We all know children act and learn differently than adults, but as they grow and develop physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially, we must deeply understand their needs and be able to supply them with rich opportunities to encourage their growth.
Jean Piaget, a famous Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development found out that between the ages of two and seven, children begin to develop symbolic thought. Symbolic thought means the ability to make one thing, such as a word or an object, stand for something other than itself (Piaget, 1952).1 This enables children to participate in imaginative play.
Imaginative play is often referred to as make-believe. Children actively engage their imaginations when there are no particular rules and structures given by adults pertaining to the play. We can all likely remember a time when we pretended to make food with sand or playdough, played house with different dolls, or drove toy cars around a miniature town. This type of play is highly beneficial in early childhood education as it’s a way for children to help make sense of their world by performing skills and interactions that they’ve observed in the real world.
This type of free, unstructured play naturally encourages children to become whatever they want in their own imagination. If they can imagine, there is no limit to what a child can do or become. They can become supernatural heroes to save the world or mythical creatures like a unicorn they watch on TV. Or they can write out their own scenarios pretending to be their own parents, teachers, bus driver, doctors or dentists.
Although there are no rules in this type of play, children naturally learn new responsibilities and standards required of the character they choose. Children learn that different roles require different responsibilities. They also observe and perceive how different roles in a society cooperate effectively.
Children’s imagination is absolutely essential in their development of physical, lingual, social, emotional, creative, and problem-solving skills. Three main reasons why developing the imagination is key for a child’s learning include:
- Empathy: Little kids are naturally ego-centric, having the tendency to be more aware of their own point of view than that of others. As they grow, however, children learn to acknowledge and understand others’ feelings and different points of view: “[C]hildren can begin to understand that they can be happy when others are not and begin to accept that others do not have to play the exact game that they are playing. They are beginning to understand other children’s likes and dislikes.”2 In other words, through imagination, children learn to be empathetic with others. They grow compassionate and lenient toward others who have different personalities and opinions.
- Communication Skills: Imagination means you place yourself into a position or environment that may not be relevant to you now in real life. Children do this while they participate in imaginative play, read books, or watch TVs/movies that introduce either real or imaginative features that children may feel strange and even a bit uncomfortable toward. Through active imagination, children take a scene or an object, and they enrich the experience to make it feel more real and relevant to them. When they do this, children learn how to use words appropriately and effectively to communicate with others. Children practice active listening to comprehend the new changes. Further, they widen their vocabulary and improve their communication skills as they strive to connect with others effectively.
- Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills: Children may encounter unexpected challenges while participating in imaginative play, either done solo or with peers. These challenges may include selecting the right materials to build a town, dressing up creatively to represent a role, or creating new rules that are only in effect in the play. It can also happen in group play, for instance, when two kids want the same role, or some children want to go in a different direction from the planned scenario. As children meet these challenges and are encouraged to intervene, they naturally develop their thinking and problem-solving skills. Children learn to take the initiative, view the issue from different angles, analyze them and bring out a solution.
It’s exciting to think that make-believe can play such an important role in helping children develop such a wide variety of skills, from social and emotional, to creative and lingual. At CEFA, these skills can be good markers for understanding a child's overall development.
- McLeod, Saul. “Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development.” SimplyPsychology. December 07, 2020. Accessed October 21, 2021. ↩︎
- Carol Seefeldt et al, Early Education (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2002), 53. ↩︎