Nurturing imagination through preschoolers’ play
by Renee de Assis
One of the 4-year-old girls in my class not only dresses like a princess, but she also looks like one. Sadie’s long blonde hair and bright blue eyes accentuate her daily demands for playing all things Disney.
“You be the prince,” she commands one day, as I’m wiping down the lunch table to prepare for a guided lesson. “I would love to be the prince, Sadie, but I need to finish cleaning this table so we can sit here for lunch.”
“But I need a prince, and you are the tallest person in class.” She’s right. Her story needs a prince, and I’m taller than her friends. So I join their play as I have dozens of times before. Although some teachers may have grown tired of Sadie’s daily dramatic play routine, I grow increasingly impressed with her imagination.
One day Sadie and her friends are princesses who need to make repairs to the castle because a tornado had blown off its roof. Another play script involves royalty who decide to become doctors so they can give flu shots to woodland creatures.
My favorite day in recent memory was when the children—wearing costumes from our dress-up box—took off tiaras, tossed aside scepters, and stepped out of ball gowns while announcing they would be going as regular boys and girls for Halloween. Sadie and her friends spent the next 12 minutes exploring their classroom as if seeing it for the first time through the eyes of Elsa, Mulan, and Prince Charming.
Sadie’s ability to draw on both imaginary and real-life experiences while engaging her classmates is at the heart of play’s powerful impact on children’s development. Early educators have a unique role in nurturing this development potential in preschoolers.
Why play matters
Play is one of the most important activities that happens in preschool classrooms, and its significance for children’s total development is clearly seen in research findings. Developmental theorists Erikson and Piaget both argued that a preschooler’s main developmental task is to master play (Jones & Reynolds, 2011).
The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that play increases the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional health of children. The United Nations Commission for Human Rights argues that play is a basic right of every child (Feldman, 2019).
These affirmations are especially important during the preschool years because it’s the time when children’s imaginations are at their peak (Singer & Singer, 1992). Preschoolers are open to their surroundings in curious and creative ways. Their minds are malleable and easily transformed by the dynamic nature of playing. They experience rich benefits in all areas of their development through imaginative interactions with classmates.
Preschoolers play in various ways, including big body, constructive, and sociodramatic play. Of all these play types, it is sociodramatic play that has multi-layered characteristics for opening children’s imagination. These qualities of sociodramatic play were first identified in the late 1960s during research studies that explored play activities among children from low-income communities (Smilansky, 1968).
1. Make-believing using objects. Sociodramatic play uses props to open children’s imagination about how the world functions. Bananas become cell phones and beach pails are great top hats when children pretend that one object carries the function of another.
2. Assuming a make-believe role. Sociodramatic play invites children to imagine what it would be like to live as a cowboy, school teacher, dog, or infant. When preschoolers assume make-believe roles, they become fantasy characters, such as the big, bad wolf, or take on a real-world position, such as a doctor or firefighter.
3. Make-believing about a situation or action. Sociodramatic play opens children’s minds about fantasy and real-life scenarios. They imagine themselves in circumstances such as playing house, tending to sick animals, driving in rush-hour traffic, or traveling to a different planet.
4. Persisting in play despite challenges. Sociodramatic play is an organic process that often poses challenges when resources are limited and children compete for play scripts. Preschoolers push through these obstacles by imagining new possibilities and potential.
The four previously mentioned characteristics are demonstrated in dramatic play as well as sociodramatic play. The following two, however, are unique to sociodramatic play.
5. Using language to communicate play contexts. Sociodramatic play requires that children develop unfolding play scripts, negotiate assigned roles, and use conflict resolution skills. This requirement opens children’s imagination to countless linguistic and conversational possibilities for newly discovered scenarios.
6. Interacting socially during play. Sociodramatic play involves social interactions that stretch children’s imagination and creativity. When preschoolers engage one another through play, they increase the creative experiences they have with friends and classmates.
How play boosts imagination
Sociodramatic play benefits several areas of children’s development, nurturing their imagination through social, emotional, cognitive, academic, and language growth.
Social development. Play offers children opportunities to refine their social skills, including active listening, caring for others’ feelings and ideas, and working harmoniously in groups. When children are socially healthy, they can imagine how other children feel, which boosts their empathy for others.
Emotional development. Play presents situations for children to demonstrate emotional regulation, including patience during wait times, frustration or disappointment at unexpected outcomes, and anger. When children are emotionally healthy, they can imagine responding to challenging situations in developmentally appropriate ways, which strengthens their relationships in the preschool classroom.
