Play is a fundamental aspect of early childhood. Through play, young children can begin to explore and understand the world around them from an early age, whilst simultaneously gaining a sense of enjoyment from what they are saying and doing. Piaget (1962), cited in Ariel (2002), identified four general developmental stages of play; these increase in complexity as the child matures. These stages are, in chronological order: functional play, constructive play, imaginative play and ‘games with rules’. Therefore, it can be argued that imaginative play, as part of a sequence, builds on the skills learnt and nurtured through constructive play, and prepares children for play situations involving ‘rules’ and other constraints. Bodrova (2008), however, disagrees with this notion by arguing that rules must be an integral part of imaginative play. These rules are not determined by the children themselves, but by the constraints of the imaginary roles that they are playing. It is therefore possible that, in many cases, imaginative play overlaps into other types of play and incorporates more advanced and regulated thought processes than may be superficially apparent when observing what happens during imaginative play.
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What happens during imaginative play?
Vygotsky (1986), cited in Bodrova (2008), emphasises that three elements need to be present for a play situation to be defined as ‘imaginative’: an imaginary situation, the playing of roles and the formulation of rules intrinsic to each assigned role. Singer (1994) echoes this sentiment by stressing the point that one or more children playing roles does not, in itself, constitute imaginative play: this is a misconception held by many people, including early years educators. The use of the word ‘imaginary’ is, however, misleading to a certain extent. According to observations by Dockett (1998), the majority of make-believe situations do not take place in ‘fantasy worlds with fairies and monsters’; rather, they are situations drawn from the child’s own memories and experiences. These can be, but are not restricted to, examples of what they have seen and heard at home and school.
Another view of what constitutes imaginative play is held by Ariel (2002), who regards it as ‘a kind of mental activity rather than a genre of external behaviour’. More emphasis is placed on the thought processes required to create an imaginary situation than the words and actions involved during its enactment. These involve a child bringing mental images to life and identifying how they are being represented in real life, but also acknowledging that they are doing it for fun. It is the simultaneous combination of these thought processes that differentiate imaginative play from other types of play such as functional and constructive play. It can therefore be argued that the child must have reached a certain level of cognitive functionality to be able to think in such an ambivalent way about the way they are playing.
However, no specific mention of the manipulation of and interaction with objects is made in either of these definitions. Although the use of objects is not a prerequisite of imaginative play, they can play a major part in the visualisation and representation of a fantasy (Tsao, 2002). Such objects could include, but are by no means limited to: toys, movable objects such as chairs and boxes, immovable objects such as tables and beds, and costumes. Smith (1995) discusses the way that, in imaginative play, objects can be transformed into other things to perpetuate the fantasy. However, no recognition is made of the way in which objects, once transformed, can assume different properties, such as size and shape, depending on both the imaginary situation and the type of imaginative play taking place.
What types of imaginative play are there?
Imaginative play is one of the general developmental stages of play. However, there are substages within this level that are dependent upon the child’s mental development. Ariel (2002) identifies three stages: firstly, solitary play, where the child enacts everyday experiences; secondly, parallel play, where the child starts to introduce other characters to their experiences (although the child always plays the central role); and thirdly, sociodramatic play, which is much more structured and less self-centred. Each of these substages is assigned to different years of the child’s life, although it must be stressed that these are approximations based on Ariel’s view of how well developed the ‘average child’ should be at each stage. Furthermore, these stages appear to be discrete; it is not made clear how one level develops into the next, and what internal or external factors cause this development.
In contrast, Dockett (1998) states that there are only two types of imaginative play: simple and complex. According to his observations, there must be six distinct elements present for it to be considered ‘complex’ play: imitative role-play; make-believe with objects; make-believe with actions and situations; persistence; interaction; and verbal communication. There are no classifications made between these two extremes; from this, it can be concluded that, if one or more elements cannot be observed, then it is ‘simple play’. Another important point to consider is that, unlike Ariel’s stages of imaginative play, no clear timescale is given regarding the age and developmental stage of the child with relation to these two stages of imaginative play. However, the two elements of ‘interaction’ and ‘verbal communication’ suggest that more developmentally advanced forms of imaginative play can only take place when a child is involved with other children, rather than playing independently.
