'The play's the thing,' wrote Shakespeare, using the word 'play' in its noun form and referring to a theatrical production. But with young children, what counts is the verb form—playing. All too soon life becomes scripted, like a stage play or movie. But, during the early years, children are not only the actors but the playwrights! They dream up the little dramas, direct them, and star in them. And, in so doing, they give external form to their imagination and expression to their creativity. They leave the confines of their bodies and become astronauts, mothers, cowboys, circus performers—and take on any other role to which their everyday experiences have introduced them.
If you have ever observed in a good early childhood program, you have witnessed something like the following scene: a toy rocket in his hand and a cardboard helmet over his head, Kevin runs around the classroom shouting to no one in particular, 'I'm an astronaut and I'm in space.' If an adult had stepped in and asked this 4-year-old what an astronaut was, he probably would have replied, 'A space man.' Then, if the adult got mean and asked, 'What is space?' Kevin might have said, 'It's the sky.' But he might also have simply run off, thinking that was a dumb question, and continued his journey through the space of his imagination. This kind of 'dramatic production' occurs dozens of times during any given day in countless homes and preschools. They are moments to be cherished and enjoyed by the observing adults as well as by the children themselves. Play has to be fun, or it isn't play.
Just as actors need props to help them stir our imagination, so do young children need toys and other objects which allow them to give expression to their imagination. And, throughout history, adults have recognized this need on the part of children and have responded by providing things for their children to play with. The need for props to fuel creativity is the explanation for many of the more successful toys that have been introduced over the centuries—dolls, vehicles, dishes, blocks, soldiers, planes. It is always interesting to see how young children combine reality with their fantasy as they play. A good example is the tea/coffee party acted out countless times by young children. They will pretend to sip the pretend coffee and perhaps turn a pretend tap to release the pretend water—but they will seldom launch such a story without having the cups (or some other object from the reality they are elaborating) as a starting point. Props are very important.
The above example demonstrates the integration of imaginative and pretend play into a social setting. But children sometimes use this kind of play—often called dramatic play—in a way that allows them to express feelings that they either don't quite know how to express or possibly are afraid to express. For example, Martha may be seen vigorously spanking her favorite doll, saying, 'You've been a bad girl and I don't love you.' That doesn't necessarily mean that Martha is imitating her own mother; it may mean that she is concerned about something she has done and fears punishment. She is acting out her feelings via her little fantasy drama.
Parents need to do everything they can to encourage creative and imaginative play. To do this, they have to provide experiences that will stimulate thought and an emotional reaction in their children. Kevin's little episode probably had its origin in a story read to him or a movie that he saw. Obviously he does not completely understand everything involved in getting a rocket into space. But, through his play, he is assimilating it and putting his own unique fix on the action. He is basing his play on what he knows; he is elaborating and expanding; and, most important of all, he is having a wonderful time. And having fun is what play is all about.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.