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.


“Dinosaur Poop Doesn’t Stink!” Rock Talk Excitement

One great thing about our learning community is the range of knowledge and resources within it. J’s grandpa is a retired teacher and geologist so we made plans for Grandpa Tom to share his love of rocks with each of our classes. Part of the plan included gifting each child a rock collection.

In anticipation of our collection, each child decorated their “rock box.”  Inside each lid, J’s mom included a key of the 6 type of stones we would soon learn about. The key included a “polished mystery rock” and an online source to try identify it.


Children were mesmerized as “Granpda Tom” led our circle, sharing stories and a wide range of rocks, fossils and geo stones. Tom’s grandson assumed the honored assistant role, as we did a sink or float experiment. We guessed which rocks would dive down to the bottom of the giant jar and which would buoy up to the top. 


Tom’s story of a man first discovering the hidden beauty of a rock impressed the wide-eyed listeners.The man wanted a cow to get out of his way and the cow wouldn’t budge. So the man did something unfriendly and tossed an ordinary looking rock at the cow. He missed the cow and instead, the rock landed hard on the ground, breaking open. As the man approached the split rock, he found a geode inside! (And the cow got to graze on at its own pace without injury). 

Tom also shared fossilized dinosaur poop (coprolite) which fascinated the captive audience. Tom named that it was real dino poop that had changed over time and then passed the coprolite around the circle for each child to handle. The first child held it with both hands, looked closely at it with a furrowed brow, and then brought it up to their nose to sniff, discovering, “Dinosaur poop doesn’t stink!” 

Here’s a clip of children sorting their stones to match the corresponding key:

Following snack, we checked out a variety of stones outside. Children used their newly acquired pocket magnifiers to take a closer look. They observed similarities and differences among stones and shared myriad questions with Tom who welcomed their enthusiasm and encouraged ongoing inquiry.



Thanks to J’s family for supporting HFP’s commitment to loving and preserving the earth– one rock at a time.

Check out Mount Hood Rock Club for more info

Rock Identification website 


Tryon Creek Adventures

Families gather at Tryon Creek State Natural Area for our recent spring field trip. We access the natural areas within our city where we can extend the classroom and nourish children’s connections with nature. Children enjoy being together in the woods – exploring, hiking and climbing. Adults take in the lush beauty and visit as we weave through the forest. 










As we hike, we split into two groups so we can notice the details of the forest around us. Some get a close look at the beaver-gnawed stump. Others find fallen moss and squish it up into their hands. Some stop to check out a dead mouse observing it’s big ears and long whiskers. Others notice the dried mud & root clump beneath an overturned tree and wonder how many worms must have been crawling beneath.

Forest Bingo cards provide images of treasures that can be found along the way. Children look for each corresponding leaf, plant or animal. 


A beautiful fallen tree provides the perfect climbing structure and balance beam.    







After visiting the forest, we return to our own nature playscape adjacent to our classroom. Children balance on tree stumps in the ever-changing obstacle course, turn over garden stones to uncover squirming worms, and investigate the barely-visible, newly hatched spiders. Our natural world exploration continues–this time even closer to home.





Flowers, Flowers, Everywhere!

Providing open-ended activity prompts and supplying children with materials that mirror the current seasons makes for joyful, individualized and creative learning.



G independently creates a costume for one of our “bowling bunnies.” We invite G to teach others to share her process so they can join in the fun of costume design. We gather flower petals, tissue, construction paper, scissors, tape and glue in the play yard. We are immersed in the sounds of spring–birds chirping, squirrels scurrying and even a lawn mower buzzing in the distance. Some children assemble costumes for a bunny and others build crowns for themselves. This is a thrilling process. One child even heads home to create a crown for their beloved stuffie.


We introduced Spider (puppet) along with a cooperative hide n’ seek game in which children team up to find and gather Spider’s eggs (cotton balls), returning them to their nest. Since then, Spider has become a valued member of our classroom community. Spider delights in individual children; jokes with children who are in a funk; and invites children to teach her how to take on the challenges they have mastered– like swinging or sliding, while expressing her own intimidation about trying such things.

E gathers petals to adorn the  home of our pet Spider’s nest of eggs.



Rabbits: Celebrating Spring & Contemplating Immigration

For the past several years, we’ve coordinated a spring visit with an HFP alumni family’s angora rabbits. Getting to visit, hold and pet “real rabbits” elicits great joy. Connecting with a fluffy, living creature will be a precious, memorable experience. I think about a way to build on the enthusiasm of the visiting rabbits as a foray to facilitate interest in a meaningful topic that might otherwise not get the attention, critical thought and support it deserves. I know of the perfect children’s book we can share to support children’s interest in immigration. We can help counter some of the prevalent, misinformed, racist and xenophobic messages that are circulating in the media. We can plant a seed for our daily rabbit themed activities to conjure up a deeper meaning of travel, home, immigration and freedom.

Dos conejos blancos (Two White Rabbits)

We share Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng’s powerful immigration story in which a child and her father journey north to the United States. Along the way, the girl is gifted two rabbits who they ultimately set free.

Image result for dos conejos blancosImage result for dos conejos blancos

 “As many thousands of people, especially children, in Mexico and Central America continue to make the arduous journey to the US border in search of a better life, this is an important book that shows a young migrant’s perspective.” (excerpt from book jacket).

We invite families to reflect on their countries of origin, considering where our non-native families first immigrated from. We also use a Family Share prompt to invite children to consider what travelers would need during their long journey.

Then we introduce a newly invented game in which some of us “travelers” move across the play yard obstacle course to make our way to a new home in the United States. Others are “helpers,” handing out necessary resources — the ideas we jotted down earlier for the Family Share — food, water, cozy blankets, flashlight, beloved “stuffy,” etc. Occasionally  a  “helper” tries to gift a couch or a table— items that we find so useful in our daily lives at home, but are too heavy to bring on a journey; so we explain we need to wait to receive those generous offerings until after we are settled in our new homes. This is a new game for us and the process of playing it a bit allowed us an opportunity to notice what children already know and where some of the gaps in understanding lie. Having an opportunity to use our bodies, assume imaginary roles, and assist others is key. We’ll likely revisit the game and see how we might adjust or build on it to deepen children’s engagement–most likely by sharing more immigration stories or family histories.

Visiting Rabbits




We use dry erase markers on laminate pages. Rabbits make their way through challenging routes to the ultimate reward–delicious carrots. 


We build mazes using blocks. We spread out carrots and laminated veggie cards for rabbit figurines to hop and find.


Carrot-Themed Snacks

We make carrot muffins; and include carrots with leafy green tops and rabbit-shaped crackers, along with some scrumptious fruits and dips.


Marble Painting

We offer rabbit/conejo shaped paper and coloring pages, along with marbles to roll through the paint. 


Ears & Tails

We offer rabbit ears and tails for children to don during their daily engagements of sewing animal and flower cards and balancing across the new obstacle challenge we built. 


Thanks to HFP alumni families Karin & Zoe (16 years) of Sinfully Soft for sharing rabbits, and Hillari Montouri for curriculum planning support.