I met with a group of second graders this week who were being reprimanded for recess play that was leading to some hurtful behaviors. I asked them to explain their game to me – they called it good guys/bad guys. One group was the good guys, the other group was the bad guys and their goal was for the good guys to conquer the bad guys. It wasn’t just guys – there were girls in the group too. I asked how the groups were determined – they said that they just always were in those two groups. I asked what did the different guys do to earn the “good” or “bad” title. Their response – “nothing, they just are.” I asked if someone could change from one group to the other. The response – “no”.
This conversation was disturbing – not for the good/bad dichotomy. In a young person’s world, and certainly in our poorly nuanced national dialogues, the world appears divided this way. My concern was different – I was disheartened by the thought of children locking each other into “good” and “bad” roles. And I was concerned that they were using those labels to justify wrestling only one group to defeat. They now know that this game is no longer allowed at Wornick and I know that we have some important work to do around these labels and concepts.
Together we brainstormed other types of play that they could engage in during recess. Among many games, I proposed the following: I or their teacher, would give them a scene prompt before they went to recess and then they would enact a scene during recess. We imagined a scene with a dragon in a corner of the playground. I thought that would be fun – and for a few minutes the guys were with me pretend-talking to the dragon. Unfortunately, within a couple of minutes, they decided that this was not going to be fun.
As I pondered their reaction, I recalled a conversation with a parent a couple of weeks ago. She introduced me to the world of LARPing (Live Action Role Playing). It seems that a number of our older students participate in this activity. These are weekend adventures staged in parks throughout the Bay area where a leader (often a teacher) provides an opening scene and trunks of costumes and props. The participants (students of all ages) create and enact a story that develops throughout the day. It sounds like fun and I really thought that my second grade guys would run with it.
My childhood was about imagining whole worlds outside. My front porch on my childhood house morphed into pioneer cabins, an apartment building, a shopping center. The walkway in front of several houses and the grassy front lawns and unfenced backyards were plains where cattle roamed and my friends and I rode our pretend horses – always Palominos. In the winter, we built forts on the lawn and played out various dramas – sneaking people in and out of our forts. I recall whole days of playing imaginative stories with my neighborhood friends.
I have similar memories of my own children entering imaginative worlds during long summer days and weekends. One of my favorite stories that I’ve retold a often is of my oldest son, Avi, when he was about seven or eight. He was playing in our backyard by himself. He was in full baseball regalia – a Red Sox helmet, gloves, Red Sox t-shirt. He was swinging his bat, running bases all by himself. At one point I looked out the window and noticed that Avi was sitting on the ground - bat on his side, head resting in his hands and looking a bit dejected. I walked over to him and asked him if everything was okay. His response, “The other team is up at bat.”
Imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development. Among the documented benefits are increases in language usage, perspective-taking, empathy, reduced aggression, problem solving and creativity. Creativity is at the core of imaginative play as children develop scenes and characters “de novo”.
One of the side benefits of imaginative play is the development of personal resources to cope with adversity. When confronted with failure, a child who has a developed imagination can entertain possibilities. S/he can understand that a particular failure is not a dead end.
We expect preschoolers and kindergarteners to get lost in their imaginations. We provide dress-up, kitchen and work centers for these young ones and we invite them to use these spaces as they see fit. But what about children who are a little older? Do we give them opportunities for imaginative play. Do we laugh at the play or do we encourage it?
The biggest “I wonder” that emerged for me this week was - I wonder if children beyond kindergarten age are still capable of creating imaginary worlds on their own. Do they need to pay for a program like LARPing in order to engage in such play? Do they need adults to provide them with the prompts to play? Is it only through organized drama opportunities that older children get to enact imaginary scenes? I’m curious – I would like to hear your examples of your children’s imaginary play.