Cognitive development. Play improves children’s executive function skills, including planning, focusing, switching gears mentally, and juggling multiple tasks (Harvard University, 2011). When children have strong cognitive skills, they demonstrate innovation and creativity, which allows them to produce ideas and products that benefit their communities.
Academic development. Play invites children to use critical thinking, including math and spatial skills and scientific thinking (Hassinger-Das, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2017). When children have a solid academic foundation, they develop imaginations for inquiring and exploring disciplines, which boosts their potential for academic and professional successes.
Development of language and literacy. This is perhaps the most significant link between children’s imagination and sociodramatic play. According to development researchers at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pennsylvania, sociodramatic play leads to increasingly creative thinking in early childhood (Weisberg, Kittredge, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, & Klahr, 2015), which is largely due to the language requirements of play.
While pretending to be a mommy, astronaut, or other character, children experiment with emotionally thick language by developing scripts that fit their fantasy roles and responsibilities (Bluiett, 2018). Preschoolers learn new vocabulary when they are motivated to express themselves in sociodramatic play (Weisberg, Zosh, Kirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2013; Banerjee, Alsalman, & Alqafri, 2016). Language becomes rich and layered when play requires children to imagine plans, find ways to carry them out, and solve conflicts along the way (Bluiett, 2018).
Finally, because sociodramatic play requires children to fully engage others through rich linguistic interactions, preschoolers’ expanding vocabularies “serve as the foundations of their literacy skills” across their lives (Han, Moore, Vukelich, & Buell, 2010, p. 85).
Teachers’ perceptions of early childhood play
Early educators’ opinions about how they can nurture children’s play impacts its potential for boosting a child’s imagination. Teachers who co-play alongside children may guide young imaginations by directing play scripts or asking questions that spark creativity. Teachers who prioritize play-planning may boost imagination by providing resources and contexts for child-directed playful exploration of their learning environments. Those who focus on play-mediation may open imagination by inviting children to create more engaging and welcoming play experiences for all classmates.
Early childhood educators often have different perspectives of play based on the ages of children they teach and the cultural contexts in which they care for them (De Assis, 2019). In 2019, teachers from 17 countries were asked their opinions of teacher roles in play among children who were infants, ages 2 and 3, and ages 4 through 6. Respondents were given three options:
co-player (playing along with the child);
play-planner (planning experiences for play); and
play-mediator (mediating play among all children).
Among educators around the world, 55% believe their role with infants is co-player; 52% believe their role with children ages 2 and 3 is play-planner; and 50% believe their role with children ages 4 through 6 is play-mediator.
When their responses are reviewed regionally, however, teachers’ roles are not necessarily dependent on ages. Respondents from New Zealand and South American countries largely favor co-playing with children of all ages, while respondents from North American, European, and African countries heavily favor play-planner roles for all children. Only respondents from Asian countries responded with clear distinctions among age groups, with co-player roles for infants, play-planner roles for children ages 2 and 3, and play-mediator roles for children ages 4 through 6. These differences reflect cultural distinctions of both teaching and children’s play. In addition, they raise important questions about how teachers nurture young children’s play in early education settings.
Nurturing playful imagination in preschool classrooms
According to Vygotsky (1967), children’s imaginative potential through play depends on their social interactions with adults. Teachers have a responsibility to engage children through co-playing, play-planning, and play-mediating. Each of these fundamental tasks is important, regardless of children’s ages or cultures.
Researchers from the University of Northern California have discovered that when adults actively participate in children’s sociodramatic play, each child’s play potential increases, including how play boosts imagination and creativity (Banerjee, Alsalman, & Alqafri, 2016).
Because allowing children to build their own play experiences is developmentally appropriate in preschool classrooms, teachers have a responsibility to provide children opportunities to scaffold, using adult knowledge and experience that goes beyond what children would accomplish by playing totally independently from adult intervention (Goldstein, 2018). When educators expand children’s access to resources and rich language in sociodramatic play, they optimize imagination development in early childhood.
The following tasks are specific ways that teachers can support children’s imagination development through play in preschool settings.
Prepare the physical environment. Providing developmentally appropriate resources, including toys and other manipulatives and developmentally appropriate props, will nurture children’s budding imaginations. By providing a variety of diverse props, teachers increase play’s potential to expand children’s language development through imaginative play (Bluiett, 2018).
Ideally, teachers design classroom centers that invite children’s creativity and wonder and allow access to all materials. Props fall into three categories.
Handling props—those objects that children pick up and use during sociodramatic play. They include combs for doing a doll’s hair, plastic dishes for playing house, and colorful scarves for dancing or performing magic tricks.