Imaginative play can take place with or without objects or ‘props’ (Singer, 1994). Singer argues that non-toy objects, such as chairs and cardboard boxes, are used more frequently in all types of imaginative play than objects defined as ‘toys’, such as dolls and model cars. The reason for this is that toys are often limited in the number of functions they can serve in the child’s imagination due to their close link with reality. Taking the aforementioned model car as an example, it looks like a real car (but is obviously considerably smaller). It would be difficult to transform it into any other object or creation. Similarly, it is limited in its functionality; it can be pushed or pulled around on different surfaces, but it cannot effectively interact with other objects in general. Conversely, the simple cardboard box provides a range of possibilities for transformation and interaction, as illustrated by an observation by Singer (1994): upon seeing the box, a child calls another to say, “It’s the best toy ever! It’s a fort and a space shuttle, a bus, a pirate ship, a sled, a clubhouse, and a castle.” What is not clarified, however, is the author’s opinion on whether or not the use of toys is beneficial, both to imaginative play itself, and to developing young children’s skills and attributes.
What skills and attributes can be developed as a result of imaginative play?
During the early years of children’s lives, it is important that they develop a range of skills and attributes that will further their development both in and out of school. Broadly speaking, these skills and attributes fall into three categories: social, emotional and cognitive.
According to Tsao (2002), children’s participation in imaginative play can facilitate their integration into peer groups through the elements of collaboration and interaction, which are in turn underpinned by verbal and non-verbal communication. This benefit is, however, dependent on the child being at the stage where they choose to play with others rather than independently. Ariel (2002) builds on this concept of collaboration in particular by arguing that children often ‘transfer conflicts to the realm of imagination’. This involves resolving personal differences that may arise during imaginative play without breaking character or leaving the confines of the imaginary situation. By doing this, the children are able to continue playing together without the risk of altercation in reality. It can be argued that this type of interaction can initiate the development of rudimentary diplomacy and empathy skills, even at a relatively early age.
A different view is held by Bodrova (2008), who believes that such forms of social development, whilst important in their own right, cannot be realised without the prior ‘building blocks’ of emotional development. She argues that self-esteem and self-confidence are the two emotions that benefit the most through imaginative play, and the best way to start this process is to play independently with objects and toys rather than with others. However, no distinct link is made between the stages of individual and shared play: it is unclear how these emotions, particularly self-confidence, can be developed without some form of initial interaction. Singer (1994), on the other hand, takes the view that the most important aspect of imaginative play is the way in which it brings both pleasure and a large degree of emotional satisfaction to the child or children participating in it. This serves to highlight the issue that, above all, imaginative play should be fun. Through this sense of enjoyment, children will benefit emotionally without being aware of it. It can therefore be argued that the child’s need for emotional fulfilment can be a reason for, as well as a consequence of, imaginative play.
Opinions are divided regarding the most significant benefit to children’s cognitive development through imaginative play. Smith (1995) and Tsao (2002) emphasise the strong link between imaginative play and creativity. Although it could be argued that this connection is self-evident, due to the intrinsically creative nature of imaginative play, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge its existence. Another important point to note is the fact that children can also develop creativity outside the medium of play by, for example, writing stories and drawing pictures. Imaginative play, while important in its own right, is simply one part of the whole process of developing creativity in children.
Conversely, Singer (1994) and Ariel (2002), whilst accepting the potential benefits to children’s creative skills, believe that the development of academically related skills is a more significant consequence of imaginative play. These include, but are by no means limited to, the enhancement of vocabulary by practising new words (Singer, 1994) and the advancement of basic decision-making skills (Ariel, 2002). In imaginative play, children need to identify what objects are (especially if they have been transformed to suit the imaginary situation), what different places and characters are called, and so on. These words will be used repeatedly throughout the play episode; therefore, it is not only good practice for children to say and hear them, but it also facilitates effective verbal communication and keeps the imaginary situation going. In addition, situations frequently arise where children, whilst playing a role, need to make choices regarding, for example, how to react to something someone else has said or done, what object to use, or where to go next. As before, this decision-making process, which is often quick and well improvised, according to observations by Ariel (2002), is another essential way to keep the imaginary situation going. These skills, along with many others, can be beneficial to the children’s holistic development, not only in an imaginative play situation, but also in other areas of their lives.
Are these skills and attributes transferable to other areas of the children’s lives?
The skills and attributes developed in imaginative play can also be beneficial both to the development of the child’s state of mind and their behaviour, particularly with regard to what is required of them as they advance through the education system. Singer (1994) holds the belief that ‘children can sustain themselves in periods of stress with the hope generated from such imagined explorations’. This stress could be caused by any of a number of contributory factors, such as an increased academic workload or an unsettled home life. However, imaginative play allows children to detach themselves from reality, albeit on a temporary basis. According to research by Ariel (2002), this ‘time out’ can have a calming effect on the child, by ‘pacifying them and providing them with ways out of their emotional entanglements’. What is unclear, however, is how long this calming effect continues. The question remains of whether the use of imaginative play for this purpose of emotional detachment is a long-term solution to stress-related issues, or merely a short-term ‘fix’.
