by Kelly Villaruel

Having a vivid imagination is one of the most magical things about childhood.  When children have the opportunity for unstructured free play, and they dive deep into their imaginations, the play becomes rich and colorful and full of creative learning.  In play, imagination allows children to take calculated risks, often without having real life consequences, and it gives them the opportunity to practice working with their emotions.  In fact, imaginative play supports cognitive, language, social, emotional and physical development.

Children learn about their world through play. They get to try on different roles and play out different scenarios and in a place that is safe to make “mistakes”.  Even when they play with big themes like stick fighting, they are actually trying NOT to hurt each other.  They are practicing restraint.  In many of their intense themes, they are working on emotional regulation.  They have the opportunity to work with their fear response.  They are literally practicing what to do if they get scared so that when a real life scary situation comes to pass, they will have practiced what to do.  They will then respond to the situation differently than if they never had the opportunity to practice at all. 

The more they work with imaginative play, the better able they are to think critically as they are trying out different resolutions.  Imagination supports cognitive development in that they continually practice creative problem solving.  

Albert Einstein once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world…”  Early childhood is very dreamy, slow paced and imaginative.  When the young child is in their world of imagination, all things are possible. They can go to outer space and the darkest depths of the ocean in a single day, all while riding their rainbow haired unicorn  who breathes fiery icicles at the bad guys that are trying to storm the fort and take prisoners.  This kind of game is full of risk, danger, fear, bravery, caring, adventure, right versus wrong, camaraderie, joy, negotiations, possibly even a tear or two and, quite likely, a band aid.   And while knowing your ABC’s might be important “out there”, it probably won’t help you in this world.  Through the imagination children are simply working on building a different set of skills. 

Sometimes children carry on a theme so intensely for so long, as adults, we might wonder if they truly believe it is real.  Studies have been done that show children over the age of 3 definitely know the difference between what is real and what is make believe. Even children as young as 2 ½ understand the difference between real and pretend, however, in play it does not matter… because it is play. It is important to know that children play through the lens of childhood and it is almost always quite innocent, the exception being children who have witnessed a traumatic event.  Looking at children’s play through the adult lens does not have a place here.  Here is an example: one of my colleagues has a forest preschool in the Eastern Sierras.  She had a group of children who were playing “gangster”.  Now, just notice what that word brings up for you, what image do you have of a gangster?  My colleague saw that it was healthy play that the children were engaging in so she just observed.  Soon, some of the parents were very upset and told her that she needed to stop the play because it was bad and the children were learning how to be bad people in the world. Without stopping the game, she decided to gather more information as what she had observed was healthy play.  She went to the children who were hiding in bushes and sneaking around and simply said “hi, what are you doing?”  They replied “we’re playing gangster”.  She asked them “how do you play?” They answered “ we sneak around and bring surprises to our friends without being seen”.  She told them that it sounded like a fun game and left them to it.  Children see the world differently than adults.  When a theme comes up in children’s play that makes us adults squirm, the best thing to do is ask the children about it without telling them what it means through the adult lens. 

It is no surprise that the natural world is one of the best environments for children to engage in unstructured free play; child initiated free play.  They need a rich and stimulating environment but one that is not over stimulating.  Nature provides the perfect balance.  It is sensory rich and open ended and children have to rely on their creativity. Every stick, rock, tree, leaf, insect becomes a prop for the play and can be used in so many ways, the sky’s the limit here, everything goes.  Imaginative play in early childhood has long term positive effects.  Studies done in the 1970’s showed that children who went to play based preschools, by the 4th grade, surpassed their peers in their physical, social, emotional and mental development.

And what about our teenagers?  How do they keep their imaginations engaged?  How do they play?  Several years ago, I had a 15 year old boy  come to volunteer with our preschool program.  He was in my WYP programs from age 6-12.  At the end of the 4 hours outside with preschool age children he said something that surprised me.  He said “I forgot how to play.  It was hard.  Didn’t it used to be easy?”  As children grow and they have more academic pressures put on them, play seems to fall by the wayside. But, they do actually still play, it just looks different.  Skateboarding, horsing around with friends, bike riding, doing “stunts” for laughs, that is all play and it is rather creative. Then there are the teens who discover the game Dungeons & Dragons, now that is a game that keeps the imagination alive!  While many teens may need more encouragement to play and engage their imaginations, it is worth the effort.

In the end, we need children to cultivate their imaginations.  We need them to be able to access their imaginations as long as possible–hopefully, their whole lives.  Our children will have to face real world problems as they get older and they will need to use their imaginations to solve those problems, to imagine solutions that do not yet exist.  

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