Costume props—pieces that children can wear. They need not include expensive, pre-constructed fashions. Thrift stores are great places to buy fun hats; vests, aprons, leg warmers, belts, suspenders, or other funky pieces; colorful costume jewelry; wands, scepters, and tiaras; and even wigs and masks.
Set props—resources that children can use to design their own environments for imaginative play. The obvious pieces include such items as toy ovens, baby cribs, fake plants, plastic vases, old rotary-dial telephones, seashells and coral, and bird cages. Baskets, banana crates, and large blocks suitable for sitting on are other props that preschoolers can manipulate for their own use in sociodramatic play.
Interrupt children’s play gently. Teachers strive to enter and exit children’s play spaces and scenarios with ease. In preschool classrooms, there is no one-size-fits-all technique for how to interrupt play. The best educators will select the most appropriate intervention strategies based on observation (Stanton-Chapman, 2015), as well as being aware of children’s temperament, and socioemotional needs. Educators who co-play alongside children will enter the play space differently than educators who intervene to help children navigate their own conflicts.
Regardless of the ultimate purpose for adult interaction with preschoolers during play, teachers must remember that when young children are engaged in imaginative play, they are often fully engaged in emotionally laden play scripts with invested physical commitment and mental stamina. Effective interventions should harness those natural inclinations to play, while also guiding children toward rich language expression, character development, and physical expressions of imagination and creativity (Goldstein, 2018).
Connect children’s play to culture. Early childhood educators help children make cultural connections through imaginative play (Jones & Reynolds, 2011). Children’s imaginations are nurtured when they are exposed to fables and other stories from around the world; diverse props, including music and art; and languages, foods, and games from other countries.
Preschool classrooms are becoming more diverse each academic year, and teachers can take advantage of the rich cultural landscapes represented in children’s multiple languages, ethnicities, and heritages. By introducing preschoolers to worlds just beyond their own, teachers open creativity and wonder as children learn how to explore others’ experiences with curiosity and intentionality.
Additional resources for imaginative play
Whether nurturing little girls’ storybook-ending fantasies or supporting imaginations that expose preschoolers to diverse cultures, early educators have a unique obligation to support children’s creative play. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recognizes that play is a central vehicle for developing preschoolers’ language, cognition, and social competence—each optimized by the wonder and exploration that shines when young children are given an opportunity to explore through play.
Teachers need to understand their professional role in nurturing children’s imagination and willingly perform tasks that aid each preschooler’s developmental potential in creative play.
Resources for further reflection
The play’s the thing: Teachers’ roles in children’s play by Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds (2011).
Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul by Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan (2009).
Design and play: Imagination needs places to thrive by Sam Aquillano and Amanda Hawkins (2017).
Banerjee, R., Alsalman, A., & Alqafri, S. (2016).Supporting sociodramatic play in preschools to promote language and literacy skills of English language learners. Early Childhood Education Journal, 44, 299-305.
Bluiett, T. (2018). Ready or not, play or not: Next steps for sociodramatic play and the early literacy curriculum: A theoretical perspective. Reading Improvement, 55(3), 83-88.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s “Air Traffic Control” system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function. Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
De Assis, R. (2019). Global perspectives on early childhood education. Manuscript in preparation.
Feldman, R. S. (2019). Child development (8th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Goldstein, T. R. (2018). Developing a dramatic pretend play game intervention. American Journal of Play, 10(3), 290-308.
Han, M., Moore, N., Vukelich, C., & Buell, M. (2010). Does play make a difference? How play intervention affects the vocabulary learning of at-risk preschoolers. American Journal of Play, 3(1), 82-105.
Hassinger-Das, B., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). The case of brain science and guided play. Young Children, 72(2), 45-50.
Jones, E., & Reynolds, G. (2011). The play’s the thing: Teachers’ roles in children’s play (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Singer, D. G., & Singer, J. L. (1992). The house of make-believe: Children’s play and the developing imagination. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Smilansky, S. (1968). The effects of sociodramatic play on disadvantaged preschool children. London: Wiley.
Stanton-Chapman, T. L. (2015). Promoting positive peer interactions in the preschool classroom: The role and the responsibility of the teacher in supporting children’s sociodramatic play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 43, 99-107.
Vygotsky, L. (1967). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. Soviet Psychology, 5(3), 6–18.
Weisberg, D. S., Kittredge, A. K., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Klahr, D. (2015). Making play work for education. Phi Delta Kappan, 96(8), 8-13.
Weisberg, D. S., Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Talking it up: Play, language development, and the role of adult support. American Journal of Play, 6(1), 39-54.
About the author
Renee De Assis is a doctoral candidate at Texas Woman’s University. Her research interests include imagination and spirituality in young children.