Expressive play

“I’m taking my baby on the bus.”

It was clear, as I listened to a three year old playing in her classroom yesterday, that this was no easy task.  She went on to show me, in fact, just how difficult it is to take a baby on the bus:  she had to remove the Metrocard (real, but expired) from her wallet (also real, but worn and tattered and now used in the Dramatic Play area) as she gently rocked the baby (life-like doll), all the while not losing track of her cell phone (again, real but old). This was no easy feat!  Once it seemed that mommy and baby had successfully boarded the imaginary bus, the 3yr old turned to me and continued to explain what it was that I was watching:

“This is my phone, so I can call people.  I have my wallet, so I can pay for the bus.”

When she was done accounting for her belongings and their use, she went on:

“I have to rock the baby so she doesn’t cry.”

After a few more moments of play, the girl had to use the bathroom. Excusing herself from the scene, she asked a nearby teacher, “Will you hold my baby for me? But you have to be gentle so she doesn’t cry.”  The exigencies of nature could not remove her from her play; a powerful imagination is a force to be reckoned with.

This morning, I visited the same classroom, and spotted the same student.  She was searching, hurriedly, through the dresser in the Dramatic Play corner. “Where’s the wallet?” I heard her ask her neighbors.  No one knew.  Others moved on – to the easel, the blocks, the art table.  Not our protagonist, who kept hunting for her essential item. She spotted me watching, and told me, “I have two baby girls today…but I don’t know where the wallet is!” Some things can be imagined, while others can’t: the wallet was deemed necessary, in a real sense, to otherwise imaginative play.

Thoughts drifted through my mind on imagination, reality, and how our students balance the two.  When young children play “pretend” are they generating a fictional story, or recasting a non-fiction narrative? Having gotten to know this family in “real life,” I couldn’t shake how much the daughter was mimicking her real mother’s behavior; knowing that the girl has a baby sister at home, I was left wondering if the “two baby girls” of today’s play were in fact her and her sister. By switching roles, from daughter to mother, perhaps she was not “simply playing” but instead investigating what the world, her world, looks like from her mother’s perspective.

Our classroom days are built around lengthy, uninterrupted periods of free play.  We believe this time is instrumental in the development of identity: the identity of self, of family, of school, and of the relationships between each of these. The social world is one that our children are born into, yet only begin to grasp as they turn from the teeter-tottering world of toddlerhood into childhood. The nursery years are a critical time for children to embark on complex explorations of their place in the world. We view it as our responsibility to give them the space and time, and in this case the tattered old wallet, that they need for these explorations.

When you watch your child play, or play with them, what are they exploring? What parts of the world, what parts of themselves, are they trying to interpret and clarify?