A big part of my everyday is observing children. Watching them play, interact, communicate and share. I also see children who struggle to “play” with our open ended simple wooden toys. The idea behind “open ended” toys is that they do not have one purpose or way to play with them. Wooden blocks can become a castle, a house, a walkway, a sandwich or a stairway to the sky. I’ve seen groups of kids texting each other (gasp!) on little wood rectangles. The thing is, in their mind, it looks like a phone and the imaginary play becomes real for them; they can happily play anything their minds and hearts can imagine. The children that I see who struggle to get into deep imaginative play are those who are most often (not all) surrounded by toys that tell them what to do or how to play with them. Toys now come with a label that tells the parent what award the toy has won for teaching the child an important task. But, after the child has completed the task, then what? Well, they usually get abandon or broken because the child can’t do anything with them. Barbies legs get broken because they don’t bend, Lego structures that took the parent 15 minutes to figure out gets trashed in 15 seconds because it’s just more fun to break apart.
So, children who have not had many opportunities to delve into their own imaginations to “see” what they want a toy to do, regularly crash, trash, and bash them. Crash, trash and bash is my term for destruction play when I child gets frustrated because they don’t know what to do. At our Jacksonville Beach preschool, our Lifeways classroom toys don’t make noise, don’t flash any lights when you do it right, don’t talk to you to say try again, they just sit there…. until the child can make them come alive. So a frustrated child will dump out a basket of blocks, kick them around to make a big noise…and … then…. wander off. Baby dolls get thrown through the air and doll house dolls get bashed by the bad guys.
The bad guys, Oh, always with the bad guys….Power Rangers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles come to save the day, but in order to save the day, they too have to beat up, kick, and tackle the bad guys. Is this using their imaginations to save the day? Well, yes, technically but they are most often imagining what they have seen on TV or media to create their play; they are not making it all up and stretching their imaginations in the same way. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in their mind is one of the four that already exists, each with a specific color bandana and weapon that can not waver. This has a big hold on many children’s play, boys and girls, because when they are imagining themselves as a character that has been created and seen, the child is not in charge; their imagination is hijacked in a way and cannot go beyond the limitations of what they have learned of the character. Why can’t all the friends freeze and Let It Go?
Ok, so too late, your child already falls into this category. Not to fret. In our Jacksonville little yellow preschool and kindergarten house, I just take more time guiding these children in play. I’ll set up a little world and just make it available to them. For example, put a sheet over a table and place a wooden dragon and a few eggs right inside… hoping to spark the play, but not prescribe it. My roll is to guide, not “teach” them or say, “He look a dragon has laid some eggs over here in this cave I created for you!” I may take a few blocks and build the beginning of a tower and lay some silks on the ground and just play there quietly. Maybe someone will join me, maybe not, but I am modeling one way to play. Then after I build, oh, the joy of joys, since I built it I may knock it down!!!! You can bet someone will come over to knock down my next structure and I remind them, “If you build it you may knock it down.” (And hopefully build up their imagination in the process.)
Looking for alternatives to TV and media focus? Check out Set Free Childhood by Martin Large (go to amazon smile to donate a percentage to a charity of your choice including The Playgarden by the Sea!)
Here is a funny old article I found about the 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and how schools were not allowing children to wear Turtle media to school because they had such a big impact on children’s play (and this is the 1990’s version, which is so tame in comparison to today’s fast paced version).