Safeguarding Imaginative Play

Written By Hillary Montouri , HFP Teaching Assistant

Photo: Hillary scribing stories of children’s sculptures.

Imaginative play in the preschool years is powerful! As parents, many of us know that children engage in this sort of play to explore and process new information and practice developing skills. Before parent-teaching or serving as an assistant teacher in the co-op setting, the importance and momentum of group imaginative play in the pre-elementary set left me feeling at once amazed and perplexed. What was my role as the adult? Was there a way to honor play and allow for authentic problem solving opportunities, but also keep the play safe and inclusive?

Working with Teacher Susan and other parent-teachers helped me clarify my adult role in the school setting. I watched, and then practiced the art of observing play carefully and minimally inserting myself when the group needed support in keeping interactions inclusive and affirming for each child.

Recently in the play yard, I had the opportunity to practice this kind of minimal intervention. A rich and exciting imaginative game was in full swing with four full-time players. Evolving underwater creature characters roamed the sea in a happy pod. I cheerfully watched, noting to myself that boisterous and energetic connections were being made among children who didn’t often play together so intensely. Then a shift occurred; three children grouped together all facing the fourth child. Gleeful character descriptions turned to strict rule making. I moved closer to better understand.

I observed the three children huddled together working collaboratively to create a scenario in which the fourth child’s character would be separated from the group. “Go! Go Away!” they said. I paused. It seemed important to make special note of how this fourth child interpreted and managed this change in play. The play too paused; all the children looked back and forth to one another to see what the others would do.

My intervention began when I noticed the fourth child break from her character and begin to seem distraught. My goal was three-pronged: I wanted to honor the world the children had created, provide the group of three an opportunity to work together in a new and special way they were craving, and create a space for the fourth child to re-join the play. I decided I needed to enter their play world seamlessly, but with a combination of silliness and credibility in order to re-direct.

Grandma Unicorn Jelly Fish swam onto the scene! I was the grandmother to the fourth child’s character. I had a very wacky voice and a horn as long as a human arm.  My grandchild needed to get back to her kelp forest, but she had lost her way. Could the other creatures help her find the forest before it was too late? Oh, and I needed to know more about their characters and their powers. Maybe after we found the kelp forest we could all go to the picnic table to draw and write about our characters?

All four children eagerly listened. One child briefly protested, saying she wanted to play with only some of the others. So, I too broke character for a moment. I told her I understood her want to play with a small group of friends; I felt that way too sometimes. However, at HFP, other friends were always invited. Then I flew back into character.

Once the four children began searching for the kelp forest and picking up new players and subplots along the way, Grandma Unicorn Jelly Fish swam away. I prepared to receive a set of artists interested in flushing out their characters at the picnic table.


Photos: Hillary engaged in a game of chase in which each child wields a trapping power.

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