Revisiting an earlier theme, Bodrova (2008) states that rules, determined by the roles played by the children, are an integral part of imaginative play. She extends this point by arguing that this following of rules can contribute to a child’s readiness for formal schooling, where they will have to abide by sets of class and school rules. During their participation in imaginative play, the child has to ‘promote their intentional behaviours’ and follow the directions of others so that the imaginary situation can progress. According to research by Blair (2002), cited in Bodrova (2008), the practice of this self-regulation of behaviour by ‘playing by the rules’ in imaginative play often transfers itself to non-play contexts where predetermined sets of rules exist, such as formal classroom settings. The child will be more inclined to follow these new sets of rules, and their behaviour will improve as a consequence.
One other important behavioural aspect, particularly with regard to younger children, is paying attention and the ability to concentrate. Generally speaking, younger children have a much shorter attention span than older children (Dockett, 1998). It is important for children to be attentive and focused when they are faced with formalised situations later on in their schooling, such as assemblies and tests. According to research by Smith (1995), participation in imaginative play focuses children’s minds on the situation in hand, and they become totally immersed in the roles they are playing. One observation by Smith (1995) was of a group of children playing ‘castles’. One child was allocated the task of ‘sentry duty’: this involved keeping watch from the top of the ‘castle’ while some other children played soldiers going about their daily business inside the castle. The sentry’s role was to warn the soldiers if the ‘enemy’ (played by three other children) was approaching. The child playing the ‘sentry’ role considered his task to be highly important, and was able to maintain a high level of concentration throughout, pretending to look in all directions and scanning the imaginary horizon. Smith (1995) argues that these higher concentration and attention levels in imaginative play will permeate into non-play contexts. However, it can be argued that this will not necessarily happen in the case of all children, because acting in an imaginary role is one matter; behaving in real-life situations is another matter entirely. Much depends on the character and personality of the child, and the behaviour expected of the child by the adults in their life.
What roles can early years practitioners, parents and other adults take in imaginative play?
Imaginative play can happen in any setting, both in children’s school and home lives. According to the evidence gathered so far, the same opinion is shared: it is important for adults to play some sort of role in children’s imaginative play. However, opinion is divided on the issue in two key respects: the level and timing of intervention, and the purpose of intervention.
With regard to the level and timing of intervention, Singer (1994) believes that parents and practitioners should ‘initiate imaginative play and then step back and allow the children to play on their own’. In effect, the adults give the children an initial idea, and the imaginative play stems from this stimulus. This is not necessary in all cases, however, as many children will formulate their own ideas independently. Conversely, Bodrova (2008) takes the view that all children, regardless of the development of their play skills, require higher levels of adult mediation if they are to benefit from imaginative play in any social, emotional or cognitive way. As a reasonable proportion of imaginary situations are drawn from the child’s past personal experiences (Dockett, 1998), one possible way to address this issue is to take an active approach by introducing the children to new experiences (Bodrova, 2008). These can include field trips to suitable locations, and child-friendly books and videos that relate to suitable, interesting topics. This will give children a greater knowledge base from which to draw their imaginary situations and characters, thus increasing the variety of their imaginative play.
With regard to the purpose of intervention, children can be advised, if necessary, on how to construct imaginary situations and enact imaginary roles. This often takes the form of the modelling of play skills (Ariel, 2002; Tsao, 2002), such as co-operation and the invention of characters. This is particularly important if the child has shown themselves to be less advanced in these areas. This is not necessary in all cases; sometimes, children’s play skills may have developed independently and instinctively. In contrast, Smith (1995) believes that the most important reason for adult involvement in imaginative play is to ‘facilitate the achievement of particular educational and instructional goals’. He argues that imaginative play has a better chance of ‘nurturing key life skills’ if the adults in the children’s lives encourage it and participate in it whenever possible. One active way for adults to participate in this developmental process is to take the child out for walks in order to teach them about the world around them, highlighting points of interest along the way, and answering any questions the child may have about what they can see, hear and so on. This will assist in the development of key life skills such as confidence and the awareness of one’s surroundings. In addition, this helps to expand the child’s knowledge base through questions and simple explanations. All of these qualities will be important in the child’s home and school life in the future.
Further research questions
In what kinds of ways can objects in imaginative play contexts assume different properties?
At what age or stage of development do children engage in ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ play?
Is it preferable to use toys and other objects in imaginative play? If so, why? If not, why not?
How effective is the participation in imaginative play as a long-term solution to stress-related issues?
Do any theorists believe that imaginative play should have minimal or no adult mediation or involvement? If so, who and why?