Once at Early Intervention, a mom brought in her 2 year old for evaluation while Aidan was doing occupational therapy in the same room. The little boy was doing imaginary play with dinosaurs while his mom and the evaluator watched, and the EI higher-up, whoever it was, said “well, that’s age appropriate”. Aidan was about the same age but firmly in the concrete-operational stage, with no interest in pretend play, and I remember wistfully pondering “age-appropriateness” and wondering what triggers a child’s mind to start attaching imaginary significance to play objects.
About two years later Aidan developed a deep bond with his stuffed Pikachu pillow. We had found it in a thrift store, almost new, and he said “Pika” for the first time when he saw it. Before age 3 he only had twenty word-approximations, so a new word had a lot of significance.
The Pika became a sort of symbol for his guardian angel, travelling with him to many hospitals during many different stays. At one point he sat in his hospital bed pondering and labelling the appropriate features on the Pikachu: “Pika’s eyes, Pika’s hands, Pika’s mouth, Pika’s tail.” This was how he taught himself all the body parts.
At some time later he started putting Pika to bed, giving him labs, testing Pika’s oxygen SATs on our monitor. When we were working on eating (he had a G-tube and didn’t eat by mouth) he would bring Pika over to “eat”, too. When he thought something was particularly wonderful, he would drag Pika over to be part of it. One time I found his Pika with its vestigial hands folded and Aidan told me, “Pika is praying.” At some point I realized that his love for the stuffed toy was propelling him to a Christopher-Robin level of imaginary play — treating a stuffed toy like a friend.
Meanwhile Paddy was born and progressed almost too quickly, without any difficulty, to the imaginary stage. He wasn’t more than two when he started telling me about his “maginawy fwends” and listing them by name and characteristics. Every time he found two sticks, or soldiers, or stuffed animals, they would start elaborate, battle-oriented dialogues complete with sound effects and staged actions. We would find play scenarios set up all over the house, formations arranged neatly. He also would draw things: “The Phantom fighting Raoul,” (we wouldn’t let him watch the whole Phantom of the Opera but he got to see the sword fights and listen to some of the songs, and that was enough to capture his imagination). “Sean playing baseball”.
Just recently, while I was up at grandma’s cabin by the lake with Aidan waiting out the chickenpox siege, I was sitting with him by the sandbox and listening. He was talking “I’m making a birthday cake for Declan (his cousin) and here’s one for Paddy and here’s one for Liam.”
Later, with his grandma’s Fisher Price airplane: “We’re going to Dublin! Declan is getting on, and Kelly, and …” (he goes on to list almost all the aunts and uncles and cousins that came with us to Ireland).
Then, just a couple of days ago, he staged a stylized battle with his brother’s Bionicles.
I realize he is doing imaginary play. He is using his imagination to recreate, to relate, to roleplay, to process events, to imitate, to participate in community life. Whatever it was that had not come together at age two is definitely in place now at age 8.
An article on The Power of Pretend Play says that pretend play helps a child:
* Come to terms with their feelings, thoughts, confusions, wishes, even fears.
* Change the power balance by “becoming” the adults in charge: Mommy, Daddy, policeman, teacher, doctor, carpenter, gardener, etc. Suspending the reality of their size, age, and relative powerlessness is very reassuring.
* Fulfill some unacceptable wishes: returning the baby sister to the hospital, for example.
* Make sense of their social environment. If you pretend to be someone else, you will get a sense of how it feels to be that other person.
* Develop feelings of mastery and control. In their role-playing, children are clearly in charge. And the play gives them opportunities to use many of their developing skills: eye-hand coordination, language proficiency, even large motor performance on tricycles or jungle gyms. It provides an opportunity to be inventive, to take risks (social, not physical risks).
* Learn concepts and symbols — far more meaningfully than in situations that call for mere memorization and rote behavior.
* Learn from their mistakes without mortification or any sense of failure.
Here’s a philosophical article on pretend play
Laura Berquist, talking about Aristotle’s De Anima (which Liam read last year in his sophomore year at TAC) and how people learn:
This text is about the soul, how it functions, what its operations are, and its objects. I learned a great deal theoretically about how learning takes place. I learned that the external sense receives the form of the object to be known. This form is transferred to the internal senses, notably the common sense (the faculty that puts together the information from the various external senses), and the form is then received into the imagination.
The form in the imagination is acted upon by the light of the agent intellect and is then impressed on the possible intellect. It is in this last activity that thinking takes place.
It is a good thing to see Aidan developing this capacity and it is something I will try to build on next year with good literature and music, access to art and building supplies, time outdoors, and lots of open-ended time as well as simple, enriching experiences.