The Importance of Pretend Play

Today at Asante’s chess tournament I enjoyed some leisurely reading while he was playing against some middle schoolers (seriously, it looked really funny to see his little boy self across the table from these not-so-little-boys– they would groan when they say him– “do I have to play a little kid? This is ridiculous”. When Asante beat one of them, the guy just laughed and buried his face in his hand.)

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I finished up a small book by Vivian Gussin Paley called A Child’s Work: The importance of fantasy play. Paley has worked as a kindergarten and preschool teacher for at least 37 years, most of those years spent at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. She’s seen a ton of fantasy play in her days, and has some fun stories to share and insightful comments to make about the importance of fantasy play in the development of the child.

With the disappearing of time for play in the classrooms to make more room for the three R’s- reading, writing and arithmetic, “work” has become “play” for our children (instead of the other way around). What are we losing by this shift in focus? More importantly, what are our children losing?

With story after story, Paley paints the picture of the importance of play, and how we can interpret children’s play, learn from them as they play as well as engage with them without ruining it. I came across a few ideas that were interesting to me…

1. In one classroom that Paley observed, the teacher no longer used a time out chair for punishment. When asked about this, she said, “I used to have a punishment chair. Then I saw that, although the body was restricted, the child’s mind entered many fantasies and behavior was never improved. I decided the approach did not work.” When asked what did work, she said, “Patience. And then stories of good things happening, not bad. And making the child welcome into the play of others. I watched the children and saw that all these things work.” (p 72)

2. A Russian psychologist by the name of Lev Vygotsky said that ‘in play a child stands taller than himself, above his age and ordinary behavior. It’s as if he’s climbing up a ladder and looking around at a larger area.’ (p. 82)

3. At one point in the book, the author was suggesting that every subject of study could use a little fantasy play- even math. She said, “Whenever we are reminded that there may be a story involved, our minds seem to loosen up and work better.” (p. 91) So true- I think this could be applied to the parenting/discipline arena too!

4. I hear “Pretend that you’re the mom and I’m the kid” from Ada quite often. This is not a fun scenario for me because that’s my everyday life, right? I have wondered why Ada wants to pretend this way. In the beginning of chapter 18, Paley says that, “play is the model for the life-long practice of trying out new ideas. Pretending is the most open-ended of all activities, providing the opportunity to escape the limitations of established rituals. Pretending enables us to ask ‘What if?'”?

How wonderful is that gem of information? Pretend play is not just something to pass the time, but it’s a way for our kids to explore, create, examine the world around them. By engaging in pretend play, they are being little scientists in a way!

Thankfully, Aly has been in a classroom where play is respected and valued- I’m hoping Kindergarten will be the same!

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