and social justice themes while still abiding by our class guidelines that keep everyone safe and having fun?

Soon thereafter, we revisited our class guidelines at Morning Meeting. I asked, what’s one way you take care of friends when you play?”  Responses were spot-on:

Be nice
Share stuff
Ask ’em to play

I pushed further:  How can you take care of friends when you’re imagining to be someone else?


Whoops. This was over their heads. At three and four, applying conventional rules to pretend roles didn’t compute. I had to back up.

The next day, I started with small group conversations comparing pretend and real life. Some children did seem to understand that pretend is imaginary but we still have to take care, be safe, be respectful. Others seemed to think that pretending to be a dog, a mom, a superhero meant you transcends the rules of everyday humans. For the most part, chronological age correlated with how children saw the intersection of pretend and our rules. Those closer to four could see the connection, with some help; the younger ones were adamant that imaginary play offered them amnesty from rules.

Clearly, my language and strategies had to shift.

I began to phrase things like, “animals in the wild might fight and scratch, but in school, when we are pretending to be animals, we need to be safe.”Many days passed with this kind of direct identification, and I began to see and hear how more children understood that pretend isn’t a get out of jail card in the rules of life.

Stop back next week for the follow-up on how this story unfolds to include our own super heroes.

Meanwhile, if you want to read more, see Who’s Calling the Shots? How to,Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys

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