Play is the serious work of childhood.
In play, children take hold of the natural and cultural worlds and in so doing take in the qualities inherent in those realms. They recreate human cultural development and can later contribute to its further evolution because they have understood through their hands. Kindergarten-aged children grasp the world in play; they experience with all their senses, they move with their whole body. Sure-footed, co-ordinated movement, balance and tactile sensitivity are schooled in play. This forms a basis for the conscious experience: I can shape the world because I have grasped it.
One of the great scientific minds of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein, understood the importance of fantasy as a critical part of modern human thought. "When I examine myself and my methods of thought", he said, "I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent of abstract positive thinking." How does a child develop this kind of productive fantasy?
Fantasy as well as the beginning of thought appear in a child between the ages of two and three. Often beginning about two and a half, the child´s play becomes less reality-based and more filled with fantasy. Banging on pots and pans no longer suffices. Now a pot may become a house, and the spoon a person who lives in it. Offer a two year old – who is still engaged in sorting out reality – a bowl of sand and say that it is a birthday cake, and he or she is very apt to put it in her mouth. Offer it to a three year old, and he or she may look quizzically at you and ask "It´s make believe, right?" Offer it to a four year old, and he or she knows it is a play cake and proceeds to decorate it with sticks and leaves and calls her friends together for a birthday party. Fantasy, once born, allows children to play with the simplest objects and transform them into all that is needed for their play. Born around the same time as thinking, fantasy is a powerful partner to it. If fantasy is allowed to ripen side by side with thinking, these two faculties mature into creative thinking, a capacity to visualise not only how things are but also how they might be.
The child enters kindergarten at a time when his fantasy forces have been awakened and have begun to manifest in a lively way. His fantasy will go through several steps of development during the kindergarten years. At first, the child´s fantasy is so full of activity and change that the three year old is more or less in perpetual motion. Gradually, the child becomes more focused in play, and the four year old can set up a play situation and remain with it for half an hour or more. At this age children are still dependent on creating play situations out of what is at hand. They typically enter the kindergarten without an idea of what they want to play and wait for inspiration. This or that object captures their fancy, and their fantasy transforms it into what is needed. It is a great help to the growing fantasy if very simple natural objects are given as play materials. From these simple logs, stones, cloths etc. the child can create anything he needs, and his fantasy is not limited by defined objects. A fire engine that looks like a fire engine is no use to a child who needs a space ship, or vice versa. But a handful of chairs, some cloths, and ropes can become any vehicle that the child desires.
A new stage of play consciousness begins when the children enter the kindergarten with an "idea in mind". They don´t wait for inspiration to arise from the objects at hand but start with an idea for play and then seek to create the objects they need. This is the beginning of imaginative play. The stage is no longer in the same sense outside the child but rather within. That which previously took place outwardly with objects and busy limbs now takes place inwardly as imagination is born.
The relationship between success in fantasy play during the kindergarten years and later gains in mental development, as well as in social and emotional development, has been explored extensively by Sara Smilansky (1) and others. They found that children who scored highest in what they called socio-dramatic play also showed the greatest gains in a number of cognitive areas such as higher intellectual competence, longer attention span, and more innovation and imaginativeness. The good players also showed more empathy towards others, less aggression, and in general more social and emotional adjustment. Smilansky´s findings also point to simple, open-ended play materials as contributing more towards these developments than identifiable "toys" or learning materials. Her work is a strong confirmation of the relationship between fantasy play in young children and the development of capacities for strong and creative thinking.
1) Sara Smilansky, Sociodramatic play: Its relevance to behaviour and achievement in school. In: children´s play and learning, ed. by Edgar Klugman and Sara Smilansky, New York 1990