Pretend or Reality

School newsletter – December 20, 2013


I’ve been thinking recently about the blurred line between fantasy and reality in children’s lives.  We often place a forced dichotomy over their behavior, taking a paradigm we are comfortable with and pushing it into their world: something is either pretend or real, imagined or truth.

I’m not sure they see the world this way. Do they ever really leave their pretend play, putting aside their fantasies and joining us adults in reality? Do their fantasies ever depart from reality, or are they all along within our real world, just interpreting it differently?

Vivian Paley, a distinguished kindergarten teacher and early childhood researcher, writes, “The line between fantasy and reality wavers back and forth, finding its clearest projection in the children’s own imaginative play.” An unwavering theme through Paley’s many books is that by carefully observing children’s fantasy play we can come to more truthfully know them.  So it was with this perspective that I have watched our students for the past several days.

I sat down with a 2 ½ year old student in our youngest class earlier this week.  He eagerly said, “Let’s play,” as he dumped a small basket of plastic animal figures on the floor in front of us.  Thinking of nothing better to say, I picked up a small zebra and asked, “What animal is this?”  Silly me, seeing the world as real or pretend.  He countered, bringing me back into the blurriness of his perspective: “This is me.” He then grabbed a larger zebra from the jumble on the floor and proclaimed, “This is my mommy. Mommy says, shhhh.” In my mind, this small lump of black-and-white striped plastic stands for a zebra.  But to the boy, the relative sizes of the animals were a statement of his relationship with his mother. In his reality, size speaks to relationships, and his mother is never quite absent.

Later on, in the same class, I watched as two girls gleefully watered plants with spray bottles. While they worked, they were engaged in the incessant playful chatter typical of their age: “You be the mommy, I’ll be the baby.”  “Don’t forget to take a bath, baby.”  Suddenly, however, their gardening and their talk came to a grinding halt.

“You peed your underwear, baby. You have to change your underwear.”

“No I didn’t! That’s not nice.  I’m going to tell the teacher.”

What was disrupted – their pretend scenario, or their real life self-image?  Even in fantasy, this young girl was too proud of her recent potty-training accomplishments to have them forgotten. Her partner in play (real, or pretend?) gracefully kept the scene going: “OK. You’re hungry, baby. You have to eat a snack.” Relieved, the girls continued playing.  With their real self-images preserved and confirmed, they could now continue their fantasy.

Neither of these interactions took place in a “dramatic play” area or even with dress-up materials.  They were both part of the natural, ever-flowing series of interactions children have with the world around them.  It is difficult for us as adults to see the world how our children see it.  I wonder if our dualistic understanding of fantasy and reality makes us miss much of what children are telling us. 

John Holt, an educational theorist, writes, “Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world.” We are often met with silence or confusing counterstatements when we insist on gathering information through “real” conversations and ask, “What did you do this weekend?”, “How was school today?”, or, “What are you building with those blocks?”  Perhaps more can be learned just by watching, allowing children to display their reality through their pretend play.

Shabbat shalom,