Enchanted Learning: The Benefits of Fantasy Play for Children

I’m sharing some of my old favorites while I’m away this week.  This one was originally posted July 6, 2010.

Many parents have come to their child’s preschool teacher with the same concern.  “It seems like my child plays dress-up all day at preschool.  What could he possibly be learning from that?”  The question is understandable – what does he learn from leaping around with his cape fluttering behind him?  And yet, the question is somewhat ironic, as these very parents likely spent much of their childhood engaged in the same kind of play.

I personally still have vivid memories of my own childhood, as my playmates and I snuck past sleeping giants, swung through the trees in the Amazon, and set sparkling lures for fairies.  In fact, my playmates themselves included one conjured character named Cheney, a girl who lived in the clouds.

The truth is, this type of play is so enchanting and natural that we often only see the fun in it.  And that is much of what makes this learning medium so effective.

Learn to Play, Learn to Learn.

In Vivian Gussin Paley’s book, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, she cites the landmark work of Sara Smilansky which found that children who lacked the skills necessary for fantasy play also struggled in other areas of classroom learning.  High quality play, she found, could be taught by children, to children, and appeared to be the “necessary precursor for every other kind of learning in a classroom.” (pg 71)

In truth, real education is about processing ideas, and fantasy play is the fertile ground where children’s ideas are scattered, nurtured, and allowed to flourish. In fantasy play, children are able to use abstract and representational thinking, allowing a bowl to become a hat, an empty pot to become a steamy aromatic soup, and a pile of pillows to become a boiling lava flow.

While some may see this ability to “live in another world” as simply being disconnected and distracted, this ability shows an advance in cognitive processing.  To move from the realm of the concrete to that which is symbolic and intangible is necessary to process ideas, consider theories, and process the consequences of actions before acting.  This self-guided play requires planning, regulating, and negotiating.  In short, the act of “acting” strengthens the executive functions of the brain.

Pretend Stories.

While some would prefer to eliminate this time for fanciful play in favor of more reading instruction, it is actually this ability to live in the abstract of the pretend world, that allows children to function in the symbolism of the written world.  It is difficult for a child to learn that lines on paper can represent words, ideas, and stories.  But for a child who has created and acted out his own story, or chosen objects as symbols in that story (a ball becomes a cat, a blanket becomes a lake, etc.) the leap to reading becomes a more simple and natural step.

The language and creative skills used to create and act out these fantastic stories are the same skills that allow children to understand, create, and process written stories.  Reading comprehension after all, is the ability to understand, connect, and draw meaning from stories.  And stories are really what pretend play is all about.

Problem solving is another critical skill developed when children are surrounded by their own stories.  While we may see only children caught up in a land of make-believe they are actually honing highly marketable skills.  Think about it.  Any man or woman who can identify a problem, come up with a creative and viable solution, and then negotiate with others to provide for its implementation, will always have a great deal of job security.  And these abilities are inherently fostered in pretend play as children do just that.

You Be the Good Guy.

Social skills are deeply nurtured through this type of play as well.   In fact, it is often referred to as socio-dramatic play, because of its strong social component. Negotiating with others and orchestrating roles takes a great deal of social finesse.  Additionally, taking on the role of someone else builds a child’s capacity to see things through another’s eyes – an exercise in abstract thinking that leads to the growth of empathy. Experimenting with these various social roles also helps a child to understand the inner workings of social relationships.

Closely tied to social skills is psychological health, which is also promoted through pretend play.  Children use pretend play to process major events in their lives, allowing them to have power when they felt powerless or to simply make sense of it all.  A child who was involved in an auto accident may recreate similar events, “taking people to the hospital” over and over again.  Or a child with a new baby in the family may take on the role of the new mom or even of the baby, giving her a sense of control in a situation where she feels she has none.  Therapists even use “Play Therapy” as a prevalent and successful practice where children are helped to discuss, process, and rehearse skills within the naturally therapeutic medium of play.

The World is a Stage.

In a classroom setting, there is often a dramatic play area, set aside for this crucial type of play-based learning.  While this area may be its home, anyone who has closely observed young children can testify that this is not the only area where this type of play takes place.  The block area and sensory table are frequent homes to this type of play as well, as blocks become secret fortresses and rice becomes a threatening snowstorm.  Outdoor play areas become ever-changing sets as children travel through the wilderness, under the sea, and into other worlds.  In truth, nowhere is safe from the transformative powers of a child’s imagination. Even when we are unaware, a child may be creating and pretending, assigning roles, and imagining scenes without ever saying a word.

Let’s Play School.

Pretend play is a powerful tool in building and strengthening the powers of the human intellect.  It is a natural form of learning and developmental growth.  The fact that it often happens naturally, without a textbook or a flashcard series does not take away its value as an educational tool.  As Paley states in her book, “If readiness for school has meaning, it is to be found first in the children’s flow of ideas, their own, and those of their peers, families, teachers, books, and television, from play into story and back into more play.” (pg 11)

By promoting creative play we are not just validating the work of childhood, but we are promoting thought, language, and psycho-social health.  Add to that the fact that this type of play is self-motivated, natural, and enjoyable, and you have the recipe for a fabulous learning opportunity!

For more information, you might want to check out Paley’s book, the article Can We Play? by David Elkind, this thought provoking piece by “The Grandmother’s”, or this earlier post on pretend play

Top photo from personal collection.  Please do not use without permission.

Center photo by rrss.



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