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The importance of play

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I have just begun a two-week venture called “Imagine That” with 10 three to five year-olds. It's a project I do with the Ithaca Youth Bureau for a couple sessions every summer, and one I look forward to with relish. I used to think of it as glorified babysitting, but several years ago, I realized that the secret was to have some delicious fun.

Obviously, if I have fun, I will be a better teacher, but more importantly, it's the KIND of fun I wanted to have. I make sure we have some active time and some quiet time, some movement, perfromance, visual, and music arts components, some scientific inquiry and exploration, and a variety of social relationship opportunities. I make sure there are less guided and more guided moments, and safety as well as freedom.

However, I have come to realize that the most significant -- and fun -- opportunities that I provide for these children is deeply imaginative adventuring/creative play. My dear friend and program boss, Joey Steinhagen, once told a parent, “Well, Holly and I are very much alike. She's just more feral.” He was half-joking. He means that I will bring in some sheets and we build a pirate ship out of chairs or a picnic table outside and imagine an adventure narrative that we are making up as a group about crocodiles and storms and treasure maps and battles and sleep on desert islands. We draw treasure maps and hide treasure from ourselves and then go exploring out into another room or place we have never been before, then come back and pretend to try to find our treasure.

On another occasion, I decided it was Snow Day. In July. We pretended we were cold and made snow angels and pretended to put on all our winter things, and so on. The children were wide-eyed that a person could break the rules like this -- pretending it was SNOW?!?! In the SUMMER?!?!? The whole day felt like a big exciting secret, something special and sacred that we had to be careful who to tell or we might get in trouble for acting like it was winter.

I often feel guilty for having so much fun, but it seems like more official people are in line with these kinds of practices. Parabola magazine has run a number of articles over the years on the importance of play, and recently, the Smithsonian Magazine has highlighted the benefits “Play is under pressure right now, as parents and policymakers try to make preschools more like schools. But pretend play is not only important for kids; it’s a crucial part of what makes all humans so smart.” Read more here.

This is from a fabulous website called “Invention at Play” http://inventionatplay.org

Make-believe/Visual thinking "In pretending, we learn to navigate with ease between real and imaginary worlds while learning the differences between them. Using our imaginations encourages original thinking, flexibility, adaptability, empathy, and the ability to generate multiple solutions to a problem. Pretend play helps us learn to think visually and spatially and to both capture and express ideas."

Social play/Collaboration "Social play teaches us how to share and take turns, how to communicate, and how to behave in groups or on teams. Testing and discussing ideas with others can enhance individual creative abilities and provide more options when solving a problem."

I don't always do large adventurous activities. I often do small activities with tiny adventures folded in, or a learning moment that is creative and quiet. However, I believe in the importance of creating a sacred space with special rules created just for that moment, special properties of physics and the world around us, special potentialities of ourselves.

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